Every single minute that we spend discussing the Ray Rice video and the NFL and society's reactions thereto, 24 Americans are victims of domestic violence. What are we doing for them?
Thanks to the Violence Against Women Act, we are doing more now to help victims and survivors than we used to. There are millions of dollars devoted to resources for the prevention and treatment of intimate partner violence, reports of which have dropped 64 percent since 1993.
As a domestic violence and sexual assault prosecutor in the 1990s, I served in the immediate aftermath of the Violence Against Women Act, and California's Nicole Brown laws allowing previous uncharged acts of family violence or sexual assault as evidence in court, so I saw the VAWA effect up close. Each case would begin with an inspector's report that would include the old police reports from "prior bad acts" that had gone uncharged. A police report had a number of categories for an officer to choose -- admonishment, citation, arrest, and so forth. Time after time, DV incident after DV incident, the "admonishment" would appear along with no further action.
No citations; no notice to appear; no charges -- in effect, no consequences. As a practical matter, this meant that a victim who -- after one hit or a dozen or more -- summoned the courage to ask for help received all the scrutiny that public revelation entails, but none of the support to change her or his situation.
VAWA and related laws changed these procedures, with police moving to "no drop" policies meaning that the charges were to be filed even if the complaining witness did not wish to proceed. (Contrary to what we see on TV, it is not victims but cops who "press charges.") Anger management counseling and admission of battering became routine conditions of misdemeanor domestic violence plea bargains. Judging from the number of prior police reports in each case with "admonishment" written on them, the old ways of a stern "talking to" by police hadn't worked -- and families that had heretofore swept the ugly business under the rug were now confronting the cycles of violence directly.
Equally important to punishing the guilty, VAWA has increased the opportunity for restorative justice. By putting batterers into counseling, and by providing family services for both people engaged in an abusive relationship - sometimes compounded by mutual combat or drug addiction or child abuse -- families are able to go through a very painful, criminal chapter in their lives and emerge together on the other side. In other instances, though the relationship between partners ended, the co-parenting did not, and the children (in front of whom some of the abuse occurred) were able to live in more stable home environments. Some relationships were beyond salvation -- and some perpetrators beyond redemption. But not all.
In fact, I learned to walk the tripwire between punishment and rehabilitation when leaving my day job as a prosecutor each Tuesday and driving to a residential rehabilitation center, San Francisco-based Delancey Street Foundation to teach a class to residents paroled from prison.
The drive from the DA's office to the Delancey Street rehab center was short -- but the journey was long: people were breaking multi-generational cycles of violence were changing their ways -- but after years of violence crime, drug addiction, or both. Delancey Street President Mimi Silbert has written extensively on the "learned hopelessness" many people in abusive relationships are conditioned to expect. When we spoke today, Dr. Silbert said: "This is why they can't leave -- you actually learn that hopelessness will happen to you and you are terrified to move. Some are married some are not some go into a field they don't like -- and they enter prostitution. That is true with the women we get -- all of them have been abused; all of them come here without a sense of self. And most of our guys grew up in that environment, not believing there was another way. We have to give them back a sense of self and teach them that they don't need abusive relationships to be loved."
My experiences along the journey from DA to Delancey St and back again taught me that domestic violence does not discriminate -- the people I met were male, female, LGBTQ, straight, every race, religion, and immigration status. They also taught me to walk the tripwire between "zero tolerance" punishment and redemption -- every charge must be investigated not admonished and every survivor and perpetrator must have the chance to undergo counseling towards restorative justice. It won't work for all -- our criminal justice system is replete with people (some of whom I convicted) who viciously harm their families and don't wish to change - but we plan to fail if we fail to plan for the possibility of redemption.
I think about the Ray Rice video and VAWA at 20 today through the lens of Delancey Street, not only because it was where I worked just after VAWA first passed, but also because this week while debating domestic violence in the NFL, we in San Francisco were announcing the Mimi Silbert Pathway along our waterfront. The Pathway, metaphorically, includes both batterers and victim/survivors who have overcome the worst moments of their lives through the excruciating hard work of restorative justice to self and society.
So to answer my own question, what are we doing for the nearly 100 Americans who were victims of domestic violence while you read this article? My hope for them, who I hope will call the US DOMESTIC VIOLENCE HOTLINE 800-799-7233, and my wishes for VAWA at 20, are more resources to help families break cycles of violence, more support for survivors who leave and survivors who stay, and end to victim blaming, and more pathways modeled on Delancey Street who offer victims and perpetrators a path forward out of the abyss of "learned hopelessness" into futures of power without violence.