Coordinated Community Responses to Domestic Violence in Six Communities: Beyond the Justice System. Keep thinking about the best ways to help

10/01/1996

The anti-violence against women movement, including activism to stop both sexual assault and domestic violence and to aid their victims, grew out of the activist feminism of the early 1970s (see, for example, Koss and Harvey, 1991, Chapter 4 with regard to anti-rape activism). The feminist roots of the movement account for its examination of cultural assumptions that support battering and its analysis of ways in which social institutions, including the criminal justice system, incorporate and support those damaging assumptions (see Dobash and Dobash, 1979; Greenblatt, 1985; Saunders et al., 1987; and Yllo, 1983).

During the early years of the anti-violence movement, every day's contact on hotlines and in shelters with women experiencing battering brought new ideas and new challenges to try to understand what was happening to these women and how to help them. These ideas led anti- violence activists to challenge the traditional behaviors of societal institutions. They tried (and still try) to bring about change to make the institutions protect battered women rather than ignoring their needs or even denying the appropriateness of their requests for help. The ongoing need for this is apparent when we note that even today, in some jurisdictions, police departments continue treat a domestic violence incident as a private interpersonal dispute to be settled rather than as a crime for which evidence needs to be collected and charges made. In a number of domestic violence incidents, arrests are not made, cases are not taken through prosecution, charges against the same man are reduced, and penalties in the cases that reach conviction are often minimal. These difficulties still arise even in some of the model communities we visited.

However, while the role of advocate for battered women toward the official systems through which they must pass is still relevant, in many communities traditional domestic violence providers and advocates have learned how to work with representatives of the key public systems to improve the treatment of battered women. As they have done this, they have had to keep thinking in order to develop effective ways to get their message across and to get its implications accepted by justice and other agencies. They have had to learn about the constraints and requirements of these agencies, to appreciate the jobs that these agencies are mandated to do, and to help the agencies modify their behavior to be more supportive of victims in ways that complement the agencies' completion of their own primary tasks. Doing so has taken some creative thinking; the need for such thinking is just as great as new agencies are brought into the network of services that seek to help battered women.

The challenge for traditional domestic violence providers and advocates is to use their background, knowledge, and motivation to extend current understandings to an even deeper level as they encounter women in circumstances where they are not yet ready to seek help from the network of traditional domestic violence services. These new understandings must then be applied to helping the agencies serving these women (e.g., health care, child protection, or substance abuse agencies) to incorporate a concern for domestic violence issues into their standard practice in ways that support the women and further their safety and well-being. Possibly the women need to move some in their attitudes and motivations toward a commitment to live violence-free. But equally likely, today's providers also need to move some in thinking about how they can serve and support this part of the battered woman population. The best results will probably come from creating new services informed by a blend of the best elements of professional orientation (from the new agencies) and social critique (from the domestic violence advocates).