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We must work to end domestic violence

My View • Challenges are many, but efforts to combat scourge are evolving
by: L.E. BASKOW Portland Police Sgt. Greg Stewart, of the bureau’s domestic violence reduction unit, says domestic violence offenders often have long criminal records, and only a third of their crimes are assault related. But they still often remain outside jail, and their victims have nowhere to go.

While most forms of crime have decreased nationally in recent years, domestic violence rates persist. Why?

Locally, we have specialized units in law enforcement and the courts. We have a diverse network of intervention programs, a domestic violence court and an advocacy-supported self-petitioning processes for civil protection orders. We have an array of centralized services and satellite domestic violence advocates in many community settings. We have an informed health-care system, a fatality review system and a city-county funded DV Coordination Office to provide leadership and a guiding hand.

What are we missing? Let's go back 37 years.

In 1974, the domestic violence response movement was born. Hundreds of shelters, crisis lines and safe home networks had been opened across the nation by 1980, establishing an organized, multidisciplinary response for the first time. The goal:'Never another battered woman.'

Establishment of this network was revolutionary and powerful, but reliance on volunteers, substandard facilities and shoestring budgets limited impact. Strategies had to evolve. We entered the worlds of fundraising and political lobbying to advance our work.

Funding streams were established. Legislation was passed. Published studies backed up our experiential data. We were finally being heard.

But along with assistance came requirements changing the way we operated. The welcome process to shelters became a lengthy 'intake.' Staffing became 'professionalized.' Facilities became rule-bound and less the survivors' 'house.'

New language was implemented; 'women' became 'cases.' Prosecutorial 'no drop' policies, regardless of survivors' wishes, sometimes resulted in even more violence in retribution. An extremely complex issue was boiled down to 'criminality.'

Advocates got boxed in to our initial response, with heavy reliance on the shelter system as the route through which survivors accessed support.

These were growing pains. Ultimately, clashing with these issues brought in air, debate and working partnerships critical to survivor safety and choices - together with the lesson that we must continue to look critically at our systems and work to improve the results.

Expanding on our initial response - emergency shelter - opens wider the doors to safety. We should continue to build on new routes to help that aren't predicated on first leaving the relationship and going to a shelter, leaving behind homes, jobs, children's schools and natural support systems. We must continue to weigh the positive impact of prosecution and incarceration of offenders against its unintended impacts, including retributive re-victimization, economic hardship (loss of the abuser's income when jailed) and the overrepresentation of communities of color in our jails and prisons.

We know that domestic violence is more prevalent among the poor and the poorly housed - it's harder to escape. Our advocacy must integrate with housing and anti-poverty advocacy to address this fact. We know that children and youth - the future's hope - must be a primary focus of our advocacy efforts through partnerships with the public schools.

Finally, we must do more to develop and hold on to new leaders in our field as the 'old guard' steps away from the work.

These are our challenges. But we also have many exciting successes to report.

Our field is increasingly and appropriately 'survivor-centered, survivor-driven, and survivor-informed.' Shelters are revamping the environments they provide to survivors, eliminating unnecessary requirements, and in some cases shifting to apartment rather than community living.

New initiatives are co-locating services and embedding advocates within the courts, police agencies, and other safety net providers. Creating more affordable housing options for survivors is a cause that's been taken up by funders, policymakers and programs alike. Cultural communities are providing culturally informed services and working to bring attention to issues of equity. Outreach programs teach youth about healthy relationships and strengthen survivor-child relationships undermined by living with an abusive person.

Back to the question of 'what's missing?' -stopping domestic violence has not yet been embraced as a universal responsibility. It's almost counterintuitive as to why; we make massive efforts to get the word out. But maybe that's just it: We educate about the enormity of the problem; fatalities and severe trauma and limited resources and deep societal underpinnings. What caring person doesn't feel overwhelmed and hopeless? Implacable problems shut us down emotionally; we separate from them.

Maybe we need to learn how to talk about it differently.

My own connection to this cause started before I had any notions about making it my life's work. It began with one woman, sitting alone in the shelter where I was an intern. She looked sad and lost. I didn't know what to say, but I knew that I could sit with her. I spoke with her softly. After awhile, she looked up, met my eyes, and at one point, she even smiled. A small story. A simple action. But I knew that something changed.

We need a general public where every last person feels capable of doing just one thing - one thing that is completely within their power. One thing that helps to establish a climate that's mutually exclusive with accepting domestic violence as 'just one of those things.'

I think that's key to what's missing, and that, coupled with our response system, could one day change the statistics.

Kris Billhardt of Northeast Portland is director of Home Free, a community-based domestic violence intervention program.