SCOTUS Case Threatens Lives of Domestic Violence Survivors: How Can We Rethink Domestic Violence Intervention?

On November 7, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in United States v. Rahimi, to decide whether people under domestic violence protective orders have a constitutional right to own firearms.  The case centers on Zackey Rahimi, whose girlfriend sought a restraining order after he assaulted her and threatened to shoot her if she told anyone. The restraining order banned him from owning guns, and when he was found in possession of them, he was sentenced to prison. Rahimi has argued that this is a violation of his Second Amendment rights. Now, the Supreme Court will decide whether it agrees.  

We do not know how the Supreme Court will rule, but we know what access to guns does in cases of domestic violence. If there is a gun present in a domestic violence situation, it is over 5 times more likely that a woman is killed. Nearly a third of gun homicides for children under 13 are related to domestic violence, as are nearly 60 percent of mass shootings. In short, guns make domestic violence deadly. 

If SCOTUS increases access to guns for people under restraining orders for domestic violence, then advocates for survivors of domestic violence and people working in the criminal legal system need to work together – quickly – to find better ways to stop domestic violence from occurring in the first place.   

Right now, there are two primary approaches to tackling domestic violence: Punish the aggressor or put them into traditional Batterer Intervention Programs (BIPs). 

Research shows that simply incarcerating aggressors does not guarantee survivor safety: one study showed that around 25 percent of men exiting prison were likely to abuse their partner after incarceration. As for interventions like batterer programs, their efficacy is mixed. While some research shows that completing these programs can reduce future abuse, other research shows that these programs aren’t effective. Since the evidence is mixed, in recent years, many advocates have started looking for better approaches.

 One solution could be to pursue a trauma-informed programmatic approach. Research shows that people who are exposed to substance abuse, family violence during childhood, and access to firearms are more at risk for engaging in domestic violence. Thus, knowing the history of trauma among people who commit domestic violence is important to halt the cycle of harm. The Urban Resource Institute, for example, employs a trauma-informed approach, known as the Trauma-informed Abusive Partner Intervention Program (TI-APIP). Their 26-week program with former NY District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr.’s Criminal Justice Investment Initiative aims to have participants take accountability for their actions while also considering their trauma history.

By drawing on the Allies in Change Model, Duluth Model, and cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, staff at the program offer therapeutic approaches, individual counseling, and referrals to other social services. In theory, these techniques should better address the trauma experienced by aggressors, while also relying on traditional intervention techniques to hold them accountable. Many believe the approach is promising because it addresses trauma (by screening for adverse childhood experiences), fosters accountability, encourages non-violent conflict resolution, and provides wrap-around services. Research is currently underway to determine if the program has had an impact on reducing future incidents of domestic violence.

It is also worth exploring interventions that happen entirely outside of the criminal justice system. Survivors of violent crime prefer that their aggressors receive rehabilitation and community treatment rather than jail time, by a margin of 3 to 1. Survivors are also often hesitant to involve the legal system, with estimates showing that roughly half of domestic violence cases go unreported. Some survivors do not report abuse due to fear for their own safety and fear for their partner’s safety while inside the criminal legal system.

 That’s why the New York City Mayor’s Office to End Gender Based Violence recently launched a new community-based and voluntary intervention program for aggressors called, The Respect and Responsibility Pilot Demonstration Project. The program’s curriculum offers free multi-week intervention sessions and counseling sessions for people who recognize their own patterns of abusive behavior and look to better themselves and their families. Such community-based interventions may also borrow from interventions for people with unique needs, like a program for LGBTQIA relationships conducted by the Persad Center and a program conducted by the Children’s Aid Society in New York City for parents in relationships with violent partners.

Both of these approaches have the potential to reduce domestic violence, but potential is not enough. The research and criminal justice communities need to focus on rigorous, in-depth research that can establish effective ways to combat domestic violence. Until then, survivors will be hoping that the Supreme Court upholds the law – and they will be even more vulnerable if the Court takes away this protection.  

Storm Ervin and Malore Dusenbery are researchers at the Urban Institute, a non-partisan Washington, DC-based social and economic policy research organization, where their work focuses on domestic violence and community violence interventions.


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