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Domestic violence's constant pattern and what needs to change

Domestic violence's constant pattern and what needs to change
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Numerous recent headlines read some variation of “domestic violence deaths skyrocket in 2020 during COVID” in states across the U.S., including Alaska, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida and Louisiana. Of course, these trends are disturbing; no one needs to suffer or die due to domestic violence.  

Even more disturbing is that these cases are part of an ongoing, historical pattern. 

At least 5 million domestic violence acts occur annually to women over 18; another 3 million men are victims of domestic violence each year. Awareness cannot be limited to October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month or when news stories highlight celebrities discussing domestic violence experience. 

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Domestic violence is deeply interwoven with other forms of violence. Traditionally, child abuse was considered a separate issue, but now it is accepted that child abuse and domestic violence are linked and strong predictors. 

Less recognized is the link between community violence and domestic violence. Among Illinois homicide victims with a prior arrest, 69 percent had an arrest for domestic violence. For suicide victims with a prior arrest, 31 percent had a domestic violence arrest. 

 As director of the Illinois Violent Death Reporting System, I have seen many domestic violence cases.  What shakes me to my core is when I read accounts of incidents in which a close family remember recounts a long, multi-faceted abusive relationship between the victim and perpetrator. 

Often a grown child, sibling, or parent will report witnessing a relationship in which the victim was accused of infidelity, not allowed to work, leave the house, see family or friends — all even before the physical abuse started. 

It is not unusual to see homicide-suicide cases when the perpetrator takes their own life after killing the person they were abusing. Most heartbreaking to me are the cases with children who are caught up in these families — children who witness the escalation of abuse and, in some cases, are collateral victims of the abuser.  

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Despite these interconnections with other forms of violence, law enforcement approaches to domestic violence that follows traditional violence models are not working. As the data and headlines show, these efforts are too often too little or too late. 

As someone who studies violence and routinely sees the tragic outcomes of escalating abuse, I believe that our ability to respond effectively is hampered by a primary legal focus on physical harm. A broader and potentially more effective approach identifies a wider range of actions that form a domination pattern, including actions by one partner that exploit, isolate, degrade, frighten and physically hurt another partner. 

The domestic violence advocate community in the U.S. has long recognized the role of mental and emotional violence as precursors or companions to physical violence. This broader conceptualization of domestic violence is called coercive control and focuses on understanding domestic violence's escalating dynamics. However, in the U.S., as in much of the world, our tools for intervening in the non-physical aspects of domestic violence lag behind our understanding.  

Scotland has a model for domestic violence intervention built on the concept of coercive control and provides a promising example. Scotland’s Domestic Abuse Act of 2018 requires looking beyond single incidents to patterns of behavior. 

“The Act criminalizes a course of abusive behavior between partners or ex-partners where a reasonable person would consider this likely to cause physical or psychological harm, and a person carrying out the behavior intended to or was reckless about causing physical or psychological harm,” according to the Abuse Act.

Importantly, this enables linking coercive incidents in a pattern to take protective action before severe and irreparable physical harms are committed. In the first year after passage, 1,000 cases were prosecuted, and the majority of those convicted pled guilty. 

The U.S. enacted the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. Updated in 2013, VAWA now includes stalking and cyber-stalking protections and extends protections to undocumented immigrants and same-sex couples. 

VAWA needs another update. There is a call to close the “boyfriend loophole” by domestic violence. This is a good start. However, it is necessary to consider lessons from Scotland’s approach to linking incidents to surface patterns of abuse before serious physical harm occurs.

Certainly, the coercive control approach creates the need for careful consideration and interpretation of evidence by law enforcement and legal systems. But then again, the U.S. legal system is designed to be evidence-based. Consideration of wide-ranging sources of evidence — including social media, witnesses and financial and technological records --is needed, as is the case overall as our online lives grow.

I’ve heard counter-arguments to this approach from the perspective of those concerned about government overreach, saying that people should not be punished for minor incidents. I agree. The coercive control approach addresses these concerns by focusing on patterns across incidents giving weight to incidents' culmination — a much better picture of the dynamic between partners. 

Another benefit of pattern-based domestic violence prosecution is that it incentivizes abuse perpetrators to break the chain of abuse earlier rather than experiencing legal intervention only after a serious injury has occurred. Given the interconnectedness of domestic and other forms of violence, this approach may positively impact violence prevention efforts in these areas. 

A pattern-based legal approach will require efforts to build awareness and some degree of consensus among the public, service providers and law enforcement on what constitutes harm — a long-overdue conversation. Law enforcement agencies will need training in the application of the coercive control approach to domestic violence.  

Given the current focus on realigning law enforcement practices to better respond to personal and interpersonal issues, plus efforts to update the VAWA, the time is right for bringing the coercive control approach into law enforcement strategies.

Shifting the approach to domestic violence from incident to pattern-based is not a fast solution, but it holds promise. 

Maryann Mason, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Emergency Medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, Principal Investigator of the Illinois Violent Death Reporting System and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.