The Other Side of Domestic Violence:
Helping Survivors by Working with Their Abusive Partners
An approach to preventing violence that can work, even during a pandemic
by Juan Carlos Areán and Terri Strodthoff
Domestic violence tends to increase during periods of disaster, and the COVID-19 pandemic, by compounding emotional and financial stress with physical confinement, is leading to a tragically predictable rise in reports of domestic violence (DV) around the world. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres calls it “a horrifying surge.” There are troubling indicators that child abuse is also on the rise while families are sheltering in place and 40–60% of men in the U.S. who harm their intimate partners were also found to abuse their children, according to a major NIH study. In light of these increased risks, DV advocates are urgently mobilizing to provide additional support to survivors of DV and their children, now confined at home with their abusers, and isolated from friends, family, co-workers, and teachers, who might be able to help.
It has been much more challenging to develop a coordinated response for abusive partners (who are primarily men, but can be of all genders) to prevent them from harming their families during the pandemic. In the U.S., specialized work with abusive partners is done primarily through psycho-educational groups, known as Battering Intervention Programs (BIPs). These programs tend to rely on the power of courts and child welfare agencies to mandate abusive partners to get help, and some are having a hard time effectively engaging abusive partners, now that courts are barely operational, and treatment groups cannot meet in person. As a result, adult and child survivors are at a much greater risk of being harmed.
In addition to logistical barriers created by the pandemic, the systems-based response, with its emphasis on mandatory participation, is not as effective in communities of color that are adversely impacted by law enforcement. According to a recent Blue Shield of California report, the “punitive approach may actually do more harm than good for some victims,” by forcing survivors to choose between their safety and the integrity of their families and communities as men of color are more likely to be arrested, incarcerated and/or deported.
We have worked on ending domestic violence for decades, specifically in engaging abusive partners to change their behavior. We have experienced systems-based responses, driven by courts, police and child welfare agencies on the one hand, and responses that are relational, trauma-informed and culturally relevant on the other, that rely on the power of human connection, including family, friends, and community of the abusive partner, and of their adult and child survivors. Our deep experience shows that both approaches — systemic and relational — have to be balanced, in order for abusive partners to effectively change their behavior. Personal accountability and volition are crucial, as are clear consequences for continuing to engage in abusive behaviors.
The great majority of people who attend BIPs in the U.S. are mandated by a judge, but given disruptions to court operations, some programs are now offering optional and free services, meeting by video and audio conferencing, and allowances are being made for abusive partners unable to participate due to technical or privacy constraints.
Interestingly, programs that already espouse a relational, trauma-informed, and culturally-relevant approach report that about 80–90 percent of participants have voluntarily joined the remote groups so far, and that they appreciate the support and are eager to connect with others, struggling with similar stressors brought on by the pandemic. As expressed by Matt, a participant in the Alma Center BIP in Milwaukee, “We are all in this class for a reason, and we could really use some guidance in our relationships right now. This is rough, and I don’t really know what to do. Talking helps, it simply helps.”
In the U.K., the nonprofit Respect runs a dedicated hotline for men who use violence. Calls have increased 96 percent since the COVID-19 crisis began, and email and chat queries are up by more than 200 percent, according to the CEO Jo Todd. There is not a comparable dedicated line in the U.S. for abusive partners, but the National Domestic Violence Hotline usually receives a sizable number of calls from abusive men looking for support to stop their violent behavior. The advocates who staff the hotline usually refer these cases to local BIPs, although some may not be operational at this point.
These anecdotal reports prompt us to question a paradigm strongly held in the US (though not abroad): that abusive partners will not seek help to stop their abuse on their own, and that they will not attend programs unless they are mandated by a court or child welfare agency. Right now, we have the opportunity to replace this paradigm with a more effective approach. As a field and as a society, we can collectively move towards a better system to work with abusive partners by:
- Challenging the idea that abusive partners will not voluntarily seek help to stop their abuse; developing strategies to engage abusive partners outside the criminal justice system; and looking for guidance in (but not co-opting) approaches developed by communities of color, including community accountability and restorative justice. Here, for example, are resources we developed at Futures Without Violence for family and friends looking for safe ways to offer support, available in English and Spanish.
- Adopting a trauma-informed, culturally relevant framework that includes both a systems response and a relational response to help abusive partners stop their violent behaviors and at the same time, support them to change and heal. Research shows that violence is a learned behavior, and that it can be unlearned.
- Establishing and funding a national helpline for abusive partners, staffed by paid professionals with expertise working with people who use violence.
- Creating federal and state government funding streams to adequately support BIPs, without competing with the funds allocated for survivor services.
Like COVID-19, domestic violence and child abuse are major public health issues with enormous economic consequences. We have the opportunity to explore new approaches that might reduce the violence and its cost, but only if we are willing to invest in them.
Juan Carlos Areán, MM, is a program director at Futures Without Violence, an international social justice and advocacy organization working to prevent violence and to help survivors and communities heal.
Terri Strodthoff, PhD, is the founder and executive director of the Alma Center, a Milwaukee nonprofit organization working to heal, transform and evolve the unresolved pain of trauma that fuels the continuation of cycles of violence, abuse and dysfunction in families and community.