By Barry Goldstein
Society has the knowledge and ability to prevent a large majority of domestic violence crimes and especially murders. It is not like cancer or heart disease which would require some fundamental changes in human behavior to achieve massive reductions. We could easily put together a change in laws, policies and practices and quickly end the danger of domestic violence for most women and children. If we could as readily prevent most of the deaths from earthquakes, tornados, cancer or terror attacks, we would not hesitate to do so. Why should we continue to tolerate the enormous harm caused by abusers? Many of our leaders have spoken of and dreamed of a world without domestic violence. This is a worthy goal, but I am not naïve enough to believe we can end all domestic violence in our lifetimes. We can, however create a massive reduction in domestic violence crimes. I say let’s do it.
Our publisher asked Mo Hannah and I to prepare a second volume of DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, ABUSE and CHILD CUSTODY. I decided to write a chapter for the book of a modern tale of two cities comparing Quincy, Massachusetts with Poughkeepsie, New York. I selected Quincy, Massachusetts because they had developed the Quincy Model which had resulted in a drastic reduction of domestic violence homicide. I selected Poughkeepsie, New York because they had been severely criticized for using approaches in custody court that strongly favored abusive fathers. The court system and particularly the judges reacted to the criticism in a defensive and retaliatory manner. Dutchess County has now had a series of domestic violence homicides including the last crime in which the abusive father also killed a police officer. The County Legislature created a committee to study and respond to the series of domestic violence homicides and I am interested to see if they make a connection between the murders and the pattern of mistreatment of protective mothers in the custody court system.
In the late 1970s around the start of the modern movement to end domestic violence, approximately three thousand domestic violence homicides were committed each year in the United States. The frequency of domestic violence homicides did not change significantly until society adopted policies and practices to hold abusers accountable, particularly with pro-arrest policies. The timing of the increased accountability with the reduction in domestic violence homicide supported the belief that these policies led to the reduction, but perhaps what was most convincing was the results in communities that were especially strict in enforcing domestic violence laws. Communities like Nashville, Tennessee and San Diego, California saw even more dramatic reductions in domestic violence homicide as a result of strong programs to prevent domestic violence. Quincy, Massachusetts adopted its model in response to a series of domestic violence homicides and for many years they had no domestic violence homicides in Quincy.
Achieving a Massive Reduction in Domestic Violence Crime
As part of the research for my chapter I have had the opportunity to read about the practices that were so successful in Quincy and elsewhere. I have also read some of the ideas for improving the conditions in Poughkeepsie. We also have the research to establish improved practices in the custody courts. This is particularly important for reducing domestic violence crimes because abuser rights groups have been particularly successful in using common mistakes and flawed practices in the custody courts to undermine the progress society had made elsewhere in reducing domestic violence. The result of the failures in the custody courts has been that more battered mothers are staying with their abusers because they are afraid of being separated from their children and some of them do not survive this decision. Although some have attributed the recent rise in domestic violence homicide after many years of reduction to the bad economy, I believe the problems we see in the custody courts is the more likely explanation. Based upon the research and experience, I believe it would be easy for a group of domestic violence experts to create a best practices model that would result in a drastic reduction in domestic violence crimes.
The basic reforms that would create a massive reduction in domestic violence crime should not be in dispute. Experts may differ about some of the specifics around the edges, but the decisions on those issues would not affect the positive outcome if we included the practices that have been shown to work. We are working on a more complete and detailed agenda for the second volume of DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, ABUSE and CHILD CUSTODY, but we already know the basics of what is needed. Here is what any reform agenda would include:
1. Coordinated Community Response: The communities that were most successful in reducing domestic violence homicide developed a coordinated community response in which all parts of the community came together to do their part in ending domestic violence. The professionals worked together to coordinate their response and included the domestic violence community as a key resource in the response to domestic violence. The communities had regular meetings to monitor how the campaign to end domestic violence was going and to make adjustments as needed.
2. Make it Easier for Victims to Obtain Protective Orders: Some people disparage protective orders as not worth the paper they are printed on and sometimes it is true, but women with protective orders are safer than those without. Society needs to make it less of a burden on battered women to obtain needed protection by having specified times when the court handles only protective orders so women can get in and out of court quickly. At other times judges should take protective orders before other cases because of the safety concerns. This is important because women may have work or family obligations that make it difficult to wait around the court in order to see a judge. Many judges get frustrated when women seek a protective order and then don’t return for the next court date. Reducing the burdens on victims will encourage them to follow through. At the same time there should be special clerks that help women fill out the forms and prosecutors’ offices should brief victims on the procedures they can expect. Finally judges should take domestic violence allegations more seriously, receive better training and make sure women who need protection can obtain the orders.
3. Strict Enforcement of Criminal Laws and Violations of Protective Orders: The heart of the programs that created a substantial reduction in domestic violence homicide was taking domestic violence seriously. This requires strict enforcement of domestic violence crimes and protective orders. Research demonstrates that abusive men tend to use a cost-benefit analysis in deciding whether to abuse their partners. That is why accountability and monitoring are the best ways to prevent domestic violence. The strict enforcement not only sends a message to the men held accountable, and their children, it sends a message to the entire community. The programs are often launched with important media coverage and those involved in the coordinated community response also help spread the message.
4. Lethality Assessment: The most important purpose of the laws, programs and practices designed to prevent domestic violence is the safety of victims and their children. One of the first things domestic violence advocates learn is safety planning and how to assess the danger. There are several common behaviors of abusers that have been shown to be related to an increased level of danger that domestic violence experts look at in making lethality assessments. These behaviors include choking, strangling or putting his hands around his partner’s throat, assaulting her while pregnant, raping or attempting to rape his partner, killing or hurting family pets, availability of guns, threats of suicide, homicide or kidnapping and a belief she has no right to leave. Incredibly, court professionals rarely use risk assessments or even understand the significance of these behaviors in making judgments about alleged abusers. Criminal courts should be using risk assessments to inform decisions about bail, protective orders and sentencing. Custody courts should use this information in determining custody and visitation arrangements that are safe for the victim and children.
5. Give Domestic Violence Cases the First Priority: Communities that reduced domestic violence crimes gave these cases the first priority. As discussed earlier this means making sure victims can get access to judges quickly so they don’t lose jobs or have to spend a lot of money on child care in order to protect themselves. It means local judges coming to arraignments after hours rather than releasing alleged offenders with an appearance ticket, but no protective order. It also means that custody courts must recognize most contested custody cases involve domestic violence and place a priority on the safety of the children and alleged victims.
6. Best Interests of the Child Should Mean Safety is the First Priority: The most important issue in deciding custody should be the safety of the children, but states usually have a list of factors to be considered and shockingly courts often focus on other less important issues. The second priority should be arrangements that give children the best chance to reach their potential.
7. Use of Current Scientific Research: When domestic violence first became a public issue there was no research to inform professionals about the best way to respond. When professionals modified their practices based on new research it has helped protect victims. Police departments went from practices of separating the parties and having the abuser walk around the block to cool off to a pro-arrest policy. Communities that created more accountability for abusers saw domestic violence crimes reduced. Child protective agencies that have partnered with domestic violence agencies and consulted with their advocates on potential domestic violence cases have been better able to recognize domestic violence and forge arrangements that protect children better. Police and prosecutors need to be aware of the frequency in which abusers involved in contested custody make deliberately false allegations and avoid wasting their resources persecuting their victims before fully investigating the allegations and speaking with the real victims. Custody courts have been particularly slow to modify practices based on current scientific research. They need to recognize most contested custody involve abusive fathers seeking custody as a tactic to maintain their control. They need to limit the role of mental health professionals to their area of expertise which is mental health and not domestic violence. They need to avoid inadequately trained professionals who continue to believe the myth that women frequently make false allegations particularly in sexual abuse cases. The court must also stop permitting unscientific theories like Parental Alienation Syndrome.
8. Retraining Court Professionals: A lot of unfortunate events have combined to create widespread beliefs in a wide range of misinformation about domestic violence. Domestic violence is often counterintuitive which leads to misinformation. The lack of research when court professionals started responding also contributes to the problem. The widespread use of unqualified professionals has encouraged an undeserved confidence in false notions that make them harder to challenge and correct. The media has done a lousy job of covering domestic violence and often fails to understand who the experts are. Accordingly we need to retrain court professionals both to prevent the use of misinformation and to help the professionals learn about current scientific research, domestic violence dynamics and best practices. The training must have the active participation of genuine domestic violence experts such as dv advocates. Professionals working in criminal court must learn the importance of taking domestic violence seriously, prioritizing domestic violence cases and holding offenders strictly accountable. They should particularly learn how communities have dramatically reduced domestic violence homicide. Criminal court professionals must learn that accountability and monitoring are the only approaches shown to reduce domestic violence. Domestic violence is not caused by substance abuse, mental illness or anger management issues. Some offenders may have mental illness or substance abuse and domestic violence issues and each problem should be responded to separately. Custody court professionals must unlearn the myth that women frequently make false allegations of abuse. They need to look at the motivation of alleged abusers and understand the harm to children. They must learn that allegations of child sexual abuse have been totally mishandled and learn best practices to respond to these painful allegations. They also must learn that the way to include both parents in children’s lives that most benefits children is to require abusers to stop their harmful tactics instead of asking their victims to get over their fear and concern.
9. Use of Domestic Violence Experts: We now have a substantial body of specialized knowledge about domestic violence. Courts must stop relying on “experts” unfamiliar with this research and ignorant of domestic violence dynamics and instead listen to genuine domestic violence experts. Courts must stop refusing to listen to these genuine experts and especially until this information is better known to court professionals allow these experts to testify in order to educate the judge and other professionals.
10. Early Domestic Violence Hearings in Custody Cases: A large majority of contested custody cases are actually domestic violence cases. The research is very clear that unless the victim is unsafe, she should have custody and the abuser supervised visitation because that is what works best for children. Accordingly, custody courts can schedule an evidentiary hearing at the start of the case on the domestic violence issue. There is no need for evaluators or GALs as it is a factual issue. This will permit courts to resolve cases in a few hours or less that otherwise would take months or years and provide a huge savings in money and court time. Children also benefit because they don’t have to spend years worried about where they will live. This also avoids less important and distracting issues that only make it more difficult for the judge to understand the issues. This practice is likely to help courts make better decisions as well as quicker ones.
11. Use of Victim’s Advocate: The advocates are used by law enforcement to help and support the victim and provide information and training for law enforcement personnel. They are used in the prosecutor’s office for similar purposes and to acquaint the victim with the procedures. These practices should make survivors more comfortable and thus more likely to cooperate and press charges. In the court clerk’s office the advocate can help victims fill out forms and documents and explain the procedures. These procedures will help provide law enforcement and the courts with needed evidence while encouraging the complainant to continue to participate.
12. New Approach to Child Sexual Abuse in Custody Cases: Although most allegations of child sexual abuse made by mothers are true and deliberately false allegations are rare, 85% of sexual abuse allegations in custody cases result in custody for the alleged abuser and frequently little or no contact with the mother who sought to protect her child. This is a result of the difficulty in proving abuse of very young children and deeply flawed practices. Based especially on the new Department of Justice study led by Dr. Daniel Saunders, we should start by eliminating court professionals who believe in the myth that women frequently make false allegations. Professionals should be trained in best practices that would include understanding why a child might be reluctant to reveal sexual abuse or recant truthful allegations, use of play therapy for young children, avoid giving abusers additional opportunities to silence children and give children a chance to develop trusting relationships with therapists or other investigators before expecting them to discuss the abuse. We particularly need to abandon approaches that retaliate against mothers for good faith allegations.
13. Limit Role of Mental Health Professionals to their Area of Expertise: Mental health professionals are routinely used for evaluations and other services in domestic violence custody cases despite limited and often distorted information about domestic violence. This has contributed to the frequency in which courts place children in jeopardy. Mental health professionals have a role to play when a parent has a serious mental disorder that interferes with the ability to care for the children or other issues related to their field of study and practice. They should be limited to roles they are qualified for and at the very least consult with domestic violence experts on cases involving possible domestic violence.
14. Gender Bias: Over forty states and many districts have conducted court-sponsored gender bias committees that have found widespread gender bias. Other scientific research supports these findings. Women who kill their partner receive seventy percent longer sentences under similar circumstances as men who kill their partner. Women are given less credibility, higher standards of proof and are blamed for the actions of their abusers. Courts cannot do an effective job of responding to domestic violence as long as it continues to unconsciously favor male litigants. Court professionals must be trained about gender bias, attorneys and litigants must be protected and encouraged to raise concerns about gender bias, judges and other court professionals should be transferred, retrained or otherwise disciplined for continued gender biased practices and appellate courts must reverse cases based on gender bias.
15. Improved Police Role in Ending Domestic Violence: Police should make domestic violence cases a high priority and conduct an evidence based investigation instead of just relying on the victim’s testimony. Police must be trained to understand fathers involved in contested custody cases are 16 times more likely than mothers to make false allegations. This means they should take complaints from mothers seriously despite ongoing litigation, but have some skepticism of father’s allegations. They should always speak with the mother to understand the context before making a decision to make an arrest or bring charges. The police must also be aware that abusers tend to be very manipulative, but sometimes the police can use abusers’ sense of entitlement to encourage them to make statements that are actually admissions. Police departments must take precautions to respond to male officers who abuse their partners and particularly use their influence and relationship with other officers to undermine any investigation. There should be no tolerance for domestic violence or covering up domestic violence complaints. Departments should have a procedure for women to have someone in the department they can safely complain to about their partner’s abuse and any assistance other officers provide him.
Can Society Afford to Continue to Tolerate Domestic Violence?
Politicians sometimes justify their failure to do more to stop domestic violence by citing the costs, but the reality is the costs are much greater by tolerating domestic violence. In reviewing a report about the response to domestic violence in Dutchess County, New York, I noticed how often they undermined substantial parts of the plan to prevent domestic violence in order to save small sums of money. The problem is when they are budgeting; they fail to consider the extra money that will be expended as a result of the increase in domestic violence encouraged by the cutbacks.
Children who witness domestic violence are more likely to engage in a wide range of harmful and costly behaviors including crime. Large majorities of the prison population were directly abused as children or witnessed domestic violence. This creates huge added expenses in police, courts, prosecutors, defense attorneys and prisons. It also creates more expenses in substance abuse treatment. This is in addition to the extra similar expenses in directly responding to domestic violence crimes and custody cases based on domestic violence.
An increase in domestic violence crimes also increases health care costs. Not only is the health care system used to heal the immediate physical wounds, but it leads to other medical problems based on the stress of living with domestic violence as well as emotional and psychological difficulties. If the woman has medical insurance his abuse is paid by all of the policy holders through higher premiums. If she does not have insurance she may not be able to pay for the care so that the rest of the public and the government ultimately pays. Many of the health costs are borne directly by various governmental entities.
When victims miss work it harms the economy thus reducing tax revenues. The same is true when women lose jobs because of injuries or repeated court dates. Government programs like unemployment insurance and crime victim compensation may also be triggered. Significantly domestic violence interferes with the ability to reach their potential. It is hard for women to reach their potential when dealing with domestic violence even if the injuries do not prove fatal. Men who commit domestic violence crimes can’t reach their potential if they are in jail and even if they are not jailed the time they waste abusing and harassing their partners can interfere with the ability to reach their potential. Children who witness domestic violence are significantly less likely to reach their potential and if the children grow up to hurt others these third parties also lose the ability to reach their potential. We don’t know if society will miss out on someone who would have discovered a medical cure, developed a patent, created a major new business or is just a productive member of society. All of this represents a massive loss of economic activity that translates into a huge loss of tax revenue.
While the proposal described above would include some additional expenses, it also includes plans that would save substantial tax dollars. Conducting early evidentiary hearings on domestic violence would help courts make better decisions, but also save substantial sums of money and judicial time. A large majority of contested custody cases which are the cases that take most of the court’s time are domestic violence cases. Since mothers rarely make deliberately false allegations of abuse, a hearing for an hour or two will avoid cases that often take many months or years. There will be no need to spend money on evaluators, GALs or other professionals who provide no help in recognizing or responding to domestic violence. Furthermore, as the practices outlined in this article become better known, abusive men will be less likely to commit domestic violence crimes and children will be sent an important message that domestic violence will not be tolerated. This will save significant sums initially and much greater amounts over time as the message resonates.
We don’t have figures on the full cost of domestic violence or the amount of money this proposal would save, but it has to be at least in the hundreds of billions of dollars. In that context attempting to save thousands of dollars by cutting local programs or a few million on programs nationally is counterproductive based on the financial costs and insane based on the human costs.
How to get Started Ending Domestic Violence
It is common rhetoric to say we should end domestic violence. We may not be able to prevent all domestic violence tactics or even all domestic violence crimes, but we know how to quickly create a massive reduction in domestic violence crimes and especially domestic violence homicide. How do we get from here to there?
Just as people in Quincy, Massachusetts, Nashville, Tennessee and San Diego, California came together to make ending domestic violence the leading priority other communities can do the same and it is easier because they have the successes of those communities to look at and a lot of additional research. Individual states can take the lead by adopting the needed law changes and provide funding to implement a program like the one discussed in this article.
This can also be done on a national basis. The President can announce that we will no longer tolerate domestic violence and create a program to encourage communities to implement the practices that work. Grants and other support can be provided to set up pilot projects around the country to demonstrate that these practices will work. Eventually the federal government can make implementation of these practices a requirement if states wish to receive any federal funding for law enforcement and the judicial system. This should be done on a non-partisan basis. Democrats claim to be supporters of women so they should certainly wish to free women from the fear and risk of domestic violence. Republicans regularly propose spending millions of dollars to promote abstinence for children. If they don’t want children having sex with their peers they certainly will wish to protect them from sex with adults. The bills to end domestic violence should be House 1 and Senate 1 to make them the first priority.
Several years ago I gave a presentation with Mo Therese Hannah at the NCADV Conference in Atlanta. I spoke about the success of Quincy, Nashville and San Diego in implementing these practices. After the workshop, a woman came up to me and told me what I said was no longer true. It seems a new administration took over in Nashville, dismantled the successful program and the domestic violence homicide rate went back up. This was disappointing news, but it also confirmed that it was these practices that are the difference between a substantial reduction in domestic violence crime and requiring women’s lives to be impacted by men’s abuse of their intimate partners.
Domestic violence is not inevitable. It can be prevented. Our daughters and granddaughters can grow up in a world in which domestic violence crimes are rare. The worst crime would be if we take the knowledge, research and ability we have to substantially reduce domestic violence crimes and instead find some excuse to force women and children to continue to suffer.
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. Barry can be reached by email at their web site www.Domesticviolenceabuseandchildcustody.com