Prevention: A New Approach to Domestic Violence

Article excerpt

The criminal justice system's response to domestic violence has evolved dramatically during the past two decades. Historically, when responding to domestic dispute calls, law enforcement officers could do little more than separate spouses and wait for tempers to cool.

By the mid-1980s, changing social standards led to more vigorous enforcement policies. In Massachusetts, as in many States, these policies resulted in mandatory arrest statutes,(1) domestic violence firearm-confiscation statutes,(2) restraining order registries,(3) and enhanced penalties for convicted batterers.(4)

These measures constitute an important step forward in addressing one of the most recurrent problems that confronts law enforcement. However, these policies share a characteristic that limits their effectiveness in actually curtailing domestic violence. As reactive measures, they can be used only after an incident occurs. Thus, the progressive policies adopted in recent years have done little to prevent new cases of abuse or to reduce the number of domestic violence calls handled by the police.

Prevention as a Goal

Law enforcement officials often become frustrated when, in the wake of a domestic violence-related homicide, media headlines proclaim, "The System Fails Again." It is difficult to accept such criticism when the criminal justice system mainly responds after a crisis has occurred. While a crisis intervention stance appropriately takes as its first priority the safety of victims, such an approach risks ignoring the importance of primary prevention.(5)

In 1991, the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Training Council(6) and the Framingham Police Department joined with local educators and victim advocates to create a proactive program that addresses the root causes of domestic violence. The Violence Prevention Program stresses prevention rather than reaction. It has emerged as a unique method to address critical risk factors, such as gender-role stereotypes and sexism, that lead to domestic violence.

The Violence Prevention Program

The Violence Prevention Program educates young people about domestic violence and provides them with skills to help them avoid destructive behavior. The program targets students in the seventh and eighth grades.

Staff members of a local nonprofit shelter for battered women(7) structured the curriculum in five 1-hour blocks that can be delivered in health classes as part of the regular school curriculum. The program is intended to be taught by two-member teams made up of a police officer and an educator. The ideal team consists of a male teacher and a female officer, the reverse of the common stereotype. Together, they can model respectful behavior and effectively deal with the issue of gender-role stereotyping.

Police administrators choose officers for the program based on their demonstrated sensitivity to the issues of domestic violence, as well as for their field experience, performance in training and role-playing, and teaching ability. The immediate goal of the program is to give the officers and educators a visible, proactive role in preventing violence. The ultimate goal is to reduce violence in intimate relationships.

Training the Trainers

Before the officers and educators begin to teach the program, they receive special instruction on the subject of domestic violence. A 3-day, train-the-trainer course focuses on the dynamics of domestic violence. Professional counselors in the areas of teen dating violence and battering conduct the training sessions. Funds from a State grant cover the fees for the counselors.

On the first day of instructor training, the participants learn about cycles of violence and examine questions such as "Why do men batter?" and "What makes women remain in abusive relationships?" The second day of instruction focuses on program curriculum. Participants go through the exercises, such as formulating definitions for abuse and respect and listing the attributes of respectful men and women. …