Editorial: Beyond beds for domestic violence victims

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

In an abusive relationship, the dysfunction and violence can build up for years, but the commitment to get out happens in an instant. When the victim decides to flee, there must be somewhere to go.

Too often there isn't. Even here in Massachusetts, which began responding decades ago the plight of victims of domestic violence, safe havens are hard to come by. According to a report this week, more than 82 percent of the women who came to Voices Against Violence seeking shelter were turned away. That's a figure that should shock and shame us all.

But we should think twice before assuming more shelter beds is the answer. Those most familiar with domestic violence say that the most effective programs are those that come into play well before a crisis leaves a victim in need of emergency shelter.

Domestic violence doesn't arise in isolation, nor are victims "saved" simply by removing them from the home of the batterer. There are multiple contributors to family crisis - issues of culture, economics, mental and physical health, language, addiction, criminal behavior. A comprehensive approach requires a network of community-based services in which family violence is recognized as part of the picture.

The gaps in that network have been exacerbated by years of belt-tightening at the state level. We need more public education about domestic violence that connects victims with the resources they need. Sometimes it's the criminal justice system, which can issue a restraining order. Sometimes it's social service agencies, which can help with issues like child care, health care or housing. Sometimes what a victim needs most is emergency cash to pay a security deposit on an apartment away from the abuser, to cover child care expenses so she can work, or for job training. Well-run agencies can make sure those funds are well-spent, but there's simply not enough money available now to meet the needs.

The support network for domestic violence victims must include the police, but it must also involve community leaders. This is especially important in immigrant communities, where fear of arrest keeps victims from reporting threats or violence to the police. Better coordination and communication between social service agencies and community leaders is essential.

Many victims' first choice is to get help for the person threatening them, and that's not necessarily bad. But comprehensive batterer intervention programs run through the Department of Public Health have been short-changed in recent years, and court-ordered anger management programs are less effective.

Massachusetts does need more emergency shelter beds, but the state could get more bang for its bucks by funneling resources toward preventing such emergencies. One longtime executive in domestic violence programs estimates her agency helped 100 people in need for every victim admitted to its emergency shelter. That's money well spent. There just needs to be more of it.