In 2016, 16 women were killed by intimate partners in Tarrant County — the second highest rate of intimate partner homicides in Texas, a heartbreaking record to hold.
The following year, that number dropped to 12. In 2018, the number was seven.
When you think of domestic violence, what do you see? I would bet some clichés come to mind: “wife-beater” tank tops, NFL scandals, or women with black eyes?
When I think of domestic violence, I think of my neighbors — my shockingly unremarkable, everyday neighbors.
Today, in 2019, 1 in 3 women in Tarrant County will experience intimate partner violence in her lifetime. In a North Texas grocery store, 1 in 3 women you pass will have a controlling and abusive partner at some point in her life — 33 percent of the women in your bible study and 33 percent of the women in your spin class. This problem has reached the level of an epidemic.
To date, the work surrounding this community problem has been mostly reactive: emergency shelters, protective orders, relocation services.
Of course, emergency services are important. Families need a lot of support to escape intimate partner violence. Emergency shelters are a life-saving intervention.
But by nature, domestic violence situations tend to be hidden. Women experiencing intimate partner violence are underserved during the pivotal moments when they most deserve the commitment and help of the entire community.
At its worst, these pivotal moments result in death.
The fact remains that shelters, protective orders, and relocation services are tools in the form of band aids—after-the-fact fixes to larger systemic issues.
Keeping victim safety top-of-mind
When I became the President and CEO of SafeHaven five years ago, I realized that we were only reacting to the symptoms of this problem. And while helping in the aftermath is very important, ultimately, I’m in the business of finding cures.
So I started my tenure at SafeHaven by tracing this problem back to its source.
And what I have come to realize, is that much like the #metoo movement, our culture of permissiveness and silence surrounding intimate partner violence allows the problem to keep perpetuating itself. Because the nature of intimate partner violence is just that — sensitive, private, intimate.
If there’s one thing I wish people understood about domestic violence, it’s that abuse is all about power and control. Most of the time, neither partner understands the mechanics — the why — behind this phenomenon at all.
So what if we started by identifying the source? To put it another way, what causes domestic violence? In a word, it’s the offenders.
When our communities don’t give offenders a means for quitting intimate partner violence for good, they continue. They find new partners and reoffend—a vicious cycle of power and control.
So we started to search for ways to truly rehabilitate offenders.
Launching a local domestic violence high risk team
First, we got to work. We received a small seed grant from the Texas Council on Family Violence to launch a domestic violence high risk team pilot program (DVHRT) in 2017.
This team meets monthly to foster communication between our county’s nonprofits, courts, law enforcement, community services, and hospital systems — all the possible touchpoints of community members who are experiencing this problem.
We all sit down together and compare notes. We add up red flags. We use systematic methods to identify couples at high risk for fatal intimate partner violence, and then we look at trends regarding how our community is addressing these couples. Then we fix the big problems that may lead to homicide.
What we have found is the warning signs are clear when we just communicate.
Our goal is to increase survivor safety through increased involvement in our community’s systemic infrastructure (i.e. successfully prosecuting their offenders, a challenging task given the nature of intimate partner violence).
Our other aim is to hold offenders accountable.
Focusing on proven offender programs
But when I say “accountable,” I have something very specific in mind — definitely not criminalizing the problem even more. And certainly not shaming offenders into compliance.
Short jail stints have little effect. Previous court-mandated offender programs have been short, ineffective, shame-inducing, and highly programmatic — unfortunately akin to something like defensive driving or anger management classes.
While these programs might have addressed the outcomes of the crime, they did not follow proven methods to help offenders explore the root causes of their behavior.
Many years ago, SafeHaven launched PAIP (Partner Abuse Intervention Programs), an accredited 27-week offender program that addresses the complex issue of intimate partner violence.
In 2016, we recommitted to this part of our work. Our program’s census has more than doubled since then and we are administering the program in partnership with our community’s other systems: the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney, judges, and probation, to name a few.
Based on a model out of Duluth, Minnesota, PAIP offers 12 to 20 men a group that gives them real opportunities to change — all while emphasizing accountability for past actions.
By mandating (through our courts system) that offenders take the time and space to examine their actions, PAIP offers offenders a proven and safe environment to explore the why behind their past behaviors.
Through educating offenders about power and control — and how that appears in their relationships — we teach them how to take violence off the table. That’s the goal. So while this is a program that is interventional in nature, it is also preventative with regard to future relationships.
From 2016 to 2018, these changes have helped Tarrant County cut intimate partner homicides by 56 percent. The way I figure it, if we can eliminate intimate partner violence entirely, Tarrant County might not even need a job like mine at all.
We could move on to other causes. My neighbors could surely do without this problem.
And I would be thrilled about it.