Viewpoints: It’s not just about sheltering victims. To break the cycle of violence, we need to attack its sources.
For those of us with a personal connection to domestic violence, the unspeakable Tempe murder-suicide, in which an estranged husband with alleged anger issues drove his family into a lake, feels all too familiar. In the 40 years since domestic violence was called out as a major social issue, not enough has changed in how we as a society respond to families in crisis.
We yearn for a world free from domestic violence. We say, “No more” to men who are violent with family members, and encourage women to remove themselves and their children from dangerous partners. But for the most part, sadly, that’s where things stop.
The domestic violence field has yet to expand the definition of our work to include understanding the roots of domestic violence and developing models for prevention. It is not enough to point the finger at perpetrators. If we truly value families as the essential building block for a successful civilization, we must work together in partnership as a society to strengthen families and communities to protect all members.
What’s at stake
In Arizona the situation is particularly unsafe for women and children. Our state ranks eighth in the number of female deaths by domestic violence homicide. The Phoenix Police Department reports it receives 50,000 calls annually with an estimated 40,000 more incidents going unreported.
Each day, Sojourner Center, one of the oldest and largest domestic violence shelters in the country, is home to more than 190 people. We know that for all the passion and commitment Sojourner’s staff brings to transforming the lives of these women and children, we are only addressing the tip of the iceberg of those impacted by domestic violence in our community.
As CEO of Sojourner Center, I am focused on addressing systemic care gaps that academic research has uncovered. We are expanding the traditional shelter model, transforming care with a 360-degree approach that looks at domestic violence as a public-health issue encompassing law, culture, public health, mental health and more.
Domestic violence costs the U.S. some $8.3 billion annually in health costs and lost productivity. By asking deeper questions to understand the complexity of this issue, we can address its root causes. Sojourner Center and our counterparts locally and across the nation can make significant progress toward a world free from domestic violence.
Filling gaps in care
Through local partnerships with the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix campus, Northern Arizona University’s Family Violence Institute, Arizona State University, CACTIS Foundation, and other national partners, we are building programs to offer more robust services for those who need it.
My mother suffered head trauma repeatedly by my father and eventually died from sustained brain injuries. Witnessing what happened to my mother inspired me to explore the connection between domestic violence and traumatic brain injury. In fact, research shows that more than 90 percent of women in shelters suffered a blow to the head caused by their partners.
The perpetrators of domestic violence often were victims of domestic violence themselves. Some want help to control irrational, violent rages, like my father, but it was not available or offered to him. To stop this public-health epidemic, we must reach the perpetrators, encouraging them to get meaningful assistance for psychological and possible physical issues underlying their violence and rage.
I know the generational cycle of domestic violence can be broken, because it happened in my family. My siblings and I worked to overcome the damaging effects of growing up with horrific domestic violence.
The cycle can be broken if the children are helped. At Sojourner, we now offer personalized care for children, from coping mechanisms to academic tutoring. We invite the greater community to join us in helping women as well as helping our fathers, our husbands, our brothers and our children.
As meaningful as these initiatives are, the domestic violence field is just scratching the surface. Next April, Sojourner will convene a national symposium in Phoenix entitled A World Free From Domestic Violence: Moving the Conversation, bringing scholars and providers together to explore the frontiers of the domestic violence issue.
The transformation of the domestic violence field from its traditional, 40-year focus on shelter to a focus on prevention is long overdue. We welcome all of Arizona into that process.
Dr. Maria E. Garay-Serratos is chief executive officer of Sojourner Center in Phoenix.