Everybody's Business: Revealing the Public Impact of Domestic Violence

By Maryann Teale Snell

For generations it was deemed a private matter. But over the last couple of decades domestic violence has been increasingly exposed as the societal malady it is. Those who work in the field, and those who know or are themselves the victims, say it’s about time.

A Harris Poll conducted in 2006 found that 63 percent of Americans (72 percent of women and 54 percent of men) believe domestic violence to be a serious problem in the United States. The U.S. Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control estimate that nearly 25 percent of women and 7 percent of men have been raped or assaulted by a current or former partner. And considering there’s still a stigma in reporting domestic violence, it’s safe to say that those numbers may run even higher.

Some Vassar grads, including Linda Fairstein ’69 and Dede Thompson Bartlett ’65, have committed their careers to keeping the issue of domestic violence in the public eye and to finding solutions to curb its widespread and devastating effects. Awareness and education, they say, are critical.

During 30 years with the Manhattan district attorney’s office, including 25 as head of its sex-crimes unit, Fairstein fought to change archaic laws and attitudes that made it difficult to hold offenders accountable. In New York in the early 1970s, for instance, corroboration was required for prosecution, and a victim had to prove she’d offered “earnest resistance,” even if her attacker had been armed and had threatened to kill her. Societal attitudes at the time were just as bad, Fairstein says; many people still believed that rape was victim-precipitated. Since leaving her prosecutorial post in 2002 she’s stayed active in addressing violence against women, training and teaching across the country. She’s also the best-selling author of a crime series, which she says serves a dual purpose of entertaining and educating about domestic-violence issues. Her tenth novel, Killer Heat, debuted at #5 on the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover fiction in March 2008.

Linda Fairstein
Linda Fairstein
Bartlett chairs the advisory board of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and lectures on many college campuses — including Vassar’s — about domestic violence and dating abuse. As vice president of Altria (the former Philip Morris Companies) she developed award-winning domestic violence-awareness programs, including a multimillion-dollar philanthropic program to fund domestic violence agencies and sponsored more than 40 conferences on domestic violence prevention in the United States, Europe, Central America, and Australia.

In 1996 Bartlett and Fairstein convened the first Corporate Conference on Domestic Violence, drawing together a group of experts to speak about the specific needs domestic violence presents to the business community in terms of security, health and medical care, and productivity. Domestic violence is an issue that quite literally encroaches on the American workplace: the Family Violence Prevention Fund reported in 1998 that nearly three-quarters of employed battered women were harassed by their partners while they were at work. That’s predictable behavior, Bartlett says, yet the business community still isn’t fully prepared to deal with such situations, either practically or as a matter of corporate policy: a survey by Liz Claiborne and Safe Horizon, the country’s largest victim-advocacy program (on whose board Fairstein serves), reported that only 13% of corporate executives think companies should address the problem, yet 84% of employees think corporations should be part of the solution.

In the course of her efforts to increase domestic violence awareness in the corporate world, Fairstein found “pretty much an across-the-board refusal to acknowledge or understand that there was any reason for corporations to become involved in this issue.” Some national corporations headquartered in New York (including Altria, Liz Claiborne, and Phillips-Van Heusen) did “step up to the plate and begin to embrace this issue and do something about it — not only with money, but educationally. Through public awareness, research, education, and training, Safe Horizon’s national initiative SafeWork has helped affiliate companies to address domestic violence in the workplace.

“There needs to be corporate involvement,” Fairstein says, especially when it comes to training smaller organizations. “The reality is that many people all over this country work at little mom-and-pop operations where there’s no security, no HR department to go to.” Bartlett says even at smaller workplaces where there are limited
resources, “there are easy and inexpensive steps that can be taken” to make them more secure—posting brochures in bathrooms, for example, that include warning signs of domestic violence and phone numbers where people can get help.

Businesses also need to be aware that victims of domestic violence not infrequently need both medical care as well as counseling to address long-lasting psychological wounds, Bartlett notes. And when it comes to productivity, companies should consider that someone who is being physically and emotionally abused is “living under tremendous stress and cannot be spending 100 percent of her time
effectively on the job working.” A 2003 study by the Centers for Disease Control estimated that violence against women cost companies nearly $730 million annually in lost productivity.

Effective law enforcement has been another area of concern for domestic violence-victim advocates. “The criminal justice system was as late as anybody” to address domestic violence, Fairstein says—in large part because it was viewed as a private issue. “In the courts it would be, you know, ‘Go home and work this out between yourselves,’ and offenders were not in general considered a risk to the rest of society. There was very little effort to treat these guys seriously in the criminal justice system. That began to change in the ’80s.”

Dede Bartlett
Dede Bartlett
Historically, police responding to domestic violence calls would arrest both the perpetrator and the victim at the scene, Bartlett says. But now, with more extensive training, they are “better able to judge who is the real perpetrator.” Still, “there is nothing uniform about domestic violence laws or the training of police from state to state, or even within states,” Bartlett says. “There are some police who are terrific, and in the next town over, they are sorely lacking.”

The same is sometimes true in the courtroom as well, she adds. Besides needing to be fully briefed on domestic violence law, judges need to understand the psychology of the crime — or even in some cases, Bartlett believes, the fact that domestic violence is a crime. Judicial training gets at “the dynamic of domestic violence, so judges don’t, for instance, order an abusive man and his victimized wife into court-mandated counseling sessions together. That’s a recipe for disaster; but unless you’ve been trained, you might not know that.”

A better solution — albeit still not foolproof one — is sending abusers to treatment programs, Bartlett suggests. “Most people in law enforcement and social services agree that the average court-mandated 26-week treatment program is not always adequate. We need to develop more effective programs and implement them more broadly. And we need the political will to enact them.” There are a few inspired programs out there, she says, but not many—and they can be expensive.

“I think probably even the worst batterer-treatment programs are better than nothing,” Fairstein says. “A handful of guys will never change their ways, but there are men who have been treated and have resumed relationships successfully.” How effective a program is depends on many factors, she notes, including “how it’s operated, who’s in charge of it, and whether defendants are there because they sincerely want to make an effort to change”—or because their participation ensures an early release from jail.

Bartlett says, “Frankly, when you get a batterer at a certain point, the odds of changing his behaviors are slim.” That’s why she’s a big proponent of school intervention programs that educate children early on—even preschool age—about topics ranging from anger management to bullying and teen-dating violence. “When you teach youngsters that fists and name-calling are not solutions,” she says, “positive character development happens.”

When she began this work 12 years ago, Bartlett was “as ignorant as the average American” about domestic violence. Now the topic is covered in every major section of most mainstream newspapers, she says, “and more than half of all Americans know someone who has been a victim. It affects our entire society, and everybody pays the price. When you look at the effect on children living in abusive households and realize they are 24 times more likely to commit sexual-assault crimes, 74 times more likely to commit crimes against someone else, and six times more likely to commit suicide, you begin to understand the staggering costs of this problem. Everyone —men and women and all sectors of society —needs to address domestic violence.”

There is still resistance, Fairstein says, from people who are willing to separate batterers’ violent behavior from their other conduct. “You’ll often hear, whether it’s in the courtroom or the corporation or among friends of these people, ‘I can’t believe it, Charlie’s such a good guy, he’s got a great job.’ I do a lot of lecturing on this, and when I’m talking to a group of academics or lawyers about domestic violence, I bring a clippings file of cases, from all over the country, in which the man who killed his wife was a lawyer, a judge, a doctor. So many of the offenders, unlike strangers, are middle-class or upper-middle-class, are educated, have good jobs. People view them as not criminal in traditional senses, because it’s not a street crime.”

Protecting victims of domestic violence is paramount, Fairstein says. “When women are attacked by men they don’t know, there’s absolutely no ambivalence about what they want to see happen to the offender. They want the law applied, they want punishment, they want him put behind bars. But there is often tremendous ambivalence in a domestic violence case. The victim may say she feels safe when her partner is not violent. We hear, ‘I do love him; he is the father of my children.’ That’s a dynamic you’ve got to examine: Does she want, despite what’s happened, to try to keep the family intact? Sometimes it’s because of economic dependency; it’s a woman who’s never worked outside the home and knows the violence will continue but doesn’t think she has alternatives to support herself and the children.”

Fairstein believes there’s an obligation, on the part of police and prosecutors, to keep a woman safe, even if she’s resistant to pressing charges. “Most of us in the field know that domestic violence tends to escalate if there’s no intervention. And when a woman says, ‘I don’t want to prosecute,’ that’s when we sometimes consider what we call ‘victimless prosecution’ and prove the case without her…because we see that the next step for her may be losing a limb, or perhaps death. At what point does the state say, ‘You’re not capable of making this decision, we’ve seen you four times now and released him, and you’re back living with him again’? For me the goal — until there is a resolution to the case, which may include a batterer-treatment program — is how do you make her safe?”

The National Domestic Violence Hotline has outlined a number of steps considered necessary in advancing the goal of ending domestic violence by 2016. The principal efforts, Bartlett said, are geared toward developing action programs among key stakeholders such as educators, business people, law enforcement, health services, and the faith community.

Wiping out domestic violence is “nice to think about,” Fairstein agrees, “but we’re very far from getting there. We’ve tried for centuries to eliminate crimes that we’ve talked about a lot more openly than domestic violence. The reality is, there will probably always be some kind of domestic violence. But I expect we’ll make a lot more progress and have many more ways to deal with it, to offer victims options so they don’t remain in abusive situations.”

“The real hope in reducing domestic violence lies in early and continuing intervention in children’s lives through the schools and among [children’s] adult caregivers,” Bartlett stresses. “Reducing bullying is critical,” she says, “because bullies are batterers in training.” New technologies have made the situation especially dire: The Liz Claiborne survey found that 25percent of teens have been threatened by their partners through cell phones and texting — and that 71 percent of parents were not aware of the problem. Bartlett says, “The ‘weaponization’ of technology is a critical issue that touches huge numbers of people. But the good news is that awareness breeds involvement. So when people begin to understand how widespread domestic violence and dating abuse are, when they learn that a best friend or a daughter or the neighbor next door [is a victim of domestic violence], then it becomes personal.”

“One thing that galvanizes me is the hope that I can help a few people,” Bartlett says. “Just one changed life is a powerful motivator.” Fairstein, too, says her victim-advocacy work is more encouraging than not. “It was a very dark world when I got into the criminal justice system in 1972,” she recalls. “And it’s been exciting to witness and participate in its reform.” Hearing victims who have been without hope say they’ve been made safe is “uplifting,” she adds. “For most of us, while the work sounds grim, and the crimes are grim, it’s very fulfilling to be part of making it better.”

— Maryann Teale Snell

Maryann Teale Snell is a writer and editor in Saratoga Springs, New York