Will ending the scourge of domestic violence require the kind of mass public campaign that helped reduce drinking and driving?
Community advocates and practitioners speaking at a conference at John Jay College Wednesday argued that, despite the pervasiveness of intimate partner violence (IPV) across all economic and ethnic groups, the media and public officials rarely identified it as a public health challenge.
“Where’s the public outrage?” asked Maureen Curtis, who heads criminal justice and court programs at Safe Horizon, a leading New York City provider of services to domestic violence survivors.
She pointed out that it wasn’t until a coalition of community groups and policymakers began identifying the dangers of alcohol to drivers that it became embedded as part of America’s cultural awareness.
The same approach should be applied to IPV, she said.
“We need people to stand up and say this isn’t OK.”
Some speakers pointed out that recent headlines about politicians and policymakers forced to resign because of sexual harassment or abuse helped to raise consciousness about the issue.
But often it remained off of the radar screen for many Americans—either because they did not want to acknowledge it as a problem or it hit too close to home.
“A lot of the (domestic abuse cases we see) are a product of socialization,” said Terri J. Roman, project director of the Bronx (NY) Domestic Violence Complex, who recalled that her own mother was victimized by spousal abuse. “Many men and women grow up to be abusers because of what they see as young people.”
Judge John Leventhal,an Associate Justice in New York’s Appellate Division, said courts could ensure that victims were kept safe from spousal abusers, but longer-term health approaches were essential.
“It’s a learned behavior,” said Leventhal, who presided over the Brooklyn Felony Domestic Violence Court, which was the first such court in the US when it was established in 1996.
“Maybe, it can be unlearned.”
But the only way to break the cycle, speakers said, was to make it a wider public discussion.
“This is a public health epidemic,” said Kristin Smith-Shrimplin, president and CEO of Women Helping Women in Cincinnatti, Ohio.
“It needs a public health solution.”
Karen Jackson, director of recovery at Project Hospitality, a New York faith-based nonprofit, said that domestic violence was linked to and impacted by “every social justice issue.”
For example, she said, the failure to pass the omnibus Farm Bill in Congress this month left in doubt the future of food assistance programs included in the bill—programs which many poor families are dependent upon. Without such assistance, an abused woman might decide she cannot afford to leave a partner who is otherwise the chief breadwinner of the family.
While the nation has made progress in reducing overall rates of intimate partner violence over the past decade, statistics suggest one in three women will experience some form of abuse by an intimate partner—and the majority of them will be under 25, according to speakers during the first day of the session Tuesday.
Stephen Handelman is editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.