Weiland: Multi-layered approach needed to defuse domestic violence

By Cart Weiland

Published by the Houston Chronicle on April 23, 2015.

Domestic violence, often but not always aimed at women as opposed to men, shocks the conscience and frequently results in harm or death to the victims involved. Recent anecdotes from crime reports in Texas tell the tale: a 23 year-old male strangling his girlfriend to death, a 27 year-old male beating and killing the girl he was dating and then attempting to kill himself after she attempted to end the relationship, a 32 year-old woman binding her husband with plastic wrap and zip ties and shooting him in the face.

Often, addressing the causes underlying the abuse and/or avoiding its occurrence is difficult and complex: Acts of independence by the abused party, like seeking work, contacting family or friends, or making threats to leave, can precipitate the ire of the abuser and exacerbate the problem, putting children and the victim’s lives at risk. In these circumstances and others, victims need outside help to ensure their safety.

Despite legal and social changes, domestic violence in Texas persists today. In 2012, there were 198,366 family violence incidents in Texas, up 11.5 percent from 2011. In 2012 alone, domestic or family violence took the lives of 114 women in Texas, 12 more fatalities than occurred in 2011. Additionally, research suggests that survivors of domestic violence often suffer long-term health consequences. So then, although treating the physical and emotional scars that are its symptoms is surely important, more can and should be done to prevent the problem from occurring in the first place or from being repeated.

Against this backdrop, Gov. Greg Abbott has advocated for creating “Domestic Violence High Risk Teams” (DVHRTs); Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, and Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, have filed legislation to create them: Alvarado’s bill has already passed the House of Representatives. Huffman’s is highly likely to pass as well. Both the bills and the governor’s approaches represent a sensible, nuanced approach to a delicate problem.

A DVHRT is a multidisciplinary team that coordinates efforts to increase the safety of victims of family violence by monitoring and containing perpetrators and providing victim services. The team may be composed of law enforcement and corrections officers, prosecutors, nonprofit organizations and medical personnel. It is modeled after an innovative program in Newburyport, Mass., that begin in 2002 after a crisis center there discovered that one of its female clients had been murdered in a bout of domestic violence.

Under detailed metrics, the DVHRTs first perform client-risk assessments in order to put relevant past violent episodes in context and then formulate the most effective intervention strategy.

The teams bring together police, prosecutors, victim-witness advocates, probation officers, batterer’s intervention teams, and hospital staff to, as Abbott says, “create a vehicle for communication among disciplines to provide the best possible responses to victims at high-risk.” This has been a very effective approach in Massachusetts, considering that 92 percent of women taking advantage of it there report that there have been no reassaults. In its first six years, the Massachusetts DVHRT team handled 106 high-risk cases with zero homicides.

Importantly, there is already some potential funding available for SB 1706’s proposal: The governor’s plan notes that federal grants dedicated to the prevention of family violence could be routed toward the program, and there may be other state funds that could be similarly drawn upon, like those used by the Health and Human Services Commission’s Family Violence Program.

Grants to the teams would be awarded by the Office of Attorney General should the legislation become law.

Domestic violence begins in the household, but the trauma it induces ripples outward, affecting different people in the surrounding community, all of whom witness a different side of the problem.

DVHRTs provide the policy means for structured communication between these groups, giving women and men access to the experts, resources and information they need in order to stem the continuation of harm. In this way, those suffering become less isolated and the community that envelops them grows stronger.

Weiland is a policy analyst at the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, an Austin-based think tank.