Janet Carter

(WOMENSENEWS)–Family violence defies simple, one-size-fits-all solutions. But it is clear that current U.S. prevention approaches are not adequate, and in some ways we may be heading in the wrong direction.

In his State of the Union speech last week, for instance, President Bush promoted marriage without mentioning any related initiatives on domestic violence. But coercing women into marriage without taking steps to protect themand their children from abuse is reckless anddangerous.

Certainly, we have seen some progress in the last few decades. The issue has come out of the shadows and more communities have begun to grapple with family violence and its consequences. More police officers take the issue seriously, more judges have been educated about the dynamics of abuse, more courts have improved procedures for handling family violence, more media cover the issue responsibly and, as a result, more women are seeking support and services.

We need to do even more to support victims. It is imperative, for instance, to ensure that women who want to leave violent homes have access to affordable housing. A recent report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors concluded that domestic violence is a primary cause of homelessness in nine cities across the county. That needs to change.

At the same time we improve services for victims, we need to find better ways to send the message that we will not tolerate abuse. To date, we have put nearly all our energy and resources into punishing batterers and helping victims. Police and courts step in after violent incidents have occurred. Shelters and other programs aid battered women and their children after they have experienced violence. And lawmakers look for ways to enhance penalties for batterers after they commit violent crimes, rather than looking for ways to prevent violence before it occurs.

To make real progress in ending abuse, much more of our collective energy and resources should focus on a different phase of the problem. We should be doing more to stop violence before it starts–by teaching the next generation of boys that violence against women is always wrong; by implementing dating violence education in schools; and by encouraging parents, teachers, coaches and other adults to speak with children and teens about abuse.

New results from one of the longest running and most respected mental health studies ever conducted confirm the need for earlier and better interventions in violent households. New data from the study, by The Simmons School of Social Work in Boston, Mass., should serve as a wake-up call to policy makers, social service systems and communities about the need to focus more on prevention strategies.

Researchers running the Simmons’ 25-year study of nearly 400 Massachusetts residents reported last week that family conflict and violence take a heavier toll on teens’ mental health than marital disruption, divorce or separation. Male teens exposed to family conflict and violence over the years were significantly more likely than other males to have suicidal thoughts, be depressed, have emotional and behavioral problems, be drug dependent or have post-traumatic stress disorder, researchers reported. Girls from violent homes had higher rates of alcohol problems and lower grades when they graduated from high school than girls who did not experience conflict or violence in their homes.

Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the study confirms what domestic violence and child welfare workers have long known: Growing up in a violent home takes a terrible toll on children and teens and can cause serious, long-lasting harm.

Millions of Children Raised in Violent Homes

Today millions of children in this country do grow up in violent homes. Nearly one-third of U.S. women (31 percent) report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives, according to The Commonwealth Fund, a New York-based foundation that supports independent research on health and social issues. Often, children witness or experience the abuse. In addition to mental health problems, children who grow up in violent homes can develop physical health problems that last a lifetime. And some research shows that they are more likely than other children to become victims or perpetrators of abuse.

These grim statistics make it clear that our response to domestic violence must improve if we are to curb a problem so entrenched, costly and complex. To that end, the Family Violence Prevention Fund recommends four approaches:

Empower individuals and communities to stop violence.
Experience has taught us that neighbors, colleagues and friends can do a tremendous amount to sanction batterers and support victims. We need more involvement from men, who can talk to other men and boys and tell them that violence is unacceptable. The Family Violence Prevention Fund’s groundbreaking Coaching Boys Into Men campaign run jointly with The Advertising Council was the first national campaign ever to invite men to help stop domestic violence by encouraging them to teach boys that violence against women is wrong. It was just the beginning. Individuals and communities can tell batterers their behavior is unacceptable, help battered women develop safety plans for themselves and their children, and help social service agencies identify the children and teens most in need. We can all help stop the family violence that pervades and shapes so many children’s lives.

Improve the response of courts and social service agencies.
Programs and courts that address just one form of violence or abuse are less effective than those that take a multi-faceted approach. Child welfare workers are trained to address the needs of the child, while domestic violence workers look first at the needs of the battered mother. Few programs understand how to address both problems at once. The Family Violence Department at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges is working with select communities to improve the response to family violence, but change will take time. We need to accelerate the pace of change, and reform a court system that is uncoordinated, inefficient and too often fails those who urgently need its help.

Invest much more in prevention.
The Family Violence Prevention Fund is gathering sponsors for a new program in the Violence Against Women Act, which Congress will begin writing later this year. It will provide funds for intervention and services for children growing up in violent homes and for the young families that are at greatest risk for violence. It will provide monies to develop, test and implement programs to help boys and young men across the nation learn to develop healthy, nonviolent relationships, with public education targeting boys. And it will train workers at Head Start, after-school and other programs to identify, aid and refer families experiencing violence to those who can help. We all need to tell Congress to make prevention a priority.

Reject programs designed to promote marriage.
The Simmons study underscores the harm that family violence causes children. It suggests that staying in a violent relationship may harm children more than divorce. Governments and communities need to help battered mothers become self-sufficient and live free of violence; not coerce them into abusive relationships through financial incentives or guilt. Lawmakers should pay attention to the Simmons study and reject the Administration’s $1.5 billion marriage promotion initiative.

This work will take time, but it is critically important. Change will mean safer families, stronger communities and a healthier society.

Janet Carter is vice president of the Family Violence Prevention Fund.

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