Guest post co-authored by Doris O’Neal, Director, manages the Gender-Based Violence Specialized Services programs at the YWCA of Seattle/King/Snohomish and Judy Chen, Executive Director of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
As debates about “law and order” intensify in the political arena, many people assume that any changes to policing could hurt victims of abuse. Our decades of working with domestic violence survivors tell a very different story. Our country has invested a tremendous amount of time and money in the criminal legal system, above all other potential solutions for stopping domestic violence. However, over-reliance on police, courts, and jails hasn’t solved the problem nor created safe communities. Survivors deserve more options for safety, justice, and preventing future violence. It’s past time to update approaches first developed in the 1980’s.
Back then, there was often no police response to domestic violence. If they did respond, officers would simply tell the abusive person to take a walk and “cool down.” Once the patrol car left, things often got even worse. Mandating a justice system response was seen as progress. But it turns out that calling 911 doesn’t lead to the tidy solutions depicted on TV. Abusive people often retaliate with a vengeance. Survivors describe victim-blaming by police and courts, loss of control, and cycling through endless legal battles, while struggling financially and fearing homelessness. Calling 911 doesn’t mean safety for many survivors, especially in the Black community.
A national study found that 70% of domestic violence survivors were afraid calling the police would make their situation worse, and two-thirds of those who did call said they wouldn’t do so again. Many of the people that the YWCA works with, particularly Black and Brown women, get arrested instead of helped. Once the cuffs go on, life is never the same. Survivors’ involvement with the legal system is overwhelmingly the result of their trauma, acts of self-defense, lacking funds for legal representation, and not fitting the racist stereotype of “the perfect victim.” The abuse-to-prison pipeline is a leading reason why women are the fastest growing incarcerated population. There is little care, funding, or services for them.
So what now? For 17 years, the Washington State Domestic Violence Fatality Review has identified what law enforcement, prosecutors, and courts can do to increase survivor safety. Everyone should be able to call 911 and get immediate help in an emergency without fearing for their own life. But the criminal legal system can’t be the only choice on the menu.
Survivors tell us what they need: Freedom – to make their own choices; Options – to live safely and independently from an abusive partner; and Connection – to be listened to and believed. They want help for their partner or ex-partner. They want the violence to stop. Investing primarily in the justice system has not gotten us there. It’s time to invest in promising approaches, like affordable housing, jobs, childcare, and earlier interventions for both survivors and people causing harm. It’s time to live up to our nation’s promise of fair treatment and an end to systemic racism. It’s time to invest in educating children to prevent future violence.
People trying to survive violence need more than the limited choices the justice system offers. All children deserve a future where they can live and love freely without fear. We must come together to create that promising future by evolving community solutions to domestic violence.
Domestic violence is a complex problem, but everyone can do something about it. For National Domestic Violence Action Month, you can:
- Listen to survivors. If you’re that one person someone turns to, know how to help.
- Tell legislators to support policies that get cash to low-income Washingtonians. Financial options help survivors gain more freedom.
- Support efforts to stop the abuse-to-prison pipeline and help arrested survivors who face losing everything. The YWCA Survivors FIRST program deserves attention.
- Support violence prevention. If you know a high school coach, tell them about Team Up Washington, which mentors student athletes to promote respect and consent. Vote to support Referendum 90 so all students can learn about healthy relationships.