Sunday, February 04, 2007

Community develops local approach to fight domestic violence

With our attention riveted on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the horrific genocide in Dafur and Rwanda, we sometimes become blind to the violence taking place right down the street, around the corner or in the homes of our families and friends. Domestic violence is a serious and growing problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control domestic violence is a serious, preventable public health problem affecting more than 32 million Americans -- more than 10% of the U.S. population. Dissatisfied with institutional responses to pleas for help, residents in one Boston neighborhood sought other options. They have organized and have developed local responses to domestic violence. (GW)

Close to Home: A Community Development Response to Domestic Violence

By Kris Herbst

In 1998, Aimee Thompson began visiting civic association meetings in Boston, Massachusetts where city police officers presented reports about local domestic violence. She expected "that when people heard this information, there would be a lively discussion—that people would really want to do something about domestic violence—because that is the response when people are talking about issues like street lights and potholes," she said.

Instead, "I was met with silence. It's such a hard issue to talk about. There is a lot of shame related to this issue. It really makes people uncomfortable and afraid because they aren't quite sure what to do."

Despite efforts to address domestic violence by police, criminal justice and social service agencies, on average more than three women are murdered every day in the United States by their husbands or boyfriends, and nearly one-third of U.S. women (31 percent) report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives. Around the world, at least one in every three women has been abused or coerced into sex during her lifetime.

Thompson believes that the power and responsibility for intervening and treating domestic violence cannot be relegated solely to institutions. Rather she works to engage family members, friends and neighbors—who are typically the first to hear about domestic violence problems—in efforts to respond to violence and prevent it.

In 2002, she founded Close to Home, a nonprofit organization that provides resources and training for communities' informal social and kinship networks—family members, friends and neighbors—so they can deal with domestic violence and begin changing social norms to prevent it. "After those early civic meetings, it became clear people weren't ready to talk about domestic violence in a large setting because the meetings were too big," she said. "It wasn't a safe place to start talking about this issue, so we decided to try smaller settings."

"Part of the work has been figuring out, how do you talk to a neighbor that has experienced domestic violence that you don't really know that that well? How do you build that relationship and trust so the conversation can be there? How do you talk to a family member? At what point is it important to get involved?

"It's not easy—it's hard to see domestic violence in the lives of people we love, and it touches a very intimate space. What if they reject my offer for support or get angry? What if somebody retaliates? What if I do the wrong thing? What if nothing changes? I think these are legitimate fears."

Learning to talk about these issues, safely for all concerned, is important because "it begins to create some social accountability around this, so that peers begin to say, 'That is not OK. That is not acceptable, and we are going to support you in thinking more critically about your behavior.' Part of the reason domestic abuse is so challenging and hurtful is because it is such a secret. I think there is tremendous healing in talking and building community around that."

Close to Home invites groups of eight to ten friends, neighbors or family members to gather around someone's kitchen table for dinner, or in a church basement, to have a structured conversation about domestic violence. "Believe it or not, the conversations about this topic have been energizing and fun because so many people have a direct or indirect experience with this and it has been a really positive and healing experience to finally have a place where they can talk about it," Thompson said.

"I did a survey of the local civic associations and 40 percent of the people that attended them knew someone living with domestic violence, which I'm sure is lower than the actual number."

Making Connections to Root Causes

Thompson, age 31, began to think about the limitations of institutional responses to domestic violence when she was in college and was serving as a mentor to two children, who were affected by violence in their communities. "I started to realize that any role that I could play as outsider to their family and community was limited," she said. For Thompson, this experience also crystallized an awareness of how domestic violence had affected multiple generations of her own family.

Studying in Jerusalem for a year during college, Thompson volunteered to set up an arts and crafts program at an East Jerusalem residential center treating Palestinian refugee children with cerebral palsy. "In their art work, the children were struggling to make meaning of their own experiences with political and domestic violence in really profound ways," she said. "I began to see the broader picture and the structural issues that were playing into the violence a little more clearly."

In the summer of 1995, she was a project manager for Boston Freedom Summer, a community-organizing project that developed leadership in youth to prevent youth violence in Dorchester, the largest neighborhood in Boston. "The young people that I was working with were celebrated as stellar volunteers and future community leaders," she said. "It was a very exciting time."

However, the following fall, one of the boys on her team was convicted of participating in a brutal gang rape, and one of the girls came to Thompson asking for help because her father was molesting her. Thompson and her colleagues had seen no indication that the boy was capable of such violent behavior. The girl, formerly a straight "A" student, became involved in a relationship with a much older man, became pregnant and dropped out of school.

"This was a wake up call for me," Thompson said. "We had prided ourselves on doing all of this great youth violence prevention work that summer . . . but what was happening in these young people's homes ended up undermining all of the great skill-building and leadership that we had done with them.

This was also "a huge formative moment, leading me in the direction of Close to Home," Thompson said, because she realized that community organizers and community development programs were not addressing the problem of domestic violence. "Those issues are so inextricably connected, but people weren't making these connections, either in their discourse or in their practice," she said.

Close to Home's first "kitchen table" group was convened in 2000 by a woman who invited a small group of friends and neighbors. "It was an amazing conversation because a number of the women in the group had experienced domestic violence and had known each other for 20 years, but they had never talked about this," Thompson said.

"So there was a really profound sense of people connecting around their shared experience of domestic violence. They were removing these walls of silence about violence that had surrounded parts of each of their lives."

Creative new ideas emerge from the kitchen table discussions—"that's what's really exciting about this," Thompson said. For example, a conversation group recently discussed involving landlords by putting a "no domestic violence" clause in rent contracts.

"This is not necessarily an idea we want to pursue, but it provides an example of the kind of brainstorming that occurs," Thompson said. "A lease would provide an opportunity to put a norm out there. The challenge is finding a way to do so that it is supportive and doesn't push the issue even further underground or further traumatize the survivor. We don't want people who experience domestic violence to end up homeless."

Community Leaders Build Social Cohesion

Some of the community residents who emerge from these discussions are ready to translate the insights they have gained into concrete strategies for fighting local domestic violence. Close to Home helps them form leadership teams that meet on a regular basis. It provides support such as help with facilitating conversations, and with planning and organizing community activities and fundraising.

Leadership teams are recruited out of discussion groups. Because they are part of a social network that consists of family, friends, or neighbors, they have an informal structure and they develop their own set of norms that determines how they operate.

The leadership teams provide support and resources to neighborhood residents who are affected by domestic violence. They also engage in activities like neighborhood block parties, local parades and celebrations that build relationships between neighbors and community cohesion. They use these events to raise the visibility of domestic violence as a community concern that is accessible and everyone's business.

Leadership team members believe that you have to know your neighbors—build relationships and trust with them—before you can do anything about domestic violence, Thompson said. "Getting people out, having block parties, is part of domestic violence prevention. It is about social cohesion and having those relationships in place so that you can talk about hard things, and do something about them." Thus far, Close to Home has met with "well over 200 residents," she said.

"Close to Home is probably meeting and reaching more community residents that any other program in this neighborhood," said Deirdre Kennedy, project director for the Dorchester Court's Judicial Oversight Demonstration Initiative. Close to Home staff members work closely with the Boston Police Department's Community Service Office, Kennedy said, but unlike most service agencies, they meet with residents "during evening hours when they are at home and it is convenient for them. They get the message out in people's homes."Kennedy said she hopes Close to Home will provide her organization with accurate information about the domestic violence situation, and feedback about how institutions can respond more effectively.

Close to Home's leadership teams help develop tools for facilitating kitchen-table-type conversations, and they inventory their community's assets—the ways that residents get together to socialize or solve problems—so they can develop strategies for engaging these formal and informal social networks. These include making presentations about domestic violence at neighborhood organization meetings so the issue is put on the local civic agenda, and they can begin changing social norms that thus far have failed to stop domestic violence.

Presenting police statistics on domestic violence at neighborhood meetings can be an eye-opening experience. In Thompson's Dorchester neighborhood, on average one woman is killed each year because of domestic violence and about 30 percent of all police work is related to domestic violence and 52 percent of the aggravated assaults are domestic violence related. "Those numbers are staggering and people don't know this," she said, adding that these statistics are similar in many other communities.

By going to civic association meetings, Close to Home pursues a "trickle up" strategy of lobbying to change laws and improve the operations of government and service agencies that address domestic violence. "Neighborhood civic or association meetings is the level at which policy decisions are made in communities," Thompson said. "Elected officials attend these meeting so there are connections to both the informal social networks at the grassroots level, and to institutional and legislative processes."

"We are beginning to make these connections clear in civic life. Basically, we are at the attention-getting stage with elected officials, and we have found they are very supportive."

"Close to Home is creating leaders within the community, so that it not just people like myself who come into the community to work," said Mary Kerr, coordinator of the community advocacy program at the Geiger Gibson Community Health Center and Harbor Family Health Services in Dorchester. "It's your next door neighbor who is trying to move this initiative."

Confronting Institutions' Limitations

One of the limitations of institutional responses to domestic violence is an inherent lack of capacity to address the magnitude of the problem. Institutions can only reach a fraction of the number of people who need help. Thompson noticed this when she was hired to provide support groups at six health centers in Dorchester for children who had experienced domestic violence.

"I had more than 100 kids on a waiting list, and it became crystal clear that there would never be enough services for all of these children," she said. "There were probably dozens more, whose mothers hadn't been identified by the health center, that might have been needing some kind of support around this."

Thompson sees other limitations to the institutional responses to domestic violence, including:
  • Studies show that people who experience domestic abuse most often tell a friend or family member first, but in many cases neither they nor the people they confide in report such incidents to police or social and health workers;
  • When institutions do respond, they tend to provide after-the-fact crisis interventions with people who commit violence, or support for survivors and their children, but these do nothing to modify the social norms that could prevent domestic violence from occurring in the first place;
  • When institutional interventions fail to draw on the leadership of a community, they can be culturally inappropriate especially in communities of color and immigrants. For example, a woman whose husband is violent and is an undocumented immigrant, may be reluctant to call the police for fear that her husband will be deported, depriving her of financial support that she depends on;
  • Interventions by institutions often break connections to community support and accountability for the both victim and the perpetrator. For example, shelter-based services often require women and children to leave their communities, jobs and schools to be safe. Foster homes, restraining orders and incarceration can break up families and remove perpetrators from a community that could hold them accountable for their actions.

Although shelters are often necessary and save lives, and some who commit violence are responsive to legal sanctions, Thompson said, "many women don't want their partner to be arrested or put in jail, or taken through this whole criminal justice process, they just want the violence to stop."

When those experiencing domestic violence are required to sever contacts, change jobs and schools, and move to a new community for their own protection, "it is not an easy thing for people who are relying heavily on their own social network for support," she said. "It doesn't build community—it does the opposite."

Creating a Model for Other Communities

Just prior to founding Close to Home, Thompson was inspired by communities' ability to solve social problems when she helped manage the development of the first coalitions working to prevent domestic violence in four cities in Ukraine and the Republic of Georgia. "There were very few formal services that people could access in response to domestic violence, and in some places it didn't feel safe to call the police," she said. "In that setting, it became even more clear how much people rely on their informal social networks for everything for day-to-day living, and for this particular issue."

Community members can provide support that reinforces or surpasses institutional interventions. For example, in addition to being "eyes and ears" that detect abuse problems, they can provide childcare and playtime for a victim's children, giving them a respite from the stresses at home.

"We have had community residents volunteer to use their guest bedroom as a safe house—as a place for people to stay in an emergency—so that people don't have to leave their community for safety," Thompson said.

Close to Home also works to build bridges between community members and institutions in order to educate the community about services that are available to them, and to help the police, criminal justice and health and social service agencies make their services more responsive to community needs. It has invited counselors and advocates from a group of local community health centers to attend kitchen table conversations so they can share information and receive feedback about what community members want from them.

Close to Home is working with a network of community health centers and the Boston Police Department to find ways to extend its programs into neighborhoods throughout Boston. Within one or two years, Thompson envisions Close to Home becoming a national model for domestic violence prevention in the United States. To this end, she is discussing developing tool kits, trainings, technical assistance, and online support activities with national intermediary organizations that are interested in helping her disseminate this work.

"Doing community organizing around domestic violence is different than working on other issues like housing or the environment, because of the intense personal nature of this issue," Thompson said. "We have learned a lot about trying to find the balance between being an action-oriented group that wants to do something, and allowing people to come together to process their own experience and what this issue has meant in their lives."


Close to Home Domestic Violence Prevention Initiative
42 Charles St., Suite E
Dorchester, MA 02122
Fax: 617-822-3718
Tel: 617-929-5151

Kris Herbst is a Washington-based freelance journalist and Webmaster for the Changemakers Web site.


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