By Barry Goldstein
For many years I have enjoyed the privilege of teaching classes in a New York Model Batterer Program. We are taught that sexism causes domestic violence and sexism is rooted in history. With that in mind it is useful to look at the history of domestic violence from the point of view of whom society has blamed for men's abuse of women over the years.
For thousands of years the answer would have been no one because society accepted the idea of men hitting their wives. Although the terminology was different at the time, the first domestic violence law in the U.S. said that husbands could not beat their wives----ON SUNDAY. The obvious implication was that any other day it would be acceptable. The term "rule of thumb" is based on legal reforms that a husband could not beat his wife with an object thicker than his thumb. There is some dispute about this, but clearly it was based on widespread belief husbands were permitted to hit their wives. Until fairly recently the media often depicted heroes in movies and television assaulting their wives such as the famous scene from McLintock where John Wayne spanks Maureen O'Hara. Even though laws have changed, the fact that what we now call domestic violence was legal and acceptable until fairly recently continues to affect society's response to domestic violence.
In the mid to late 1970s domestic violence started to become a public issue and wife beating was no longer accepted. At the time there was no research about the cause of men's abuse of women or how to prevent it. Some people saw a group of women who were beaten by their partners and other women who as far as we knew were safe. The first assumption was that the women whose partners were abusing them must be doing something to cause his abuse. Accordingly the initial efforts were focused on changing women's behavior.
Women were sent for counseling or therapy to learn how to behave in order to avoid his abuse. Some women were taught communication skills. The therapist for one of my clients told her to wear a sexy negligee to welcome her abusive husband home. In other words a blame the victim strategy was widespread. I want to be clear that not all communities or professionals favored the strategies I will discuss, but I am generalizing about the most common practices.
The strategies that emphasized blaming the woman did not work. We know this because during the time these were the most common responses to domestic violence there was no reduction is domestic violence homicide, serious injuries and emergency room visits. Later research demonstrated that there is no difference before his abuse between women who would later be abused by their partners and those who as far as we know were not abused. In other words practices based on blaming the woman turned out to be a failure and gradually more and more professionals and communities looked for more effective responses.
In the 1980s into the early 90s many professionals came to believe that it wasn't just her fault, but rather each party contributed to his abuse. Domestic violence was more likely to be viewed as a relationship problem. Accordingly when women sought protection and prosecution after assaults by their partners, they were often referred to family court. Family court was more focused on reconciliation than penalizing his abuse. Couples were often sent for therapy or counseling where cooperation and communication skills were emphasized. The unqualified mental health professionals regularly used in custody court pressured women to forget his abuse. Frequently, women who were brutally assaulted by their partners would have to listen to confident lectures by judges saying that both parties were responsible for the abuse and they each had to make changes to promote a good relationship.
This approach of blaming the relationship or both parties did no better than the previous blame the victim approach. We know this because while this was the primary response to domestic violence complaints, the level of domestic violence homicide, serious injury and emergency room visits remained the same.
As it became ever more obvious that these practices weren't working, communities increasingly moved toward holding the abuser accountable. This practice became more common in the 1990s. This involved enforcing criminal laws and violations of protective orders more strictly. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the person responsible for domestic violence is the one who is assaulting or otherwise harming his partner. The research is now clear that only accountability and monitoring are effective responses to domestic violence.
We know that holding the abuser accountable is the best practice because as this became the recommended practice, at least in the criminal justice system, domestic violence homicides, serious injuries and emergency room admissions finally started to decline. Even more convincing was the fact that some communities worked together to create strict enforcement and these communities saw an even more dramatic decline particularly of domestic violence homicide.
A few years ago Mo Hannah and I did a presentation at an NCADV Conference in which I cited these statistics and mentioned Quincy, Massachusetts, Nashville, Tennessee and San Diego, California as three communities that had developed particularly effective programs. After the presentation a woman came up and informed me this was no longer true in Nashville. It seems a new administration took over, dismantled the successful program and the domestic violence homicide rate went back up.
Despite the mistakes in Nashville, the trend would be positive except for the constant failures in the custody court system. Abusers were not happy with the progress society was making in reducing domestic violence even though it resulted in a larger reduction of domestic violence homicides of men than women. They decided to attack women at their most vulnerable point--their children. Abuser rights groups encouraged their members to go after custody as a way of maintaining what they believe is their right to control their partners.
The custody court system, using practices that were created at a time when no domestic violence research was available and happy to see fathers who claim to want to spend substantial time with their children, routinely fail to recognize this abuser tactic. As a result, the courts are sending thousands of children to live with abusers and often taking safe, protective mothers out of their children's lives. This is done in retaliation for the mother's attempts to protect their children. The courts mistake the mothers' protective actions for alienation.
One of the routine mistakes custody courts make is to assume the end of the relationship will end the danger. In reality after a woman leaves is the most dangerous period. Seventy percent of men killing their female partners do so after she has left. While mothers are severely punished, often with the denial of normal contact with their children for continuing to believe their allegations of abuse after the court fails to believe them, custody courts almost never penalize abusers for continuing to deny their abuse after a finding against them. Experts with an understanding of the effects of domestic violence on children recommend that initially the mother receive custody and the abusive father supervised visitation. In order to qualify for unsupervised visitation, the father needs to complete a batterer program, admit his abuse and his sole responsibility for his abuse, apologize for the harm he caused, understand the harm his behavior has caused to children and make a commitment never to do it again. In other words the court should be taking actions to hold him accountable and make it clear that changing his attitudes and behavior is the only action that will restore unsupervised visitation. These practices would serve to discourage domestic violence and give a clear message that this behavior is no longer tolerated. The present practices accomplish just the opposite.
The historical perspective described above is particularly helpful in understanding the pattern of mistakes in domestic violence custody cases. While other institutions including criminal courts adopted accountability practices that were responsible for a reduction in the most serious forms of domestic violence, the custody courts continue to use practices that blame the victim or blame both parties for the abuser's mistreatment of his partner. In other words they continue to employ outdated and discredited practices.
This widespread failure of the custody courts to recognize abuser tactics of going after the children to maintain control over their partners has made this strategy successful. We are seeing more mothers stay with abusers or return to them in order to be near their children and try to protect them. They have learned the custody courts will not protect their children. Often the mothers are accepting the fathers' beatings in order to be near their children. Some of the mothers do not survive this decision and as a result the domestic violence homicide rate that had been improving for many years has recently gone up again. We have also seen increased danger to children. In the nine months ending in April of 2010, fathers involved in contested custody cases murdered at least 75 of their children often with the unwitting assistance of the custody courts. This is likely to continue as long as the custody courts use practices that blame the victim or blame the relationship for the brutal behavior of an abuser.
Barry Goldstein is a nationally recognized domestic violence expert, speaker, writer and consultant. He is the co-editor with Mo Therese Hannah of DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, ABUSE and CHILD CUSTODY.