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On domestic violence, progress, but not enough



If you drive downtown at night this month, you'll see three buildings – City Hall, the library's Rundel Building, and the Public Safety Building – lit in purple.

The lighting's part of an observance of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, highlighting a problem that's gotten a lot of attention lately.

We've all heard about – and many people have seen – the video of NFL star Ray Rice hitting his then-fiancé in an elevator and dragging her out by the hair. But Ray Rice is not an anomaly. One in four women in the US – and one in seven men – will be victims of domestic violence sometime in their life, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And the CDC estimates that 70 percent of domestic violence incidents don't get reported. Shame, fear, emotional or financial dependency, love: there are numerous reasons why people suffer abuse and don't seek help. And don't leave.

Domestic violence isn't a "poor people's issue" or an "urban issue." In 2013, 48 percent of the domestic-violence reports in Monroe County were from the suburbs.

And as the CDC statistics indicate, domestic violence isn't committed only by men against women. There are victims in same-sex relationships. There are men abused by women. Nor does the term "domestic violence" refer only to married couples. It includes violence among unmarried couples. And it includes elder abuse, and violence between brother and sister.

Based on data from cases that are actually reported, though, the vast majority of domestic violence is by men abusing women with whom they're in an intimate relationship, married or unmarried. And it's maybe not surprising that reports go up after massive media attention to something like the Ray Rice video. Calls to the hotline at Rochester's Alternatives for Battered Women jumped 35 percent in the first 10 days of September after that video hit the news, ABW's CEO, Jaime Saunders, told me last week.

Grim as all that is, there has been progress. This year is the 20th anniversary of the federal Violence Against Women Act, which was originally co-authored by Rochester's Louise Slaughter. That key legislation has strengthened laws and penalties dealing with domestic violence and other acts of violence against women, helps provide support and services for victims, and helps train people in the criminal-justice system about domestic violence.

New York State passed legislation in 2008 that defines domestic violence as not only acts involving married heterosexual couples but also those involving same-sex couples and unmarried couples.

Training people who deal with victims – police officers, for instance – has made a huge difference, Saunders said. So has media exposure. People are talking about cases like the Ray Rice video. "I'll be on elevators – people won't know who I am, and they're talking about it," Saunders said.

Extensive networks of services have formed to increase awareness and help victims. In Monroe County, the Domestic Violence Consortium helps coordinate local efforts to deal with domestic violence. A "high-risk team" evaluates and determines how to help victims considered at high risk of being killed. Its members include representatives from Alternatives for Battered Women, the Monroe County District Attorney's office, the Rochester Police Department, the Monroe County Legal Aid Society, and sometimes the sheriff's department and the University of Rochester.

A "fatality review team" investigates domestic-violence deaths, to see what fell through the cracks, Saunders said: looking for ways that the death might have been prevented.

ABW itself, founded 35 years ago, provides a huge range of services, including education at schools, support groups for victims, and a website and hotline that provide information, counseling, and referrals by trained staff. ABW Court Advocates help victims understand the legal process of getting an Order of Protection and go with them into the courtroom. And ABW's emergency residential shelter provides temporary help for victims and their children.

The need for these services is enormous. ABW's Court Advocates helped 2126 victims last year. ABW referred 860 victims to the Legal Aid Society for free help on how to get Orders of Protection against their abusers. Nearly 5000 victims called the ABW hotline; 341 attended support groups.

The shelter housed 455 victims and their children last year, and its 40 beds aren't enough. "We had 600 people last year who, when they made the first call, we were full," said Saunders. ABW, which partners with the YWCA and Sojourner House, found other shelter for them, but it's hard enough for the victims to reach out for help in the first place, Saunders said, without running into obstacles along the way. ABW is currently exploring the possibility of getting a new, larger place for the shelter.

Safety is paramount at the shelter, and that's not a frivolous precaution; abusers often pursue their victims. "We've had individuals try to come in," said Saunders. And, she said, one man phoned the hotline and said he would shoot anyone who came out of the shelter.

What on earth causes someone to assault a person with whom they're in a presumably loving relationship, and to go after them with such vengeance?

It's far more complicated than we might think. Most abusers are not otherwise violent people, Saunders said. Most male abusers are violent only toward their wife or girlfriend. The abuse is a means of control.

"It's not an anger-management issue," said Saunders. "If it were, he'd be a jerk to everybody." Instead, the abuse is targeted. And that in itself complicates things: to relatives and friends, he can seem sweet, charming.

"Abusers," said Saunders, "don't wear a sign."

Childhood exposure to domestic violence does seem to be a big influence. The vast majority of abusers "have grown up with violence in the home," Saunders said. And tragically, "young girls who are raised in a house with violence are at higher risk of being abused as adults," she said.

Cultural acceptance of violence may be a contributor, too, Saunders thinks: violent sports, violent video games in which players try to run over prostitutes....

Saunders doesn't exaggerate the influence of culture, though. As she notes, lots of football players don't come off the field and go home and beat their wives. While violence in our culture likely doesn't cause a non-violent person to become violent, it can be "reinforced by cultural values and beliefs that are repeatedly communicated through the media and other societal institutions that tolerate it," suggests a 2003 report by the US Department of Health and Human Services.

And, the report adds: "The perpetrator's violence is further supported when peers, family members, or others in the community (e.g., coworkers, social service providers, police, or clergy) minimize or ignore the abuse and fail to provide consequences. As a result, the abuser learns that not only is the behavior justified, but also it is acceptable."

Clergy? In our discussion, Saunders raised that concern as well. Even now, religious leaders of some traditions – and marriage counselors as well – counsel that a wife ought to be submissive to her husband.

And that brings up another aspect of culture: a bias against women that exists around the world. I asked Saunders whether we can separate domestic violence in Rochester from the general violence against women, in this country and around the world.

"No," she said. "Those 275 girls who were kidnapped in Nigeria: It's the entire view of women as property. Entitlement."

Those 275 girls didn't have a choice, of course, and they're being held against their will (or worse). Victims of domestic violence here do have a choice, and that choice is often to stay. Sometimes that's out of fear, sometimes it's because they feel they can't afford to do otherwise, financially. But sometimes it's because the victim believes that the abuser can reform.

What's the record of abusers being able to change?

"Not very good," Saunders said. And sadly, the average victim suffers seven incidents of abuse before having the courage to leave, she said.

That being the case, the biggest preventive tool may be education – of victims; of those in the criminal justice system; of people in the health-care system who end up helping the victims and their families; of teachers, neighbors, family members; of possible future victims and abusers.

The phone number for ABW's hotline, incidentally, is 585-232-7353 (TTY, 585-232-1741), or you can access it online at

Among this month's Domestic Violence Awareness public events: A celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, honoring Louise Slaughter, 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, October 23, Perkins Mansion, 494 East Avenue; and a United Nations Day conference, whose topic is empowering women and girls, 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Friday, October 24, at the National Museum of Play at The Strong.

The Rochester Police Department is conducting a "purple box" campaign, providing boxes at the Public Safety Building for money and holiday gift donations for families in the shelters.

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