Amid the death, sickness, mental health challenges and economic upheaval wrought by the pandemic, another threat to public health has reached new heights. Intimate partner violence — which can include physical abuse, sexual violence, stalking, or psychological aggression within a romantic relationship — has escalated over the past two years. Research points to economic distress, increased time indoors with abusive partners, and worsening mental health issues as major exacerbating factors.
I wanted to better understand this crisis, which too often flies under the radar. So I reached out to several advocates and practitioners in California to find out more about intimate partner violence, the public sector response to it, and how some organizations are leveraging community healing practices to help address the problem.
My first phone call was to my longtime colleague Marc Philpart, managing director at PolicyLink and a leader in the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, a nationwide network dedicated to promoting policies that support boys and men of color. Intimate partner violence is not new, he said, but the pandemic has brought a newfound awareness of the problem.
Unfortunately, its prevalence is not equally shared. While intimate partner violence can occur among people from all walks of life, those with lifelong exposure to violence, economic instability and marginalization are at greater risk. Many perpetrators of intimate partner violence are themselves victims of trauma, sometimes intergenerational, Philpart said. In communities of color, much of this stems from structural racism, he said.
“We are more often coming from communities with concentrated poverty where redlining, segregation and economic inequities are so prevalent,” Philpart told me. “Our marginalization is really an accelerant for some of the patriarchal and misogynistic norms that are so prevalent in our society.”
My conversation with Philpart made me wonder, how is the government responding to intimate partner violence? Ineffectively, according to a team of policy advocates I interviewed from the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color. In particular, they pointed to the dubious effectiveness of batterers’ intervention programs run by probation departments throughout the state.
These 52-week, court-imposed classes often require payment of a weekly fee that can create economic hardship for participants. The median fee per class is $25 a week, but research by the UCLA School of Law found fees as high as $150 per week. Nonpayment of fees is a major impediment to completing the program. In fact, 78 percent of programs in the state refuse to certify completion of the course if a participant has an outstanding balance, even if they have completed all courses. Other fundamental issues with these programs include a focus on punitive, shame-based education and extremely limited data transparency from county probation departments. The pandemic has made these programs even less accessible, with many shifting online, even though participants may not have access to computers or Wi-Fi in order to attend virtual classes, said Gustavo López, senior associate at PolicyLink.
Given the government’s inadequate response to the increasingly dire problem of intimate partner violence, my next question was, what are community organizations doing on the ground to support both survivors and people at risk of committing abuse?
One particularly inspiring answer came from Marcel Woodruff, lead organizer with Faith in the Valley, a faith-based grassroots organization in the Central Valley. Woodruff works directly with young people in his community and focuses on restorative justice and criminal justice reform. Woodruff believes we must transform our response to intimate partner violence from punitive to community-centered and restorative. He illustrated this need through an anecdote about a young man convicted of battery that he has been working with.
“What I saw in the (criminal justice) system was that there were tons of resources being allocated towards punishing him, and there were minimal resources allocated towards healing the victim of the offense” he said.
Woodruff and his team leveraged a combination of restorative justice practices, mentorship from local elders and violence prevention strategies to promote a form of community healing for the young man while also promoting true accountability and addressing the concerns of the abuse survivor.
Here’s how it works. Both the survivor and the perpetrator are invited to participate, separately, in a healing circle. These circles are facilitated by elders from the community who help participants unpack their trauma from past instances of violence.
Woodruff’s team also offers somatic therapy to both parties, an alternative form of treatment for post-traumatic stress that focuses on the body’s response to trauma. Participants are encouraged to discuss how their body feels during potentially violent events and to learn strategies for dealing with these situations, such as walking away from conflict and de-escalation techniques.
Finally, participants are invited to organize within their communities and become advocates who work to reduce factors that exacerbate violence, such as poverty and lack of resources. This final stage of healing is truly restorative in that it involves survivors and perpetrators of violence working together to provide resources to prevent future violence and support their communities. Crucially, this work is facilitated by other community members who have either survived violence or been perpetrators themselves, along with support from Faith in the Valley staff and community elders.
These types of creative, community-led approaches to intimate partner violence can be replicated, Woodruff said.
“The community has the capacity to really imagine and envision ways forward,” he told me.
These conversations make it clear that California must look for alternative solutions to intimate partner violence that don’t solely rely on punishment. The state must fund and provide resources for services that proactively work to prevent domestic violence in communities most at risk. Batterers’ intervention programs are not enough and may even be harmful.
Here’s one idea: California could create a helpline for perpetrators or people at risk of committing abuse. There is both international and domestic precedent for a hotline like this. The United Kingdom’s Respect Phoneline fields thousands of calls and messages annually and saw a 200 percent jump in calls during the initial months of the pandemic. There’s also the 10 to 10 Helpline pioneered in Massachusetts which seeks to provide confidential help and resources to support survivors of abuse, perpetrators and health professionals.
Other promising alternatives include community-based restorative justice programs such as the Collective Healing and Transformation Project by The Family Justice Center in Contra Costa County. This project enlists the voluntary participation of both survivors and perpetrators of intimate partner violence, and brings in community members to facilitate a safe, collaborative conversation that addresses the abuse and seeks to prevent future harm.
I must be clear, the goal of these programs is not to absolve perpetrators of violence. Rather, they are meant to offer survivors a greater say in the response process and more satisfactory path to healing than that currently provided by the criminal justice system. The goal is also to address the deep wounds that led perpetrators to abuse in the first place and, in doing so, proactively prevent future violence.
Californians are widespread in their support for alternatives to jail for people who commit domestic violence. Recent research from the Blue Shield Foundation found that 8 in 10 Californians believe that counseling, supervision and restitution could be better alternatives than jail time.
Woodruff left me with an insightful thought about his organization’s restorative justice-focused approach: “We understand violence as an illness to be cured, not a problem to be solved.”
California’s legislators would do well to take this understanding of intimate partner violence to heart. Given the escalation of this problem during the pandemic, it’s time for policymakers to step up and fund more effective responses to domestic violence that truly make our families and communities safer.
Denzel Tongue writes a column for the California Health Report about the intersection of racial justice, public policy and health equity. He is a master of public policy candidate at The Goldman School of Public Policy and a California Initiative for Health Equity Fellow.