Massachusetts’ Simple Solution for Preventing Domestic Homicide

What Women Really Think
July 15 2013 10:56 AM

Massachusetts’ Simple Solution for Preventing Domestic Homicide

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Women in Paris demonstrate during the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Photo by Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

In theory, domestic homicide should be easy to prevent, since men who kill their wives or girlfriends (85 percent of victims are female) generally give us lots of warning by beating, stalking, and even raping their victims, usually for years before they finally kill. In reality, it's surprisingly hard to stop someone who really wants to murder you, especially if he has easy access to a gun. Restraining orders don't create a magic force field around the victim. Shelters help, but they are underfunded and depend on the victim giving up substantial rights to hold a job (which gives the abuser the ability to find you), have a social life, or even speak to family members. And trying to figure out which abusers are just run-of-the-mill woman batterers and which will actually kill is surprisingly hard to do.

Rachel Louise Snyder, writing for the New Yorker, details one solution that's being implemented in Massachusetts. Domestic violence social workers there developed a high-risk assessment team that, using statistical methods and employing the court system in creative ways, has figured out a way to target the men most likely to kill and take special care to make it that much harder for them to do so. Kelly Dunne started the Domestic Violence High Risk Team in 2005, and since then, not a single case she's taken on has ended in murder, and the men who have been sentenced to GPS tracking have not committed any future acts of violence. In addition, the team has done wonders to help victims return to normal life:

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Dunne also notes that, of the hundred and six high-risk cases documented in the team’s most recent report, only eight women were forced to seek refuge in shelters. She estimated that, before the formation of the high-risk team, ninety per cent of similar cases would have resulted in the women’s going into shelters.

How do they do it? They take the details of each reported case of abuse, looking at risk factors such as stalking and chronic unemployment, and rate each abuser on a point system for how violent and controlling he is. Men who are rated high are then subject to heightened risk monitoring, and their victims are given extra resources to stay safe. If the abusers start acting up, they can have their child visitations terminated or be made to wear GPS trackers. They may even be put in jail or in a psychiatric hospital for violating probation or restraining orders—courtesy of a preventive detention program that was mostly used to prevent gang or drug violence in the past, a program that gives the government leeway to restrain you even if your behavior otherwise falls short of the threshold to charge you with further crimes. 

The system works in no small part because it turns the logic of an abusive relationship on its head. The abuser works by making the victim feel like she will never be free of him, his violence, and his surveillance. If she tries to leave, he escalates. If she gets a new boyfriend, he escalates. The idea is to make her feel like her choices are to submit or to live in terror. The high-risk teams shift the burden of being surveilled from the victim to the abuser. Now, if he makes a threat, Massachusetts has the power to escalate. If he uses visitation time to attack her or her children, Massachusetts restricts visitation. Now he's the one who has to make his decisions with the understanding that someone with power can further restrict his movements and his ability to live freely. Abusers often victimize for years before taking things to the level of a serious beating or murder. By restricting movements in the early stages, it appears that the program helps keep abusers from getting to that point. 

It's such a simple principle and one that hopefully other states will pick up on: The person who should pay for the abusive relationship should be the perpetrator, not the victim. It's not just the fair and moral way, but it also seems to be more effective. 

Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based writer and DoubleX contributor. She also writes regularly for the Daily Beast, AlterNet, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter.