The video of Ray Rice striking his (then) fiancée Janay Palmer, while the two were riding in a hotel elevator, has started a national conversation about domestic violence. But how will that conversation end? Will it somehow lead to less domestic violence in the future—or, barring that, more help for its victims?
It could. As it happens, last week marked the twentieth anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act. The law poured billions of dollars into law enforcement, helping authorities to identify incidents of abuse, prosecute offenders, and help victims. It also raised awareness of the problem, at a time when a national news event—the killing of Nicole Brown Simpson, estranged wife of running back O.J. Simpson—was having the same effect.
Two decades later, incidents of reported domestic violence have fallen by more 70 percent, according to the best available evidence. You don't have to believe VAWA and greater awareness are the primary explanation to believe they had a powerful effect. “That’s a monumental change from twenty years ago,” Vice President Joe Biden, the architect of VAWA, wrote this week in Time. “But we know there’s more to do.”
He’s right. One in four women say they have been victims of domestic violence, according to studies. Even though that number will fall over time, because of the recent progress, that’s still a whole lot of people—not just millions, but tens of millions. And precisely because VAWA has made so much progress, getting the numbers down farther may be even harder.
To get a sense of what the next steps should be, I canvassed about a dozen researchers and advocates, with expertise spanning psychology, sociology, and law enforcement. While there wasn't complete consensus, five ideas kept coming up over and over again. I can't vouch for them independently, because this field isn't my specialty. But they all made a lot of sense.
Here they are:
1. Keep trying prevention programs, scale up the most promising ones, and study how well they work.
Many researchers believe the best way to deter abuse is to stop people from becoming abusers in the first place. And several approaches have shown promise.
Broad, cultural messages appear to make a difference—not just what young children see and hear, from their families and neighbors but also from their role models on television and in sports arenas, may have an impact. In addition, many researchers think it’s possible to reach kids more directly, through schools or through their parents. According to these researchers, themes should include how men treat women—and how they express their own emotions. “[We should] raise boys and men so they know it’s fine to cry and to show fear or other ‘weakness,’ and that expressing anger is not the only acceptable emotion for males,” says Nancy Lemon, Boalt Lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley Law School and author a leading textbook on domestic violence law. Among the ideal targets for the interventions are the kids most at risk of becoming abusers later in life—the ones who, while very young, are victims of or witnesses to abuse in their homes.
It all sounds very plausible. And there’s sporadic evidence that some programs have produced positive results on a small scale—for example, 2000 California high-schoolers who participated in a program called “Coaching Boys Into Men” said they were less likely to engage in abusive behavior and more likely to stop a friend from showing abusive behavior. But overwhelming social science evidence, the kind that undergirds other successful government and private sector programs, doesn’t really exist—partly because nobody has had the funds or opportunity to do the necessary, long-term research. “We don’t really know for sure what works,” says Richard Gelles, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Violent Home.
That’s why, in addition to scaling up the most promising programs, there needs to be intensive study of them. That means so-called longitudinal studies, in which researchers follow participants over long periods of time, as well as experiments that create the equivalent of randomized experiments. "We shouldn't wait for the perfect research to act," says Kiersten Stewart, director of public policy and advocacy at Futures Without Violence. “We have programs for very young children that have shown improvements, and programs that target older kids too. ... But it's true we don’t have data that goes very far out. We absolutely need more research.”
Of course, that kind of research requires funding—and that funding hasn’t been easy to find. “I started doing research 40 years ago and there’s never been a lot of money,” Gelles says. “And there’s inevitably intense competition for what money is available, between those who provide services and those who want to conduct research.”
2. Make penalties for domestic violence consistent and firm.
The Ray Rice case was fairly typical in one sense: It’s customary to offer first-time offenders an opportunity to choose counseling, and avoid charges. There are a few reasons for this. One is that some abusers really will respond—either because they have so much to lose by risking jail time, or because they feel enough regret to be open to what counselors will tell them. “Most of these programs have about a 21, 22, 23 percent success rate at 12 to 18 months,” says Gelles. “And that has to do a great deal with readiness to change, plus receptiveness to intervention.”
But precisely because the success rate is relatively low, experts think it’s important that penalties be tough—and consistent. That’s true for the courts. And it’s true for private organizations, like professional sports leagues. “Forcing batterers into treatment works for some, but not for most,” says Tania Tetlow, a former federal prosecutor, a law professor at Tulane, and director of the Domestic Violence Center there. ”We should offer all the treatment in the world in case it helps, but not instead of punishment as we tend to do now."
"Swift and serious sentencing is important to decrease the incidents of domestic abuse," says Lisa Smith, a former prosecutor who is now an assistant professor clinical law at Brooklyn Law School. "Severe punishment by the NFL in this case with the attendant publicity will definitely send a message to abusers."
3. Increase funding for support services.
It’s hard to say exactly how much money government spends on domestic violence today, because the money comes from so many different places. The primary way that the federal government spends on domestic violence is through something called the Family Violence Prevention and Support Act, now in its 30th year. FVPSA is not a huge program: it doled out $130 million last year. (That’s with an “m.”) And that level was actually a little lower than the previous year’s. Other federal programs, like Medicaid and funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, end up subsidizing domestic violence services indirectly. And of course states put in their own money. But it’s still not enough, experts say.
Every year, the National Network to End Domestic Violence surveys local organizations once a year, to see how many requests for services they got—and how many they were able to fulfill—on that day. In last year’s survey, more than 9,000 requests nationally went unfulfilled. Of those, about 6,000 involved requests for transitional housing—space in shelters for families escaping abusers. The survey is not exactly scientific, but, experts say, the shortage is real—and maybe even getting worse, thanks to tight state budgets and federal cutbacks from sequestration. "The demand for services far exceeds the supply," says Stewart.
4. Change the way family courts handle cases involving domestic violence.
Divorces frequently involve allegations of domestic violence. But, historically, the judicial system would handle the issues separately—with one judge presiding over the divorce, another hearing the criminal domestic violence case. This was tough on the victims, who had to deal with multiple sets of legal proceedings, each with a different process (and, sometimes, each in a different courthouse). It also meant that family court judges, hearing the divorce cases, might not have full information about the domestic violence allegations.
Today many jurisdictions, though by no means all of them, use a “one family, one judge” approach—consolidating the hearings into one place. Experts say that’s a much-needed improvement, but, they caution, there’s another big problem: Family courts don’t always handle domestic violence well. “Family courts reward compromise and settlement, because good parents want their children to have close relationships with the other parent,” says Tetlow. “The problem is that a parent protecting a child from abuse wants no such thing, and cannot agree to settle down the middle.”
And it’s not just the judges. “Instead of deciding the fact issue of whether abuse happens,” Tetlow says, “courts also tend to punt their obligations to ‘custody evaluators,’ mental health professionals who frequently have little training on domestic violence. These evaluators have no magic ability to decide whether someone is violent—it’s not mental illness and there’s no test for it—or whether the abuser is lying. Instead, they are trained to see relationship problems as mutual.” The solution, Tetlow and other experts say, is to provide family judges with more specialized training—and more resources, in the form of counselors who have actual expertise in domestic violence.
5. Help women to be economically independent.
“So many women stay in destructive relationships because they will be homeless, with their children, if they leave—or can’t support themselves and their children,” says Joan Meier, a George Washington University law professor and founder of the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project. “Divorce financial distributions need to be much fairer, taking into account the ways women give up economic capacity to raise kids. Nowadays women almost never get alimony (by a judge) and child support is often minimal, especially if the father fights and wins joint custody.” Of course, policy changes that tend to help women financially—raising the minimum wage, guaranteed paid family and medical leave—can make a difference too.