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Home / Articles / Ending Domestic Violence / Are Things Getting Any Better?

Are Things Getting Any Better?

Four experts weigh in on the progress we’ve made in the fight against domestic violence

Are Things Getting Any Better?

Pictured above, from left: Judy Harris Kluger, Paige Flink, Patricia Ann Davenport and Esta Soler. 

When you hear about stories like Janet Marie Christianson Abaroa’s, whose husband served a mere seven years in prison for stabbing her to death while she was pregnant. Or Kim Dadou, who spent 17 years in prison for killing an abuser in self-defense. The mass shootings—the commonality of most of the armed men who enter public places intent on killing a group of people have a history of domestic violence. And the millions of other women who suffer from intimate partner violence in their lifetime (one out of four women), plus all of the other survivors who endure nonphysical intimate partner violence (which is hard to measure since it’s not often reported), and then, of course, the immesurable number of incidents of domestic violence that go unreported.

And when you think about all that it’s easy to assume we, as a society, haven’t made any progress in the fight against domestic violence. But have we? We sat down with four tenured experts to get their takes. 

Paige Flink is the chief executive officer of The Family Place, a domestic abuse agency in Dallas, Texas. She has been involved in domestic violence advocacy for 29 years. 

Hon. Judy Harris Kluger served as a judge in New York state for 25 years. She is now the executive director of Sanctuary for Families, an organization dedicated to helping survivors of domestic abuse and sex trafficking. 

For the past 35 years, Patricia Ann Davenport has been involved in the domestic violence movement, spending the last 25 years as executive director of Our House, Inc., in Greenville, Miss., a domestic violence program that includes a shelter, batterers intervention program and high school healthy relationship training, among other projects.

In 1980, Esta Soler founded the Family Violence Prevention Fund (now called Futures Without Violence), a national organization dedicated to ending domestic violence. Forty years later, Soler still serves as the organization’s president. Since starting your career, have you seen progress in the fight against domestic abuse?

Kluger: I’d like to say that, suddenly, the problem that existed for millennia is no longer a problem, but it wouldn’t be accurate. Have we reduced the incidence of domestic violence? I don’t really think so. But I think we’ve made headway. 

Flink: It was quite recently we had the #MeToo movement, and so I felt like we were just starting to have a voice and that women could say things that were happening to them … But now with the pandemic, it’s really hard to make any type of analysis, because there’s nothing normal about what’s going on. Is it better? Is it worse? I don’t know. I don’t know how that’s even a thing to say at this moment because this is such an unusual time.

Soler: Pandemic aside, overall, I would say yes, I think things are improving. I have seen significant change over the many, many years when I started doing this work in 1980. There’s data that suggests that there’s been approximately a 60 percent decrease in domestic violence incidences among adult women, which I think is pretty dramatic.

(Soler is referring to a Bureau of Justice Statistics 2012 report that showed a 64% decrease in intimate partner violence (IPV) between 1994 and 2010. The largest drop occurred between 1994 and 2000. Since 2001, rates have largely leveled off. Many domestic violence advocates have pointed out that the drop in incidences of IPV between 1994 and 2000 are commensurate with the drop in total violent crimes during the same time period.)

Davenport: I think the only progress that has been made is awareness. But as far as services, I think we’re still pretty much at a standstill because we’re still going backward when it comes to serving victims. You can’t end domestic violence unless you look at the whole picture. You need to address the generational cycle of violence that happens in the household. We offer a 52-week court-appointed batterer program. We’re not doing it to say we want them to get back with the victim, we’re doing it to say violence is not OK. They’re [the abuser] already with another one [victim]. Only they can make the violence stop, so we deal with that ... and deal with a history of racism and violence. The attitude has not changed. In the rural Mississippi Delta where we’re located, we’re still in the good ol’ days where we have people calling us negros and the n-word. What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen during your career?

Kluger: I think one of the biggest changes in the last, I don’t know, 35 years, is there’s a general recognition that domestic violence is serious, it’s pervasive and it needs to have a response, whether it’s a police response or community response.

Soler: Early in my career, people were not concerned about the issue of domestic violence. It wasn’t even on the back page of the newspaper. We’ve made significant progress over many, many years—first, by naming it and having people talk about it as a serious problem, and then creating so many different kinds of responses to help people. And what we’ve seen because of the community-based programs—the shelter programs, the community-based counseling programs, healthcare providers—being more aware of the problem, schools being more aware of the problem, people now know that it’s a problem and they also are trying to prevent it.

Flink: [Prior to the pandemic], I think offender accountability had been improving. But I wonder what’s going to happen now. What’s going to happen if police start answering those calls differently [because of demands by citizens in many cities to “defund the police” due to racial bias]? We fought so hard to have domestic violence taken seriously, and I’m worried about how police might change answering these types of calls. 

Kluger: There’s a lot of controversy around police response to crime in general, right now—and much of it is appropriate—but what I wouldn’t want to see is us backing away from the fact that there are cases that need a police response. For many years, there was none and it was a disaster. So, I think that there needs to be police reform, there needs to be better training, there needs to be a way to weed out cops that don’t know how to do their job, not just in domestic violence but in all policing. And I’m in favor of alternate responses if they can keep victims safe. 

Davenport: How we address trauma-informed care. We had been doing it for 35 years but now they gave it a name and a label. It’s giving time to the victim. When we get a victim in, we allow her to rest, to take care of her children, because I have found over the years, when you’re jumping in with those reports, they don’t understand what you’re sharing with them in those 24 hours. They’re in that trauma safety mode. So, to me, sleep has been the best thing for them. How we have changed our trauma-informed care to be more effective is by listening to victims. How have community resources played a part in reducing domestic abuse?

Soler: I think it’s a combination of community resources and also norm change. I think that we have made a very clear statement that this is not acceptable behavior, even though for many, many years, it was just part of the way people live their lives. So, I think norm change is significant. 

I think having all these community-based services that are very public, having hotlines for people to call to get help, is really critical. And they all come together to provide a pathway of people having the opportunities to get out of these situations and to heal. Victim support is essential, but what needs to happen to stop domestic violence from occurring in the first place?

Davenport: We have to break that generational cycle. We have to continue to educate and give examples of what’s normal. You don’t need to continue to show people the signs of abuse—that’s still blaming. We have to show them what’s normal. What’s a normal critical respective argument, not one that’s violent? You should have those loud discussions occasionally, but if people have been raised in violence then that’s all they know is normal. 

Soler: It has to be about real economic empowerment so that people have options and if something happens, they can get out. And I think the other big piece is, kids who are witnessing violence in the home are learning it, and we really do believe that violence is a learned behavior, and you can interrupt it if you heal. But if you don’t, then it just sits out there. We have to do more for our kids so that they can heal and that they don’t, as they grow, repeat that behavior. 

Kluger: It needs to start young. It needs to start with teaching boys that masculinity and power is not the apex of being a man. I think that we need to make some changes in what we value in a man and what they value in themselves. And I’m not saying every man is a potential abuser—not at all. But what I’m saying is that if you wait until the abusers are adults, you’re too late.

Flink: Well, dammit, the Violence Against Women Act [VAWA] has not been reauthorized as of March 2018. Those are such important laws, so, what does that mean? Does that mean that we’re not being taken seriously? That the issue is not as important? I don’t know. Can you speak more about why it’s so important to renew VAWA even though much of the funding remains?

Flink: Well, yes, Congress may continue to appropriate funding for VAWA grants—there are grants for transitional housing and law enforcement education, etc.—after the authorizations for these grants expire as it did in December 2019, but they also may not. If the act is reauthorized, then it helps protect that funding. 

But it’s not all about funding. We believe violence against women must be addressed and that there are systemic ways that we can address it. And so, that’s what the act does for you, and there’s continual improvement of processes. For example, in this next version of the Violence Against Women Act, we were trying to get better services for tribal women on Native lands. 

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Your support gives hope and help to victims of domestic violence every day. Are you optimistic about the future of ending domestic violence?

Kluger: Well, I’m an optimist by nature, so I’m probably not the best person to ask. But I am. I am. I see changes, I see empowerment of women. I think all of that bodes well.

Soler: A whole lot needs to happen, but yes. If we can make sure that kids who are showing signs of trauma and exposure to this violence—if we get them the help early, then I think we can reverse our course pretty dramatically.

Davenport: Personally, with the political climate at this particular moment, I just don’t know where we’re at. Can we end domestic violence? I can end it in the life of at least one person, then another person, then another, and that gives me strength. I am able to empower a survivor to live, and, you see, I believe in miracles. Even the smallest thing could change everything.