Advocates for victims of domestic violence can do a better job of anticipating dangerous situations—including those inadvertently created by a victim’s friends and family—Liz Roberts of Safe Horizon said yesterday during a press briefing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Sometimes, “batterers use children as a way to get to victims,” Roberts, who is deputy CEO and chief program officer of the New York-based nonprofit organization focused on violence prevention, told journalists.
She recalled a case she handled early in her career, in which a 17-year-old girl was killed by the father of her child after friends and family had convinced the girl to let him visit. He had previously served time in prison for beating her.
“The criminal justice system did what it could do,” but advocates could also do more, Roberts said during the briefing, titled “Behind Closed Doors: How Can We Prevent Domestic Violence Homicides?” The event, scheduled to coincide with National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, was organized by John Jay’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice in collaboration with the New York City Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence.
What emerged during the discussion—which focused on innovative strategies to combat domestic violence and included remarks from criminal justice practitioners and victim advocates—were the complexities of addressing domestic violence, ranging from reporting a crime and the challenges of law enforcement and prosecution, to covering the issue as a journalist.
Melissa Jeltsen of the Huffington Post, who moderated the discussion, noted that even though crime rates are dropping across the U.S., crimes related to domestic violence—especially homicides—continue to be a serious challenge.
Jeltsen said research shows that homicides declined by 40 percent between 2002 and 2013, while domestic homicides dropped only 17 percent during the same time period.
“Why are these types of murders so hard to reduce?” she asked the panelists.
Part of the reason domestic abuse poses a challenge to criminal justice practitioners is that relatively few victims report abuse to authorities, said Audrey Moore, Executive Assistant District Attorney and Chief Diversity Officer at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
The reasons they keep silent can include fear and shame.
Domestic violence is often portrayed as something that “only happens to poor people,” but the reality is more nuanced, Moore said. “Many of these victims feel isolated.”
In working on strategies to combat domestic violence, criminal justice practitioners should avoid a “one-size-fits-all” thinking, Moore said.
For instance, it is easy to criticize a victim for staying with her abuser, but it’s important to understand there are many reasons why a victim decides to stay, including her safety.
“You have to have empathy,” Moore said.
The empathy, she added, should extend to perpetrators of domestic violence as well as victims.
Moore said the DA’s office is planning to fund a program that will address the challenges that perpetrators of abuse face—such as a history of abuse.
“Many of the people who batter are dealing with trauma,” Moore said.
Roberts said Safe Horizons staff members assisting high-risk victims should make sure they understand the situation, and what may prevent someone from seeking help, such as fear of losing their home, their job, or custody of their children.
“Batterers are very, very good at isolating their victims,” Roberts said. “The decision to leave is often what escalates the danger.”
In addition to fearing the person who abuses them, many New Yorkers are hesitant to contact authorities for various reasons, and law enforcement as well as advocates should find different strategies to reach out to communities—including using schools and faith-based organizations as intermediaries, she said.
“Many New Yorkers are immigrants, and they come from countries where police are (something) to be feared,” Roberts said.
At the same time, other New Yorkers “may have local experience that affects how they feel about the police.”
Inspector Katherine White, chief of the New York Police Department’s Domestic Violence Unit, said the department’s Early Victim Engagement Project, addresses this issue by collaborating with victim advocates who reach out to communities.
“Collaboration is key,” she said. “None of us can do alone what all of us can do together.”
The briefing also included remarks by Amanda Wilson of co-director of the Lethality Assessment Program-Maryland Model, Sue-Lin Wong, of John Jay’s National Network of Safe Communities.
The briefing coincided with a City Hall and the New York City Police Department announcement of policies that will allow domestic violence survivors to take paid leave from work to address their safety needs.
Editor’s Note: For additional source material related to domestic violence initiatives please see The Crime Report’s new “Resource Page” on domestic violence.
Alice Popovici is deputy editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.