Q&A: The Evolution of Domestic Violence

In this interview, we are focusing Unsheltered Voices on the evolution of domestic violence and highlighting how the landscape has changed over the last two decades. Nathaniel M. Fields is the C.E.O. of URI and the Center Against Domestic Violence and has over 20 years of experience working in the DV space. Read on for a Q&A with Nathaniel to learn more about URI and the work we do to uplift families impacted by domestic violence.

Tell us about why you got involved in the field of domestic violence?

I’ve been working in the field of domestic violence since 1996. I love the work of helping people meet their full potential. I grew up in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, and I knew a lot of people who faced difficult circumstances; some were able to push forward and meet their goals, but a lot were not. Those who did had people in their corner, stable housing and felt safe in their environment. We often take these things for granted when we have them, but we all need these things to thrive.

What are some of the most significant changes you have seen since you began working in the field of domestic violence?

One of the most significant shifts is that we are listening to the victims of domestic violence more than we have in the past. When I first started, it was more like we were the experts telling people what to do. Today we understand that it is the survivors who are the experts; they have the best sense of what they need to live safely, heal and rebuild their lives.

How has this impacted your work?

For URI, this has led to a more holistic approach — one that involves more than just providing shelter. Our services and programs have become more responsive to the individual needs of victims. Our PALS program — People and Animals Living Safely — is an example of that. When we learned that one of the reasons people delay leaving an abusive situation is that they don’t want to leave their pet behind, we realized how important it was to create co-sheltering facilities. We now have three shelters where victims and their pets can take refuge and safely heal, together–and soon a fourth.

We also have expanded the support services we provide to include individual and group counseling, support services for children, financial literacy, legal support, and help to find long-term housing. From the moment a client enters one our shelters, we start working with them to identify what services they need and build a plan together that focuses on their safety, healing, and moving forward with identifiable goals.

Would you say the definition or interpretation of domestic violence has changed over the last two decades?

Yes, particularly for those working in the field of domestic violence. One person can have power over another through a variety of negative tactics, not just physical violence. The reality is that many individuals are controlled without violence. It is intimidation and psychological, verbal, and emotional abuse that’s just as profound.

One area that URI is now focusing on is economic abuse. Many people don’t recognize financial abuse as a form of control. But without money, decent credit, a work history, and an understanding of personal finances, a victim can feel they have no way to escape an abusive situation — even without physical intimidation. While this doesn’t leave bruises, it threatens a victim’s independence and choices. So we offer credit counseling, financial literacy, and job training so that our clients have the tools they need to be financially independent.

There can also be paralyzing intimidation, especially among those who may be undocumented or who are not permanent residents. The threat of being turned in to the authorities is terrifying, and if children are involved, the threat of separation is unbearable and may prevent a victim from seeking help.

We hear from so many survivors, “I can eventually heal from the physical aspects of domestic violence, but it takes so much more time to deal with the psychological and emotional impact of domestic violence.”

Has there been a shift in thinking about domestic abuse as something that impacts individuals to something that has broader societal consequences?

There is an understanding today that domestic violence is an entrenched social ill that demands a comprehensive public response, one that requires government, law enforcement, the justice system, health facilities, schools, and those of us working directly with victims to operate in a coordinated manner.

This understanding has led to things such as training for those in law enforcement to recognize signs of domestic abuse and learn how to intervene. We’ve seen stronger protection policies and policy language expand to cover not just a husband and wife, but broader and more inclusive definitions.

We are doing more work around prevention, increasing public awareness through general campaigns, understanding and addressing intergenerational abuse, and implementing school-based programs that teach kids what a healthy home environment and a healthy relationship look like.

We’ve started to look at how we heal the offender as well. While accountability needs to be at the center of the work with offenders, we realize that all abusive partners are not the same. We should be present for those who have a desire to change behaviors. If we’re truly thinking about ending intimate partner abuse we have to work with offenders to help them understand their issues to enable them to stop the abuse.

Have we changed our understanding of who is at risk for domestic abuse?

There is a broader understanding that domestic abuse affects more than just women. It could be a same-sex couple, an elderly parent, and child, or a male abused by a female. Members of the LGBTQ community are especially vulnerable to domestic abuse. With this recognition comes new challenges, and we need to make sure we are serving these populations as well.

Where do you think we stand regarding public awareness about domestic violence?

I think that domestic violence has started to come out of the shadows, though it still needs a much brighter light shined on it. As a culture we remain too tolerant of it, victims remain too afraid to leave, friends and relatives are too hesitant to get involved.

There is no doubt though that the domestic violence is more prevalent in our public discourse than it was two decades ago, and that resources for victims are more accessible. I think we’ve made small steps to say this is not going to be accepted and there are going to be consequences. Obviously, there is more work to do.

Why is it so hard to move public attitudes about domestic violence?

I think part of the problem is that people are not necessarily aware of their preconceptions and attitudes. You pick up cues regarding what society has told you about gender relationships and sometimes, regardless of your sexual orientation, you can be a part of the engine that maintains the status quo without even realizing it. And our systems often reinforce that.

As an example, when someone goes to a precinct to get an order of protection, and the police officer is doubting what they are saying or coming off as unsympathetic — it is a big problem. That officer may have been shaped by the views of his family, his community, and as a result, the victim might be dissuaded from pursuing protection. When a victim feels failed by the people who are meant to protect them, the system falls apart. So that is why training and education are absolutely critical — to increase individual awareness and help people think differently about the issue.

What keeps you up at night?

When you look at violent crime in New York City, New York State and across the country at large, the numbers are down. But the number of intimate partner murders remains consistent, and it is still the leading cause of death for women. We need to commit ourselves to finding out why — that is what keeps me up at night.