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Domestic Violence

Who Is Serving and Protecting Assault Victims?

Most rape crisis and domestic-violence programs wouldn’t survive without government funding that ties them to the police—and it’s left advocates trapped in a toxic dynamic.

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Katie Bement expected hard conversations when she put a Black Lives Matter sign on her office lawn. She believed the relationships she’d built with police chiefs and sheriffs were solid and trusting, that they could bear the weight of a national reckoning with racism. Bement is the executive director of Embrace, a sexual assault and domestic violence advocacy organization in northwestern Wisconsin. She was proud to have police officers on her board of directors; she believed that having strong ties to law enforcement kept survivors safer.

But in September 2020, Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald resigned from Embrace’s board. In a closed-door meeting, he convinced the county health department to rescind a $25,000 annual grant that paid for crisis counseling and emergency housing. Over the next week, 14 of the 17 police departments in the region cut ties with Embrace. Hard conversations are for equal relationships, and Bement realized that what she had with the police was anything but.

Bement is not the only advocate to experience this type of harsh rebuke from law enforcement. Karen Tronsgard-Scott leads the Vermont Network to End Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence. Two years ago, on her personal Facebook page, she wrote a post that questioned whether domestic violence and sexual assault agencies should say, “If this is an emergency, call 911,” on their outgoing voicemail. Many survivors don’t want to call the police, so Tronsgard-Scott wondered if directing them to 911 made them less willing to seek support. “When we say, ‘call 911,’ it creates this narrow pathway. I’ve been curious about how many people just hang up, especially people from marginalized communities,” she says.

The post was visible only to Tronsgard-Scott’s friends, but someone took a screenshot, and circulated it to legislators and police officers. Soon after, Tronsgard-Scott got a call from the president of the Police Chiefs Association. Up to that point, they’d had a good relationship, having worked together on legislation to make it easier for officers to remove firearms in domestic violence cases. But during that phone call, Tronsgard-Scott noticed an abrupt change. It “went from being a collegial, peer-to-peer relationship with two different roles to I’m being interrogated as if I’m a criminal,” she says.

Tronsgard-Scott reached out to various police leaders, trying to acknowledge the hurt feelings and initiate conversations about why so many survivors distrust law enforcement. Instead, all the police chiefs in Vermont wrote a letter to her board of directors demanding her resignation. She and her board chair were called to a meeting with police leaders, including the public safety commissioner, Vermont’s highest-ranking law enforcement officer under the attorney general. They accused her of using federal funds to travel internationally, when in fact those trips were paid for by a private foundation. Some law enforcement agencies cut ties with Tronsgard-Scott and refused to work with the Vermont Network.

It’s not lost on any of us that the way the police tried to control these advocates is exactly the kind of relationship dynamic activists are working to change. Look at any abuse prevention curriculum and you’ll find punishing someone for having a different opinion on the list of abusive or unhealthy behaviors. As director of an abuse prevention program, I’ve spent the last decade teaching people how to tell the difference between convincing and coercing. Speak up, communicate your boundaries, I tell them. If they listen and respect you—even when they don’t agree—it’s a sign that you can trust them. If they yell, or threaten, or withhold something you need, it’s a red flag. Yet these pervasively unequal relationships are built into a service system meant to help people: Most rape crisis and domestic violence programs wouldn’t survive without government funding that ties them to the police. In many parts of the country, police officers make the rules and advocates are pressured to comply. And as the national debate about policing intensifies, many advocates are torn between joining protest movements and building the kinds of relationships that result in more humane rape trials and decreases in domestic violence homicides.

We Gave the Police Officers Cookies

“When a police officer did what he was supposed to do, we brought him cookies,” says Brittny Olson, domestic violence program coordinator at Embrace. I’m on a Zoom call with Olson and five of her co-workers, all of them making sense of the relationships they’ve lost. They tried direct feedback. They tried educating officers about abuse and trauma, but the response was defensiveness and anger. So they tried positive reinforcement instead. “We would bring them cookies, and now looking back, how ridiculous it was; like ‘here’s some cookies thanks for doing your job,’” explains Cassandra Clark, another advocate.

“We were always trying to please law enforcement,” Olson explains. She and her co-workers describe a constant struggle to keep the peace. Tiptoeing, strategizing, trying to find delicate ways to address a wide range of problems. Problems that included not following a research-based interview protocol designed to assess how likely a domestic violence situation is to become lethal.

For the Embrace staff, the last six months have been full of difficult realizations. Too often they put their desire to keep the peace ahead of survivors’ needs. Wisconsin law gives crime victims the right to be accompanied by an advocate during court proceedings and when being interviewed by the police. Missy Jerome, another domestic-violence program coordinator, described a situation in which an officer told her that she couldn’t come into an interview. She tried to explain that law, but he didn’t agree with her interpretation. Rather than risk upsetting the officer, Jerome waited outside. “We don’t ruffle feathers or make anyone upset because it means we are going to risk losing this relationship that’s valued by our funding sources,” Bement explains. “But, the other side of that is that the victim was alone in the interview because we were trying to make law enforcement happy.”

Bement wanted to believe that the energy she put into maintaining relationships with the police was helping survivors. That was the narrative: “If you call the police, you get a restraining order,” she says. “This is what healing looks like. This is what accountability looks like.” But even before the Black Lives Matter signs, only 20 percent of the survivors they served were involved with the police, and those that did work with law enforcement were often retraumatized by the experience. “If you have somebody who’s not that perfect survivor who isn’t weak and meek,” Bement explains, “I” If they’re questioning, if they’re angry, the system does not deem them a true victim.” In retrospect Bement realizes that the relationship always felt forced. But with 70 percent of their funding coming from the Department of Justice, it also felt necessary.

Bement’s situation is not unique. Since the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) became law in 1994, the majority of federal funding for sexual assault and domestic violence has gone to programs that tie advocates to the criminal legal system. The most recent version of VAWA, that passed the House and faces an uphill battle in the Senate, shifts some funding to programs for communities of color and prevention education. Still, the majority of funding goes to police, courts, and advocates who work inside those systems.

Pressure to work with law enforcement can be even more painful for advocates of color, especially those with personal experience of police violence. Jessica Diaz* (she’s using a pseudonym to protect her privacy) was appalled but not surprised when a police officer asked if working as a rape crisis counselor affected her sex life. She was in a hospital supporting a survivor through a medical exam. Diaz works for a sexual assault and domestic-violence advocacy program in a mostly low-income Latinx neighborhood. Her experiences with the police include everything from physically intimidating body language to dismissive comments about survivors. “If you have a psychiatric disability, they think you’re lying. There was a male caller who was gay, and the police made fun of him,” Diaz explains. She feels pressured by her executive director, a white woman, to stay on good terms with the police. This relationship often takes priority over collaborations with other community partners despite the reality that most of her clients are more concerned about safe housing and financial stability than pressing charges.

Diaz and a number of her co-workers have personal experiences of police violence. A member of her family was assaulted by an officer, a co-worker’s son was killed. Still, she finds it difficult to get the organization’s leadership to acknowledge how painful and scary it is to interact with the police. In recent years, activists in the neighborhood where she works have successfully fought gentrification, and there’s a vibrant movement against police violence. Still, conversations about alternatives to the criminal legal system within her organization are confined to a small group of co-workers.

We Called Abuse a Crime Because It Was

Feminist domestic violence and sexual-assault advocates did not have the criminal legal system imposed on us. The complicated relationship exists because activists wanted to change the systems that dismissed survivors. And changing them often meant becoming part of them.

“Emphasizing the fact that abuse was a crime made sense because it was a crime,” says Lauren Taylor, a founder of My Sister’s Place, the first shelter for battered women in Washington, D.C. It was 1979, and most people thought abuse in intimate relationships was rare. Mass incarceration was nowhere near the crisis it is today. Ineffective laws and unsympathetic officers were much more apparent problems. Even the most progressive D.C. councilmembers didn’t take the issue seriously until 1981, when a woman’s abusive ex-partner murdered her children. The woman had called the police, but they had no power to arrest him. The founders of My Sister’s Place, whom Taylor describes as mostly but not all white, were fighting to change every institution that impacted survivors. “We wanted to change the world’s attitudes about abuse in relationships. The police were part of that because they were directly involved,” Taylor explains.

Researcher and activist Mimi Kim analyzed the earliest feminist efforts to change the criminal legal system. In 1976, lawyers Eva Jefferson Patterson and Pauline Gee, both women of color, won a lawsuit against the Oakland Police Department, having successfully argued that failing to respond to domestic violence calls was a violation of women’s constitutional right to equal protection. In order to ensure that the legal victory created meaningful change, Gee began working inside the system. She designed the domestic violence protocol for the Oakland police and was appointed to the state commission that oversaw police training for the state of California. Activists in San Francisco and Duluth, Minnesota used similar strategies. “Assurance of success depended upon maintaining a strong arm of feminism in an ongoing struggle with a recalcitrant criminal justice system,” Kim explains. Advocates working inside police and court systems maintained close collaborations with more radical activists who could mobilize protests and lawsuits.

As victim advocacy, police training, and community response programs proliferated across the country, the oversight structures and political alliances that made systems change work effective were diluted. Advocates operated in these systems without institutional power, their roles often dictated by police officers and judges. Kim calls this phenomenon “carceral creep,” the gradual and sometimes imperceptible eroding of activists’ power and influence, until they became subordinate to the criminal legal system. Black feminist scholar Beth E. Richie characterizes this evolution as “winning the mainstream but losing the movement.”

That was my experience as a court advocate in the 1990s. I wanted justice for survivors. I went to the legal system because that’s where I thought that justice could be found. A forum as public and official as a courtroom felt like an antidote to the secrecy of intimate abuse. But in a conservative upstate New York town that had just seen its middle class decimated by IBM layoffs, there was no external pressure to bolster my work inside the system. Domestic violence advocates made requests, not demands. We were so grateful to be allowed inside the courtrooms that we didn’t speak up when judges berated or dismissed survivors. All the judges and court officers were men and they made the rules. Women were secretaries and social workers, tasked with carrying out men’s orders or providing emotional support. I wanted my presence to hold the system accountable, but in practice I became just another woman whose job was to pick up after the law.


It’s Impossible to Write Off a System That Helps Some Survivors

“The nuance makes it impossible to write off the system entirely as unhelpful when it’s helpful for some people,” says Jenna Birkett, a community advocate at REACH Beyond Domestic Violence which serves a mixed-race, mixed-income community outside Boston. She told me about a survivor who had just been released from the hospital. Her ex had called her, and she was afraid. The police did extra patrols outside her home, which made her feel safer. Maria Pizzimenti, who directs advocacy for REACH, explains that advocacy is often about finding a few officers that are trustworthy and committed. “We work with a number of survivors who want to engage with police, [and] we are the connector,” she says. Because of the work of advocates “people can withstand the system and make it work for them.”

In some communities, close collaborations between advocates, police, and court systems have significantly reduced rates of domestic violence homicide. Marianne Winters, who leads the domestic violence agency Safe Passage, found that she was able to get some officers to understand rape and abuse by teaching them about trauma. Getting them to understand their own traumatic experiences—in their jobs, past military service, or their families—made them more compassionate in their interactions with survivors.


Embracing Alternatives to Criminalization

Hema Sarang-Sieminski, policy director for Jane Doe, Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, sees the summer of 2020 as a turning point. “There was a level of vulnerability and openness that allowed for conversations that I couldn’t have imagined having three years ago,” she says. Both the stark racial disparities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the “sheer violence of policing practices” made it impossible to avoid hard questions about our reliance on law enforcement.

In June 2020, the leaders of 48 sexual assault and domestic violence coalitions from 33 states signed an open letter in which they took responsibility for failing survivors of color by investing in the criminal system as a solution to abuse. The letter calls on sexual assault and domestic violence advocacy organizations to stop equating law enforcement with “public safety” and pursue policy priorities like safe, affordable housing, and community solutions to violence. “We have held up calls for “victim safety” to justify imprisonment and ignored the fact that prisons hold some of the densest per-capita populations of trauma survivors in the world,” the letter reads.

These calls are reflected in the policy agendas of domestic violence and sexual-assault coalitions around the country. Sarang-Sieminski notes that some legislators are surprised to see Jane Doe, Inc. supporting police-reform legislation rather than stiffer criminal penalties for violating restraining orders. This year she filed legislation that would enable abuse survivors to seal or expunge criminal records if they can show how experiencing abuse contributed to their convictions. This could help survivors who used illicit drugs to cope with trauma, who were charged with crimes for physically defending themselves, or who engaged in sex work as a means of survival.

As advocates resist coercion from the police, they create more space for unapologetic commitment to racial justice. Tronsgard-Scott was not removed from her position, and most of the people who called for her resignation have left law enforcement. She laughs as she tells me how many police reform committees she’s been asked to join.

In Wisconsin, the Embrace staff is studying abolition feminism and transformative justice, a response to intimate violence defined by activist Mia Mingus as bringing communities together to repair the harm of abuse and to change the conditions that made it possible. Transformative justice recognizes that the criminal legal system creates more violence and is committed to forms of accountability for abuse that don’t rely on these systems. A GoFundMe campaign raised more than four times the amount of the grant Embrace lost. Bemet says there are a few survivors who cut ties with Embrace, fearing retaliation from the police, but at least as many have reached out to show their support. One survivor of color told Bemet that she finally feels safe getting help now that the agency is not so closely tied to law enforcement.

Liberated from the pressure to appease the police, who no longer attend the meetings Embrace convenes for community partners, advocates are initiating conversations about racism, historical trauma, and the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. In the past, police officers stifled these conversations, but other community partners welcome them.

For sexual assault and domestic-violence advocates, working to change systems that impact survivors without letting those systems subsume us is a constant struggle. But meaningful change is possible when we embolden ourselves and each other to resist coercion.


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