Commentary Media

Claiming ‘Domestic Violence Programs Don’t Work’ Doesn’t Work

Claire Tighe

The lack of data surrounding a single aspect of domestic violence prevention programming is no reason for advocates to give up altogether, no matter what one NBC News writer implied in a recent article.

Read more of our articles on intimate partner violence and the Ray Rice case here.

In the wake of the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson scandals, advocates are working with the NFL to develop domestic violence awareness and prevention training for the league’s players. Although the progress they are hoping to make is highly necessary, some critics are still questioning whether such programs are even worth the effort.

On Monday, NBC News published a piece inspired by those burgeoning initiatives by Senior Writer Tony Dokoupil, called “Why Domestic Violence Prevention Programs Don’t Work.” Dokoupil suggested that the lack of consensus among social scientists about the causes of abuse, and the current gap in evidence-informed prevention plans, renders domestic violence programming an essentially toothless endeavor.

It is true that at present, there is an enduring need for data surrounding the effectiveness of what Dokoupil called “a blend of treatment for abusers and education for men and boys.” But this is far from a reason to give up on the programs altogether. Furthermore, Dokoupil largely lumped together intervention for convicted batterers with prevention programs aimed at youth and families—two very different strategies that employ very different techniques. In doing so, he created an excuse to overlook domestic violence incidents as one-time, freak occurrences rather than the result of ongoing, cyclical patterns of behavior that constitute a complex interpersonal, community, and cultural problem.

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Dokoupil started with hard data, discussing the decreasing frequency of domestic abuse since the passing of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. “Rates of domestic violence fell by more than 50 percent between 1995 and 2004, according to Department of Justice figures,” he wrote, then noted that the frequency plateaued after 2005. This stall came with a shift in advocacy efforts from hotlines and shelters to more abuser-focused programming, noted Dokoupil; he did not explain whether he suspected that the stagnancy had caused the move, or vice-versa.

But the data he referenced is only one piece of a complex puzzle. First of all, those statistics are based solely on reported incidents of domestic violence, which, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, “is one of the most chronically underreported crimes.” So the rate that Dokoupil cited—that “one in three women will experience physical abuse at the hands of their partner”—is likely much higher, and probably always has been. A plummeting frequency over a 19-year span, then, may not be representative of the actual numbers of domestic abuse incidents in the United States. Nor, for that matter, is the leveling-off in reported violence rates indubitably tied to a greater concentration on abuser-centric education, as opposed to a complicated blend of societal factors.

Furthermore, Dokoupil only discussed physical abuse, playing into the misconception that domestic violence solely happens when someone hits, slaps, or punches their partner. In reality, however, partner abuse is a matrix of controlling actions that can include physical, financial, emotional, verbal, and/or sexual harm. Moreover, it is conscious and repeated behavior, forming an ongoing cycle—of incidents followed by apologies—that abusers repeat to their advantage.

In other words, a single physical attack rarely happens without prior context. So Dokoupil had a point in raising concerns over giving convicted physical batterers just “a little counseling” once their violence has finally been noted and penalized. As he pointed out about intervention for such abusers, “Some programs have been shown to change the way men view women, but few, if any, have proven to change abusive behavior—and none have been shown to work in hard cases or over the long term.”

Convicted batterers have learned to normalize and get away with their conduct. Thus, it would only make sense that many either do not complete intervention programs or fail to change their ways after doing so. But the admitted difficulty in overcoming years of abusive learned behavior is certainly no reason for advocates to stay passive. Even if interventions have mixed results, continuing them keeps abusers accountable to their actions and draws attention to their missteps, an important effort in a society that otherwise fails to do so.

For that matter, violence intervention, which Dokoupil appears to have used as a stand-in for all programs, is just a small facet of the movement. The focus has not “shifted,” as Dokoupil claimed, from hotlines and shelters to intervention. Rather, it has expanded to encompass those and more, reflecting the fact that domestic abuse can only be stopped if it is understood as a broader problem. To address one aspect—as Dokoupil overwhelmingly did—would be to ignore the larger picture.

Furthermore, Dokoupil overlooked the one common factor in many abusers’ pasts: witnessing or experiencing violence as children. He argued, “Even among boys who grow up seeing violence, most do not go on to hit women.” In fact, research shows that “witnessing violence between one’s parents or caretakers is the strongest risk factor of transmitting violent behavior from one generation to the next.” Young boys who see domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their partners and children when they grow up.

Here, then, is where domestic violence primary prevention, which Dokoupil mostly discounted, comes in. There is a clear distinction between working to intervene with convicted batterers who have already committed abuse and stopping violence before it begins. True prevention involves working with entire families and communities to open up conversations about the abuse they may have experienced.

And these prevention efforts have proved to be effective. For example, a counseling approach called child-parent psychotherapy—in which a counselor works with the non-offending caregiver and their children during the crucial point of adolescent development between the ages of 0 and 5—has resulted in “significant” reductions of children’s post-traumatic stress and social-emotional dysfunction, both of which can lead to violent behavior as adults.

Additionally, individual counseling for abuse survivors and their children can increase knowledge of healthy ways to manage emotion, respond to crisis, and interact with their loved ones, helping them to develop positive, non-violent interpersonal skills in the long-term. To that end, one of the most important efforts in initial domestic violence prevention is conducting education training for youth and their supporters (caregivers, teachers, doctors, nurses, clergy, and police officers, to name a few).

The only mention that Dokoupil made of programs like these, however, was a quick gloss over an initiative sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, currently amassing data on violence prevention for youth in four U.S. cities. Although Dokoupil implied that no aspect of the program is currently evidence-based, part of the initiative includes a curriculum called Safe Dates, which is both informed and supported by collected statistics. After completing the program, which is targeted toward adolescents in high-risk urban areas to help them identify dating violence before it begins, students demonstrated decreases in psychological and sexual aggression, increased endorsement for healthy dating norms, and increased use of positive communication skills in their relationships.

Overall, Dokoupil’s argument hinged on the fact that there is no cut-and-dried, unmistakably effective way to approach any kind of domestic violence prevention. But I am not sure there should be, as the needs of every community are different. Experiences with and knowledge of domestic abuse may differ between learning cohorts, after all, and education should change depending on whether the program is offered to children or adults. One evidence-based, “proven-to-be-effective” curriculum may not have the same impact for one group of people as it would on another.

Sure, the need for evidence-based approaches is still a big one. At present, many direct service providers face barriers to evaluating their programs, mostly because the need for their work is so great that they tend to prioritize serving clients and their families instead. But a lack of conclusive evidence on some strategies to prevent domestic abuse does not mean that “no one knows what works.” And it certainly does not mean there is no way to stop domestic violence, or that it is time to throw in the towel on the existing efforts. Domestic violence prevention programs can work, and can continue to do so—if we give them the space and attention they deserve.

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