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Combatting Domestic Violence: One Size Doesn't Fit All

More than one in three women in the United States will experience physical violence, rape or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetimes.

Tell Me More guest host Celeste Headlee spoke with Oliver Williams, a professor of social work who heads the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African-American Community at the University of Minnesota. He also co-authored the book, Parenting by Men Who Batter: New Directions for Assessment and Intervention.

Joining them was Michelle Kaminsky of the Domestic Violence Bureau in Brooklyn, New York who authored the book, Reflections of a Domestic Violence Prosecutor: Suggestions for Reform.

Over the past decades, Kaminsky says, there's been tremendous improvement in how we deal with domestic violence. "We have mandatory arrest laws in New York and in many states where the police have to go out and make an arrest. It used to be a time when the police would respond to a call of domestic violence and they would tell the offender to go take a walk around the block. But there's still a lot of work that needs to be done."

Both Kaminksy and Williams say that the cultural attitudes that lead to violence against women still need to change.

Interview Highlights

On cultural attitudes toward women

Oliver Williams: I interview groups of batterers and the perspectives about African American batterers, were, and I think, men in general too, were that they tended to see women like they saw children. And they felt like they had a responsibility to discipline children, therefore also felt like they had a responsibility to discipline the wife because they didn't see the status as being very very different. And if you have guys that are involved in gangs, the guys that are involved in street-level crimes, there's an attitude that they have towards other men but there's also attitudes they have towards women. And that women shouldn't cross the line and there are also lines that men can't cross.

But there's a perspective in terms of how they look at women, and what I think, is the fact that you have to look at the brand of sexism that men manifest with different women. I think it's different in Latino communities, I think it's different African communities, because there's a cultural perspective about women and women's roles particularly in the 56 different countries in Africa. And I think it's true in Native American communities and South Asian and Arab communities and you have to really understand how they see women and how they respond to women.

On asking why women stay

Michele Kaminsky: It puts the blame on the woman. I'm saying woman, we see male victims of domestic violence, but just, you know, the vast majority of the victims coming in are women. But it puts the blame back on the woman. She becomes the problem instead of the batterer who's committing the offenses the offenses against her.

On alternatives to prosecution

Williams: I'm for prosecution of men or women who are abusive. The thing for me is, though, that that should not be the only path. I think that we have to find other ways to be able to reach high risk people who are being abusive earlier on. Because what you get is the people that you catch, not the people who have been repeatedly, consistently being abusive to a partner over a period of time. You might miss folks. And so if you can have a process to be able to engage people through community services, through churches - churches that understand and are willing to approach domestic violence and include it as part of their ministry. And there are several churches that do a really good job of that. I think that's a way to be able to engage people.

On moving forward case-by-case

Kaminsky: If a woman is calling 911 for help, and the police respond, the police should be making an arrest if a crime has been committed. It's once the case is turned over to the district attorney's office. And what I try to show in my book by using different cases is that not every case should necessarily go forward with criminal prosecution. That there's a way to work out - we have to look at ways - the specifics of the case and see that maybe criminal prosecution isn't the right thing to be doing with that case. In terms of speaking with the women, finding out what their wants and needs are, looking at the history of abuse in the relationship. Because not every case you have a long history of abuse.

So I think you have to look at multiple factors, if there are lethality factors present, if there have been weapons in the home, if the offender has a criminal record. We really have to have an individual approach to the cases instead of a one-size-fits-all approach as to how we're handling them. That's what I think is really critical and what I wanted to get across in the book. That you can't just look at - we have a national policy that focuses heavily on criminalization of domestic violence but the majority of women don't want to go forward with criminal charges so we have to start acknowledging that and say what can we do if our goals are about accountability and safety - how do we hold offenders accountable and more importantly, how do we keep women safe? Just prosecuting a case doesn't necessarily translate that we're going to be keeping women safer.

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