My introduction to domestic violence came in the form of a toddler with a broken hip and leg. I was 18 years old, a college freshman working at a daycare center during my semester break, when I met the injured girl. I was quickly drawn to her bright red hair, freshly chopped bangs, and bold brown eyes, but she was afraid of me. I was told she had been abused by her stepfather and removed from her mother's custody by the state child welfare system. It was because of her that I majored in social work with a child welfare concentration.
In the two decades since, I've held an array of jobs and internships working with children and youth in a range of settings--Head Start centers, community youth centers, and foster care agencies--ultimately becoming Director of Programs for the Chicago Foundation for Women, the position I hold today.
In each of these roles, one of my overarching goals has been to combat domestic violence, and through the years, one thing has become increasingly clear: The time to stop domestic violence is before it starts. We need to focus on prevention.
In Chicago, as across the nation, news of domestic violence continues to bombard us on a daily basis. Each year, the Chicago Police Department responds to approximately 200,000 domestic related calls - that's nearly 500 domestic each and every day, according to a March 2014 press release from the Chicago mayor's office. Last year, Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence served 8,168 children who had witnessed domestic violence.
Such numbers are especially troubling given that witnessing violence between one's parents or caretakers is the one of the strongest risk factor of transmitting violent behavior from one generation to the next. Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults. Thirty to sixty percent of perpetrators of intimate partner violence also abuse children in the household, according to research.
From high-profile cases such as Janay Rice's assault at the hands of her football star husband to those at the margins of society, like the abused toddler who so affected me, all domestic violence incidents have at least one thing in common. In each case, problems were left to grow until they exploded. Each one reflects our failure to put sufficient focus where it should be: preventing violence from happening at all.
It doesn't need to be this way. Like other diseases, violence is preventable. Universities across the country are developing or currently implementing research to inform violence prevention programs with hopes of confirming a definitive practice for educators and health professionals and families.
To be sure, the scale of the problem can appear daunting--especially when you factor in all the other challenges that inform and complicate it: Racism, sexism, poverty, gun violence, to name a few of the big ones.
But this is no reason not to do everything we can, and if we want to address domestic violence, we need to start young. Here are three inspiring examples of programs doing just that:
Together Strong: A required nine-week violence prevention class for students at the Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, Illinois, Together Strong is offered by Sarah's Inn, a nonprofit organization with a mission to not only improve the lives of those affected by violence-but break the cycle of violence for future generations. Together Strong works by educating teens on dating and domestic violence, sexual assault and nonviolent conflict resolution. It also focuses on bystander advocacy.
A Safe Place: This Zion, Illinois program provides mentoring for young men in their local community. The primary focus for this program is to teach respectful behavior toward women. Still quite new, less than two years, mentors report observing behavioral change in the young men they mentor and putting them on track to maintain healthy relationships in their future.
Safe Dates: This adolescent dating violence prevention program used with eight and ninth grade students has been identified as a model program in the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP). It helps teenagers discern between healthy relationships and manipulative or controlling and abusive relationships and was found to prevent perpetration and reduce acceptance of teen dating violence among the participating adolescents versus adolescents who did not participate in the program.
A 2009 University of Chicago Crime Lab report states that "over the past 50 years our society has made far less progress in understanding how to protect our citizens from violence than all other manner of disease." This may be true, but our starting point is already clear: We need to help young people make healthy choices and engage in healthy activities. This means investing in programs that encourage safe and age appropriate exploration of health and sexuality, making such programs accessible to all of our city's children and youth. Only by investing in the children of today can we protect the children of tomorrow.
Monique Brunson Jones is Director of Programs for Chicago Foundation for Women, a community-based foundation that supports basic rights and equal opportunities for women and girls, and a Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.