Today, reporting to the police is often the easiest way for survivors of intimate partner violence to access services and protections provided through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), first signed in 1994.
But amid growing calls to limit police involvement in various aspects of life — especially as police mishandling of domestic cases makes headlines — some programs are seeking to provide alternatives.
A 2015 study from the National Domestic Violence Hotline found that 2 in 3 survivors who called the police on a partner are somewhat or extremely afraid to call the police in the future. Only 14 percent of women who had called the police in the past said they were extremely likely to call the police again, according to the report.
Nationwide, organizations are increasingly using new approaches to help survivors without police involvement. In June 2020, a coalition of 47 state and territorial coalitions signed on to a “Moment of Truth” letter, committing to move away from the criminal legal system and invest in community solutions to violence.
The move coincides with calls from activists to remove police involvement from a variety of situations, including mental health calls, traffic enforcement and school security. Repeated police killings and incidents of police misconduct, particularly toward people of color, have led more communities to reevaluate their dependency on police to resolve conflict.
“I’m not saying to eradicate [police] right now because there are some kinds of situations that do require that level of intervention,” said Marcel Woodruff, a community organizer who runs violence prevention programs for Faith in the Valley, an organization based in California’s Central Valley. “But I think that we need to be strategic about reducing the level of contact and really resourcing the community to handle those conflicts.”
A survivor of domestic violence may not want to report to the police for a number of reasons, according to advocates: The person doing harm might be someone they love and do not want to be harmed. Often, people who want to remove themselves from an abusive situation are unable to do so because they are unable to access housing or employment.
Women of color face additional risks; they are disproportionately more likely to be arrested along with or instead of their abusers, more vulnerable to losing child custody and more likely to face failure-to-protect convictions, where a parent suffering abuse can face criminal charges for not adequately protecting children in the home.
In Ohio, Latagia Copeland-Tyronce, founder of the National African American Families First and Preservation Association, faced a failure-to-protect charge and lost custody of seven of her children in 2013 after reporting their father to child protective services for child sex abuse. When an undocumented trans woman in Texas tried to obtain a protective order against her boyfriend in 2017, she was immediately detained by federal immigration agents.
But new programs are continuing to sprout up. Most recently, on Oct. 8, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed the Community Response Initiative to Strengthen Emergency Systems Act, or Crises Act, which will allot funds to scale up community-based alternatives to policing. A significant chunk of this funding would go toward organizations trying to address intimate partner violence outside of the usual avenues.
“Domestic violence is one of the issues that was lifted up as a key area where we needed non-police response in order to support families,” said Marc Philpart, managing director at the research institute PolicyLink and principal coordinator for the Alliance of Men and Boys of Color, one of the organizations that helped draft the law. “[This law] will invest millions of dollars into piloting some of these approaches in different parts of the state.”
Many advocates for domestic violence survivors still believe that arrest and imprisonment of perpetrators continues to be necessary. Monica Moran, manager of domestic violence prevention services for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission in Massachusetts, said most survivors she works with are not ready to give up the option of calling the police in an emergency. But the system needs to evolve past its reliance on police and incarceration, and develop alternatives, she said.
“[Survivors are saying,] we want that tool to be in the toolbox, we just don’t want it to be the only tool,” Moran said. “They are saying let us choose when we call the police and when not to.”
The 10 to 10 Helpline, which Moran launched in April, is trying to offer that choice. The program is the first helpline in the United States that offers support and de-escalation assistance for abusive partners who want to change their behavior, according to Moran. Trained Helpline responders work with callers to help them understand where their violence comes from and develop goals and strategies for handling conflicts safely. Similar programs have been successful in the United Kingdom, Australia, Colombia and other countries.
“We have had callers who use harm that have calls that are half an hour to an hour longer, and they are saying things like ‘I never looked at it that way,’ or ‘I’ve been this way in every relationship I’ve ever had,’” Moran said. “We are feeling hopeful, and the community has really embraced it.”
Other organizations are using different tactics. Rising Ground, an organization in New York City originally founded in 1831 as an orphanage, offers several services for intimate partner violence survivors through its Steps to End Family Violence program, including mental health support and connections to wraparound services for housing and employment. They also offer healthy relationship education in schools and a voluntary intervention program for abusive partners.
Anne Patterson, vice president of Steps, said that after working with thousands of domestic violence survivors, she has repeatedly seen survivors’ needs go unaddressed by the criminal-legal system. Although she acknowledges that large-scale alternatives to policing do not yet exist in most places, she is excited about emerging models like Minneapolis’s violence interrupters program, which sends outreach teams into the community to patrol the streets, de-escalate conflict and connect people with resources.
Something similar is taking shape in Los Angeles, where organizers are working to build a countywide network of teams that responds to emergency calls called Community Alternatives to 911 (CAT-911). Each team is getting trained in administering medical aid; preventing and responding to intimate partner and sexual violence; mental health crisis intervention; and other violence-prevention strategies, with the goal of eventually providing large-scale emergency response.
LGBTQ individuals who are victims of intimate partner violence often face unique barriers to getting support. Fifty-four percent of LGBTQ intimate partner violence survivors who interacted with the police in 2017 reported police misconduct, according a report from the Anti-Violence Project (AVP) in New York City.
The organization seeks to help LGBTQ and HIV-affected individuals dealing with intimate partner violence through a 24-hour hotline. This offers immediate support for people experiencing intimate partner violence in the moment and those who are not in crisis but are trying to plan for safety, according to Catherine Shugrue dos Santos, deputy executive director of the AVP.
“We know that LGBTQ people hold multiple and intersecting identities, and that those identities impact the way they experience violence and what happens when they reach out for help,” said Shugrue dos Santos. “If they are trying to receive help from an organization that serves survivors of violence that doesn’t recognize their gender identity, they are not going to get the help that they need.”
Both Steps and the AVP are willing to help survivors who want to report their abuse to the police, Patterson and Shugrue dos Santos said, but they emphasized that it is crucial for those who want to report to thoroughly understand both the potential benefits and drawbacks. Advocates at both organizations guide survivors through their decision about whether to contact police, supporting whatever decision the survivor chooses to make, they said.
Dignity and Power Now, a Los Angeles-based organization, is working with the Alternatives to Incarceration Initiative to launch a pilot program to support both survivors and individuals who have caused harm, whether they have been imprisoned, arrested or just motivated to change their behavior.
“There are many cases where a survivor is being harmed by someone that they love, and they want that person to receive mental health treatment or substance abuse treatment and be able to heal in a safe place,” said Ivette Alé, senior policy lead at Dignity and Power Now. “Oftentimes what we see in the courtroom is that people with domestic violence charges are detained because of the risk that a judge feels they can pose on the alleged survivor.”
The program is still in development, but organizers are planning for both the survivor and person who caused harm to receive a caseworker and peer navigator, an individualized safety plan, as well as access to wraparound services for housing, mental health and employment needs. Alé said these services can help the survivor and accuser heal independent of each other or collectively through a restorative justice process.
Some obstacles have hindered the spread of non-carceral programs, advocates say. The vast majority of funding from the Violence Against Women Act is tied to the criminal legal system, and programs to help people who have caused harm are often only available to those in prison or on parole. Community organizations that want to engage in transformative or culturally specific strategies often have insufficient funds to do so, and some organizations that want to distance themselves from the justice system report facing pressure from police departments to continue collaboration.
PolicyLink, which was on the front lines of advocating for the Crises Act, has advocated for more non-carceral options. The organization has called for states to separate violence prevention programs from corrections agencies, fund non-police emergency response teams to address domestic violence, and create voluntary programs for people to learn how to stop violent behavior before their actions get them arrested.
Sybil Grant, a senior associate with PolicyLink, said that one of the major barriers to funding these kinds of programs has been skepticism of community responses to violence. But the emergence of more alternatives to policing in California has made lawmakers in the state more receptive to non-carceral programs, she said.
As Grant put it: “We are trying to really build up our community-based infrastructure to respond in ways that are rooted in healing and creating safety that comes from what survivors want and see as safety rather than what the punishment system is determining.”