Combating Domestic Violence: One Size Doesn't Fit All The numbers are disturbingly high: More than 1 in 3 women in America will experience rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Guest host Celeste Headlee examines how well the justice system serves abused women of color.
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Combating Domestic Violence: One Size Doesn't Fit All

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Combating Domestic Violence: One Size Doesn't Fit All


Combating Domestic Violence: One Size Doesn't Fit All

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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Let's go behind closed doors. It's the part of the program where we talk about issues people often only discuss in private. Today, we want to talk about domestic violence. More than one in three women in the U.S. will experience rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner sometime in their lifetime.

Joining the program to talk about this more is Michelle Kaminsky. She's a bureau chief in the Domestic Violence Bureau in Brooklyn, New York and the author of "Reflections of a Domestic Violence Prosecutor: Suggestions for Reform." And Oliver Williams is a professor of social work and heads the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community at the University of Minnesota. Welcome to both of you.



HEADLEE: So, Michelle, you've spent a good part of your career, most of it I think, as a domestic violence prosecutor. At this point, where are we? Have things improved over the past couple decades that you've been working with this issue?

KAMINSKY: There's been tremendous improvement. There's been a sea change from where we were 30 years ago. We have the police - we have mandatory arrest laws in New York and in many states, where the police have to go out and make an arrest. It used to be a time where the police would respond to a call of domestic violence and they would tell the offender to go take a walk around the block. We have tremendous amount of resources for victims of domestic violence that we didn't have a decade ago. But there's still a lot of work that needs to be done.

HEADLEE: Well, you're talking about the prosecution and how we handle domestic violence when it occurs. What about the incidence of domestic violence? Has that changed?

KAMINSKY: Studies say that domestic violence has gone down, but from what I'm seeing day-to-day, it seems to me that the numbers are the same. Not in terms of serious violence but the low-level offenses that make up the bulk of the work that we do, that doesn't seem to be changing.

HEADLEE: And Oliver, you work specifically on domestic violence in the African-American community. Why do we need somebody like you? Why do we need somebody who focuses on a particular community or another?

WILLIAMS: Historically, the incidence - prevalence rates among African-Americans was higher and that we have tended to have a one-size-fits-all approach to address the problem of domestic violence. So we got together - it was a group of practitioners and scholars - got together, who had a conversation about it and thought that we needed to give some attention to it, whether it was developing approaches to respond to it, to develop some insights to identify not only issues related to incidents and prevalence, but solutions to address the issue of domestic violence, 'cause there wasn't much of that going on. We tended to use one approach to deal with all groups.

And we're expanding to deal with it, the African community. And the realities of different cultural groups is real important if you're going to provide interventions that deal with the challenges that they deal with, and it may be very, very different with different groups. There's a project that we have called the Safe Return Initiative. And what that does is look at the issue of prison reentry and domestic violence. President Bush was having an initiative to look at reentry and he funded a number of states to be able to look at that. And the Office on Violence Against Women said that this is an opportunity to examine the issue of domestic violence. So we started looking at the issue of the intersection of domestic violence and reentry. We know at least one-third of men that go to prison and come out have had some issue related to intimate partner violence or their parole has been revoked and they're sent back to prison because of a domestic violence incident.

So a lot of women who have been in relationships with these men experienced domestic violence, but for a lot of women, unless he was sent to prison because of domestic violence, there's less attention given to that issue. And so we started to examine some of those things.

HEADLEE: Michelle, this is something that you talk about in your book in terms of our assumptions in that people tend to assume that domestic violence is higher in poor communities and in minority communities, especially African-American and Latino. I wonder if the historic high rate of incidence of domestic violence, especially among African-American communities, is more about how often it got prosecuted as opposed to those in say a wealthier or a Caucasian community?

KAMINSKY: The cases that come into the criminal justice system, at least what we see in Brooklyn, are a result of calls to the police. The calls to the police are coming from these communities and those are the cases we're seeing. You know, studies show that - and just anecdotally - that domestic violence cuts across all races, class, socioeconomic status. But what we are seeing, at least in Brooklyn, are women of color in low-income communities that make up the bulk of the cases.

HEADLEE: I wonder, Oliver, if you would talk to me for a moment about the attitude towards women, especially in the African-American community. Is that an issue?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think it depends on which group of African-Americans you're speaking about. So I interviewed groups of batterers, the perspectives about African-American batterers were - and I think men in general, too, were that they tended to see women like they saw children. And they felt like they had a responsibility to discipline children, therefore also felt like they had a responsibility to discipline the wife 'cause they didn't see the status as being very, very different.

And if you have guys that are involved in gangs, guys that are involved in street-level crimes - there's an attitude that they have towards other men, but there's also attitudes that they have towards women. And that women shouldn't cross the line and there are also lines that men can't cross. But there's a perspective in terms of how they look at women and what I think is the fact that you have to look at the brand of sexism that men manifest with different women. I think it's different in Latino communities, I think it's different in African communities because there's a cultural perspective about women and women's roles, and particularly in the 54 different countries in Africa - or 56 different countries in Africa. And I think it's true in Native American communities and South Asian and Arab communities. And you have to really understand how they see women and how they respond to women.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking to Oliver Williams, who you heard there from the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African-American Community. And Michelle Kaminsky of the Domestic Violence Bureau in Brooklyn. Michelle, in your book, you say that the most frequent question when this comes to trial, especially among jury members, is they're hearing about sometimes a pattern of abuse in the relationship and they're asking themselves why does the woman stay in this relationship. You say that's the wrong question to ask. Why is that?

KAMINSKY: Well, because it puts the blame on the woman. And I'm using - I'm saying woman, we see male victims of domestic violence, but just, you know, the vast majority of the victims that are coming in are women. But it puts the blame back on the woman. She becomes the problem instead of the batterer who's committing the offenses against her.

HEADLEE: I wonder - and this goes - feeds into your ideas on how to reform the system, to a certain extent, you think that there's not enough freedom for judges and juries to actually consider the pattern of abuse - not necessarily just physical abuse, but you're talking about domination, the way that the abuser will take control of their partner. Explain what you mean by that.

KAMINSKY: Well, the way it works is if someone's arrested and they're going to trial for a particular charge for assaulting a woman, they're supposed to be tried based upon the evidence in that particular case. But if a woman's been in a relationship for five years with the man who's been abusing her and he's arrested for that assault on that one day, you're not necessarily allowed to bring in the history of abuse in the relationship. There are rules of evidence that limit that and then it gives a distorted picture of what's really been going on in the relationship in terms of power and control in the relationship.

And to present one isolated incident of assault in a five-year relationship becomes very difficult for a jury to understand what's really been going on in the relationship. It sounds - you know, it's one event in five years, people say, well, you know, in relationships things could happen, as if you can minimize away that one incident. But if you really know what's been going on - that this is part of a pattern of abuse and control for five years, it looks very different. But it's very difficult for us to bring in that evidence at trial.

HEADLEE: Oliver, I wonder - another thing that Michelle suggests in her book is that, perhaps, incarceration for abusers - automatic - is not always the best path forward. That there should be options for the judge and the prosecutors. I wonder what you think about that - is arresting someone every time they're accused of abuse and putting them in jail, is that the best way to solve this problem?

WILLIAMS: Can I give you a bit of a complicated response? One is that I'm for prosecution of men who are abusive...

HEADLEE: Or women, yeah.

WILLIAMS: Or women. And the thing for me is, though, that should not be the only path. So I agree with Michelle in that regard. I think that we have to find other ways to be able to reach high risk people who are being abusive earlier on because what you get is the people that you catch, not the people who have been repeatedly, consistently being abusive to a partner over a period of time. You might miss folks. And so if you can have a process to be able to engage people through community services, through churches - churches that understand and are willing to approach domestic violence and include it as a part of their ministry - and there are several churches that do a really good job of that - I think that's a way to be able to engage people.

I started doing batterers intervention groups years ago before there were court mandated programs, and you had folks that - what they call socially mandated - where the partner, the mother, the aunt, the sister, the uncle, perhaps, encouraged him to go to counseling. She said if he didn't go - the partner would say, if you don't go I'm leaving. And he or - she left and he was in a crisis and he was looking for a place for support. They used to call battered women's programs who referred them to batterers programs that they trusted. And it was real important to be able to have that but that almost doesn't exist anymore. And I think you need to have both because some men left out of crisis, you know, when the crisis was over, but some men stayed. And you have to have men that you can get to come in to address their issues - encourages more insight into the issue of domestic violence but it's also important to be able to have men who are referred through the court.

HEADLEE: Well...

WILLIAMS: I think that's important too.

HEADLEE: Michelle, let me get the response on this from you because you distinguish between the different reasons why a woman will call 911 when she's being abused. You say that oftentimes these women want the violence to stop but they don't want to be separated from the abuser. And that, to a certain extent, by automatically arresting him - usually it's him - and putting him in jail, that the court is treating her like a child. Explain what you mean by that.

KAMINSKY: I don't mean by automatically making the arrest. I think this is a very complicated situation. If a woman is calling 911 for help, then the police respond, the police should be making an arrest if a crime has been committed. It's once the case is turned over to the district attorney's office and what I try to show in my book by using different cases is that not every case should necessarily go forward with criminal prosecution. That there's a way to work out - we have to look at ways, the specifics of the case and see that maybe criminal prosecution isn't the right thing to be doing with that case, in terms of speaking with the women, finding out what their wants and needs are, looking at the history of abuse in the relationship, because not every case you have a long history of abuse. So I think you have to look at multiple factors. If there are lethality factors present, if there've been weapons in the home, if the offender has a criminal record.

And we have to really have an individual approach to the cases instead of a one-size-fits-all approach as to how we're handling them. That's what I think is really critical and that's what I wanted to get across in the book that you can't look at just - we have a national policy that focuses heavily on criminalization of domestic violence, but the majority of women don't want to go forward with criminal charges. So we have to start acknowledging that and saying, what can we do if our goals here are about accountability and safety? How do we hold offenders accountable? And more importantly, how do we keep women safe? That just prosecuting a case doesn't necessarily translate that we're going to be keeping women safer.

HEADLEE: Oliver are there women who hesitate to call the police because they're afraid that their husband, boyfriend, partner will end up in prison?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. And let me say in this answer, I agree with Michelle and what she says. I think her insights are on target 'cause there are a lot of women that end up calling because they want the violence to stop, but they're concerned about the consequences - some women are concerned about the consequences. But, you know, I think other issues related to it have something to do with the fact that women are thoughtful about what the consequences might be and that there may be a range of things that they want in terms of how law enforcement will respond to the issues. A question that you had earlier is why women stay. I like Michelle's response but also, you know, when women leave, they're in a very dangerous position because that may be a time when he becomes more aggressive if she decides to leave. I think sometimes they end up staying because they're poor and they have few resources.

And as a consequence what happens is that they end up staying because the other step might be homelessness. You know, low-income communities are more intensely policed and so it's kind of like going to the emergency room if you're poor, rather than having the broader healthcare option. You know, I think that what happens is that people end up calling the police because they want some intervention with it. But I think, you know, Michelle's responses to it I think are accurate in terms of trying to figure out different ways that we can think about things. Not to make everything a one-size-fits-all. And poor people and people of color, when you go into some of the courtrooms, they don't have attorneys. Middle-class and upper middle-class people tend to have attorneys that negotiate what happens to them in a court. Just like you have people who develop skill sets around DWIs or DUIs. And I think that shifts some things as well.

HEADLEE: Oliver Williams heads the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community at the University of Minnesota. And he joined us from Minnesota Public Radio. And Michelle Kaminsky is a bureau chief at the Domestic Violence Bureau in Brooklyn, New York. And the author of "Reflections of a Domestic Violence Prosecutor: Suggestions for Reform." She joined us from NPR studios in New York. Thanks so much to both of you.

KAMINSKY: Thank you.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'll talk more tomorrow.

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