Victims ask this question because it makes sense. If violence is the problem — stopping it is the solution. It is the only way to end domestic violence.
Victims want to know how. There is no easy answer. Partners who batter are different. Some assault, rape, and disrespect their partners and terrify their children. Others use less physically violent means to isolate and dominate. A few are vicious enough to kill.
Some partners who batter do reduce or stop their violence and control. Some do not.
Current interventions to reduce domestic violence are limited. Most are available through the legal system. Too many lack the services and cultural responsiveness often necessary to support a change to non-violent behavior.
Implications for victim-defined advocacy
Learn from the victim about the partner who batters
If you know the partner’s gender use gender-specific language, otherwise begin with gender neutral terms.
- His violent behavior: What does he do? When? Any pattern or any way to predict? Answers to these questions will help you work with the victim to plan safety strategies and to assess both the level of violence and possibility of change.
- His relationship with her and the children: Is he committed to the relationship? How does he treat her? Does he spend time with the children? What does he do with and for the children? What cultural or other influences affect his view of the relationship and his parenting? What is the likelihood of ongoing contact?
- His ability to change: Explore this if she or the children will have contact with him and she’s interested in exploring this possibility. Does she think he could change? Has he tried or promised to change in the past? Did he? What helped him change? What might help him change in the future? Are there influences from his life experience, family, culture that might help him change?
Help the victim assess her partner’s violent behavior and the likelihood he will stop or reduce it
There is still a lot to discover about predicting violence and figuring out which persons who use violence will stop or reduce that behavior. Because it is not yet possible to be certain, advocates might “err on the side of safety” and tell every victim that her partner has the potential to use life-threatening violence and that he won’t change. This unnecessarily limits options for a significant number of victims.
Advocates can help victims develop as complete a view of their partner as possible. Accurate information helps victims make more informed decisions and safety plans. Without offering false hope or wrongly insisting there is no hope for change, advocates can explore with a victim the level of danger she faces from her partner’s violence and the likelihood he’ll change. Does he fit in one or more of the following categories? What are the implications for her and her children?
- His behavior is life-threatening to her or the children
- He might/will change
- He won’t change
Discuss services, interventions, and strategies to change her partner’s behavior, if warranted
It is not a victim’s responsibility to help her partner change, but she may want to him to try. Victims make the decision to explore these options to change a partner. Our job as victim-defined advocates is to make sure that decision is informed and pursued as safely as possible.
This discussion must be informed by the assessment of her partner’s behavior and likelihood of change. A discussion about changing behavior is relevant even if a victim leaves her partner, as most victims have some contact with an ex-partner and their children are likely to continue their relationship with their father. Even minor changes can make life better for victims and their children.
Implementation and safety issues must be part of the discussion
- His violent behavior: What does she think it will take for him to change? What options exist? Are involuntary options, such as mandated intervention programs for those who batter a good fit for him? Who or what would influence him? How will his culture and life experience be valued in the change process?
- His parenting: What would make him a better parent? Why? What does she think it will take for him to make that change? Are there domestic violence responsive fatherhood/parenting services available?
- His circumstances: What other changes might make things better for her and the children? (and for him?) Is he able to work? If so, does he need a chance to work or get a better job? Are there substance use, mental health, or trauma issues that he is struggling with? Are there other issues that keep him from being the partner she wants him to be or the parent the children need him to be?
Plan how to safely implement the strategies for change
Some partners who batter are not open to change or services. Some of those who batter will attack and retaliate if their partner even suggests change is needed. There are also those who are less closed and some who want to be better partners and parents.
How the strategies are implemented will affect safety and likelihood of use.
- Voluntary or involuntary: Must he choose to go? Can/should he be forced to go? For example, the criminal legal system might force intervention. Other pressures might come from family members, faith institutions, employer, or even from a victim who might require an effort to change if she is going to stay in the relationship.
- The messenger: Who can deliver the message and be safe? Can it be the victim? Who will be the most effective/influential to her partner?
- What: Which strategy should come first? What interventions and services? How will victims and their children be protected? Who will pay for them? Does the strategy support positive cultural models relevant to his life experience and family?
Develop plans to keep victims and children safe while implementing strategies to change an partner/parent who batters
- Inform: How does the strategy/program work? Who runs it? Where is it? How long? Will they contact the victim? Will the victim get information about her partner’s participation?
- Test for success: How will she decide if it is working? Is his participation making things better for her and the children? Is it making things worse? How?
- Safety options: What can she do if it gets worse? How will she and the children escape if there is life-threatening danger? How can she emotionally support the children?
Collaborate with programs and people that work with those who batter
We need to learn more about those who batter, about assessing the violence and likelihood of change, what gets them to change, and what services are available in our communities. Because those who batter interact with a range of services and institutions, these resources are not just limited to current “batterer intervention programs.” Seek out others who understand and effectively respond to domestic violence issues. You may find them in responsible fatherhood programs, employment initiatives, parenting education efforts, prison and re-entry efforts, faith institutions, culturally specific programs, substance use interventions, clinical/mental health treatment, and elsewhere in the community.
Victim-defined systemic advocacy implications
As we approach systemic advocacy for all victims, we must hold the full spectrum of violence and the diversity of victims’ experiences.
As we seek systemic means to reduce or stop violence we must listen to victims. We’ll hear conflicting views. Some see their partners as cruel, frightening monsters who will not change. The intervention they seek is separation and protection. Others see good in their partners and know if they could just talk to someone or get some help that things would be better. Some victims want their partners to be punished, to pay for the harm and destruction they’ve caused. Other victims, particularly victims of color and those of marginalized groups, may be concerned that systems will treat their partners and their families unfairly. These concerns are often greatest in the systems with the most direct impact on families, such as the criminal legal system, child protection, and child support enforcement.
- Improve current methods to assess violence: How can we more accurately know the level of violence a person will use? Are there methods that can be used relying on information only from the victim? Are there methods that can be accurately used by anyone with some training?
- Improve current methods to determine which partners who batter will change and what makes them change: What information do we need to assess likelihood of change? What assessment can we accurately make from information we receive from the victim? How are those who batter different from each other? What pushes and supports change for those who use violence and abuse? How can we know?
- Continue to evaluate current interventions to reduce/stop violent behavior: What effects do interventions have? With which groups of those who batter? Are some interventions making things worse for victims and their children? Which ones and how?
- Carefully and safely develop and test new interventions and services to reduce or stop violent behavior: What strategies offer promise worth evaluating?
- Promote expansion of interventions and services to reduce/stop violent behavior: This might include both domestic violence specific programs and adding violence reduction components to other efforts. How do we balance the use of limited resources to ensure that victims’ needs are met through direct services as well as programs designed to stop/reduce the violence behavior of their partners?
- Collaborate with programs and people that work with those who batter: Victims will benefit if we work with all the people and harness all the resources interested in ending domestic violence. Because those who batter interact with a range of services and institutions, these resources are not just limited to current “batterer intervention programs.” Seek out others who will be willing to understand and effectively respond to domestic violence issues. You may find them in responsible fatherhood programs, employment initiatives, parenting education efforts, prison and re-entry efforts, faith institutions, culturally specific programs, substance use interventions, clinical/mental health treatment, and elsewhere in the community.
- Support public awareness, media campaigns that seek to reduce violence: What messages work? For which groups of partners who batter? Which messages work to prevent battering before it starts? How should those messages be delivered?
Understanding what victims in your community think
Understanding victims’ needs and perspectives is the foundation of victim-defined advocacy. If you don’t know what victims in your community think, you aren’t victim-defined.
How: There is a wide range of ways to gather and analyze information. Do not let the process or time keep you from finding out what victims think. Just ask! Ask a specific question at intake, or during support groups, or as part of community outreach. You might also ask advocates and others who regularly work with victims what they are hearing. Gather information from as many victims as possible, those you regularly serve and those you don’t. Know who is missing from your data. Is it women of color, immigrants, victims living in poverty, LGBT victims or another marginalized group? Make an effort to find out what they think.
Then think and talk about what you’re hearing. Information about specific victims used in this process should be generalized to protect their safety and privacy. If resources are available conduct formal research, inquire about a broader range of issues, or track information over a longer term. Do what you can, but do something.
What to ask victims about reducing or stopping violence: Ask what is relevant to the priorities and context of your advocacy. Ask some open-ended questions that will give you information about your assumptions and plans. Do victims think your priority and plan would work for them? What do they think you should do?
Sample questions to help you frame the ones you’ll ask: Do they think their partner might change? Why do they think so? What do they think would help their partner change for the better? What would make him a better partner? What would make him a better parent? What have they tried that has worked? What didn’t work? Why? What safety strategies and protections do they need as they wait for change? What would make things worse?
“I need them (men who batter) to get some counseling. I need them to get some education. I need them to understand that domestic violence is more than just what you see it as, whether it is physical or mental. It has to do with how you think about yourself, it has to do with your upbringing, it has to do with all those other root issues…you’ve got some good men that go down that domestic violence pathway because of how they were socialized.” - African American Victim From Center for Family Policy and Practice Listening Sessions, 2009