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In this first of his three-part series, Barry Goldstein, former attorney, long-time domestic violence advocate and editorial advisor for DomesticShelters.org, talks about how our history of responding to domestic violence crimes has long been ineffective.
The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) studies are medical research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that could change society in the most wonderful way. One of the fundamental findings is that exposure to domestic violence is far more harmful than previously understood. Most of the harm to adult victims and children witnesses comes from living with the fear and stress rather than the immediate physical injuries. This is what domestic violence advocates have been saying for decades, but few public officials were listening.
The cost of tolerating domestic violence is huge. The United States spends over $1 trillion dollars annually to allow men in heterosexual relationships to abuse their partners. Based on the ACE research, just the health costs related to domestic violence are $750 billion. More money is consumed by crime and the economy is weakened because women, children and abusers fail to reach their full potential.
The human cost is even greater. Thousands of people lose their lives every year to murder and suicide directly related to domestic violence. About half of the mass shootings have been committed by men with a history of domestic violence. And in the last 10 years, over 650 children involved in contested custody disputes were murdered usually by abusive fathers playing the custody card. Even today most court professionals are oblivious to the danger and routinely make decisions that give potential murderers access.
ACE demonstrates that more women and children, victims of domestic violence, will die prematurely from suicide, substance abuse and accidents. Even more victims will die from cancer, heart disease and many other diseases and social problems related to the fear and stress caused by exposure to domestic violence. Still more will live their lives with pain, embarrassment and sadness. They will miss many of the good things that makes life so rewarding and they will lose much of their potential.
The U.S. is suffering a rare period in which life expectancy is falling. Although it hasn’t been part of the discussion, domestic violence is clearly a contributing factor.
Long History of Ineffective Responses to Domestic Violence
This initial response when domestic violence first became a public issue was hindered by a lack of available research. As a society, we tried many ineffective approaches. Particularly disconcerting is that many professionals who should know better continue to use disproven practices four decades later.
Many people believed that substance abuse and mental illness caused domestic violence because men with mental illness or substance abuse issues often committed more severe physical assaults. This is because these problems reduce inhibitions. Substance abuse and mental illness are not the cause of domestic violence and men who would not otherwise use domestic violence tactics would not suddenly be abusive under the influence.
Similarly, people who need anger management treatment cannot control their anger towards anyone. Domestic violence is limited to their intimate partner. This is why abusers usually act appropriately in public, thus fooling professionals without the necessary training.
One of the earliest responses to domestic violence was to assume the victims caused their partner’s abuse. Victims were sent for therapy, communication skills and to encourage cooperation. Later approaches assumed that both parties or the relationship caused his domestic violence. The preferred remedy was couple’s counseling. All of these solutions failed and later research proved the assumptions were mistaken. Nevertheless, many officials, especially in family courts, continue to use blame-the-victim or create a false equivalency between men and women approaches that fail to prevent domestic violence.
Batterer programs were created for the purpose of changing men’s behavior. Despite huge investments and substantial research, there is no legitimate research to support the belief that the programs change men’s behavior. They can play a role in responding to domestic violence by serving as an additional consequence the courts can use. Ethical programs are careful to never imply or promise to change men’s behavior because that would lead partners and judges to make dangerous decisions.
More recently, people working with the ACE research but unfamiliar with domestic violence have focused on the fact that many abusers were traumatized as children from exposure to adverse childhood experiences. Similarly, the movement that recognizes we have too many people in prison have sought to use this as a justification to avoid prison terms for domestic violence abusers. Supporters of a more lenient approach are usually acting in good faith, but fail to consider that domestic violence is fundamentally different from other crimes.
The criminal justice system needs to understand that domestic violence is the most underreported crime. The first time a man is charged with a domestic violence crime is unlikely to be the first crime he committed. In most cases, he has committed several previous physical assaults and literally thousands of legal domestic violence tactics. The arrest should be viewed as an opportunity to make a difference rather than an opportunity for leniency.
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The victim finally got the courage and took a risk to report his crime. When the offender is allowed to enter a diversion program or given a conditional discharge, the response confirms what the abuser has been saying that he can get away with his crimes. He will probably punish her and she will have learned the lesson that the courts will not help her. At the same time, the criminal justice system measures success based on recidivism. The victim won’t report future crimes because it only makes things worse but the lack of another arrest makes the courts think they were successful.
Domestic violence is different than arson, bank robbery or assault on a stranger in that the later offenses have always been treated as crimes. Many men witnessed their fathers or other men commit domestic violence without consequences to the offender. They believe and expect they can abuse their partner without facing consequences. This is why it is so important for courts to send a strong message that DV crimes will no longer be tolerated and abusers can expect serious consequences.
Editor's Note: This article is part of #YourVoice, an ongoing column published on this website by individual contributors in their own personal capacity and that involves the opinions, recollections and/or information provided by such contributors, and which does not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of this website. Barry Goldstein is a nationally recognized domestic violence author, speaker and advocate. He is the author of five of the leading books about domestic violence and child custody including The Quincy Solution: Stop Domestic Violence and Save $500 Billion. Barry is research director for the Stop Abuse Campaign and co-chair of the child custody task group for NOMAS. He has served as an instructor for the NY Model Batterer Program since 1999 and serves on the Editorial Advisory Group for DomesticShelters.org.
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