The #MeToo movement has prompted an ongoing national reckoning with the issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Women (and men) feel less uncomfortable about stepping forward with accounts of injustices they have suffered. Offenders are being fired and prosecuted.
But we don’t seem to be witnessing the same level of cultural change when it comes to domestic violence, even when the issue makes national headlines — as in the case of accusations made against former White House staffer Rob Porter.
There is not the same level of attention focused on the problem itself or on questions about what steps can be taken to solve it, experts say.
“I was speaking with an elderly relative, a female, who literally said, ‘It’s not a topic in polite conversation,’ ” said Lori Day, president of the board of directors of the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center, which provides advocacy and support services to domestic violence victims in northeastern Massachusetts.
“That’s still sort of a feeling about it, I guess, but we’ve busted it open on sexual harassment and sexual assault. Well, my goodness, domestic violence needs to be in there, too,” Day said.
Day and her colleagues at the Geiger Center are trying to bring domestic violence more fully into the national consciousness with a new campaign.
A tool to save lives?
The statistics are sobering: Every day, on average, three or more women are killed in the US by their husbands or boyfriends, according to the American Psychological Association.
But the number of deaths related to domestic violence is higher than that. A study found that victims included children, family members or friends of the abused, law enforcement or bystanders.
They are called domestic violence homicides, and they often share several key characteristics, including the fact that the incident is typically not the first time the abuser was violent.
It is the shared aspects of incidents of deadly domestic violence that led to the creation of a screening tool that law enforcement can use to determine how dangerous a situation might be. The Geiger Center developed the tool with researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing and the Arizona State University School of Social Work.
Officers can use the tool when they respond to a domestic violence call; it involves asking a series of questions about whether the abuser has made threatening statements in the past, is constantly jealous, has ever tried to strangle the victim or has access to guns.
When a gun is involved, the risk of homicide increases by 500%, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
The tool, called the Danger Assessment for Law Enforcement, is important because it helps officers in the field gather the most essential information to determine whether this is a high-risk case that could result in death, said Suzanne Dubus, chief executive officer of the Geiger Center.
“Then, their risk management protocols go into place,” Dubus said. “The risk assessment becomes part of the police report, so it informs the court and bail proceedings and gives them a chance to hold the abuser so that the victim can become safe.”
The risk assessment, created in October 2016, is now being used in the communities the center serves alongside the Domestic Violence High Risk Team, which the center started in 2005.
As part of the team’s approach, representatives from the center, law enforcement, the district attorney’s office, the courts and the health care industry meet to discuss ongoing domestic violence situations and those that pose the greatest risk.
Women who won’t go to a shelter
When Dorothy Giunta-Cotter came to the Geiger Center in 2002, fearing that her husband might kill her, it did not have the domestic violence risk-assessment tool or the High Risk Team.
Giunta-Cotter was tired of running and moving from shelter to shelter, Dubus said. She wanted to return home and get her kids back to school.
Dubus said that too often, people assume that if the situation is dangerous enough, women will go to a shelter. But there aren’t enough shelter beds for every woman in a dangerous situation, she said. Also, there are cases like Giunta-Cotter’s, in which women don’t want to go to a shelter — or can’t.
Giunta-Cotter’s husband eventually broke into her home, shot and killed her and then killed himself.
“And so after she was killed six weeks after coming to us, all we knew was, we had to figure out another way to handle this, and we needed to challenge that notion that we all carried that if it was bad enough, she’ll go into shelter,” Dubus said. “So what if she can’t? What if she won’t? How else could we keep her safely in her community by holding the criminal accountable for his behavior?”
In the 10 years before the center started deploying the High Risk Team approach, there had been eight domestic violence homicides in the communities it serves, Dubus said. In the 13 years since, there have been zero.
Other stats that Dubus points to show how effective the High Risk Team’s approach has been: Ninety-five percent of women have been able to stay in their homes, 78% of the offenders have been before the courts — and of those who have been to court, 65% have served time.
“The reason that’s important, not only is this about accountability, but … when a violent perpetrator is behind bars for 90 days, 180 days or a year, that gives (the victim) incredible time to safety plan, to change her life,” Dubus said.
The High Risk Team model could be used in other ways to improve community safety, Dubus said. She notes how the Parkland, Florida, school shooter had a history of abusing pets and made threats out in the open. Also, the FBI received a tip about the suspect a month before the shooting, but that information was never passed along to local law enforcement.
“There’s a lot we probably don’t know, but might this not have been an opportunity to bring together people to figure out, ‘how are we going to contain this guy? Are there services? How can we help him? What’s the story here?’ ” Dubus said.
‘If it’s predictable, it’s preventable’
To help combat domestic violence, the new assessment tool is being used in three communities across the country: Cleveland; Fresno, California; and South Bend, Indiana. As the center hears from more communities interested in adopting its approach, it’s trying to raise money to bring the tool to them.
“We want to get the word out,” said Day, who, as well as serving as Geiger Center board president, is the author of “Her Next Chapter.”
“It’s like if we discovered a cure for cancer here in Newburyport, Massachusetts. We wouldn’t want to keep it here. We’d want to share it with the rest of the world, and we’re trying to do it.”
Part of the center’s message is that “if it’s predictable, it’s preventable,” Day said. But too often, the public believes that domestic violence isn’t something you can predict.
The case of former White House staff secretary Porter, who resigned after two ex-wives came forward with allegations of domestic violence, illustrates that point. Porter was highly regarded by his colleagues, including senior members of President Donald Trump’s inner circle. His wives say he was a different person in a relationship.
“The story is, ‘Oh, my God, he’s such a nice guy. I always saw him mowing his lawn, and he always tips the mailman,’ and so it perpetuates this belief that you can’t predict it, that these are just people that snap, that there’s no rhyme or reason to it,” Dubus said. “And I think as a human being, I think that that is a comforting idea, because the idea that you’re living next to people that you don’t know and you don’t know what could be happening behind closed doors or that you could have been someone who intervened” is hard for people, she said.
“I think it’s easier for us to kind of numb out as a culture.”
Changing mindsets and increasing awareness is hard, both Day and Dubus acknowledge, but they are heartened by the successes seen on other deadly issues. They point to the growing awareness, fueled by advocates, about the dangers of drinking and driving and the stigma that developed over time about it.
“We often talk about Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the cultural change around that,” Day said.
“And we just feel like you look at #MeToo. You look at #TimesUp. Social justice movements do actually have good results, and we’re just long overdue for this one.”