The city of High Point is making national headlines for its innovative approach to combating the scourge of domestic violence. Nearby Lexington has adopted the same model. Here’s hoping other communities in North Carolina and across the country follow suit.
Domestic violence accounts for a large share of the calls police departments get each month. Officers are often dispatched repeatedly to the same locations to separate the same combatants. The costs are exorbitant — to the spouses or partners being abused, to the children and other family members who suffer along with the direct victims, to officers and social workers whose best efforts seem to fall short and whose time and resources are diverted from other crimes, and to the taxpayers who fund the state and local governments struggling to contain the problem.
After years of frustration, High Point leaders decided in 2009 to change their approach. Adapting a successful “focused deterrence” program aimed at gun-related crime, city officials designed a program to reduce the thousands of calls, dozens of serious injuries, and the three to five deaths that were attributable to domestic violence each year in High Point.
As Governing magazine tells the story in its March 2016 edition, city leaders began by convening an interagency task force that included law enforcement, prosecutors, social services, and victims groups. Then they commissioned a study from researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
The resulting plan divided domestic-violence calls into four categories. First-time perpetrators weren’t typically arrested but were added to a “D-class” watch list. First-time arrestees then became “C-class” offenders, subject to sanctions ranging from higher bail to tougher prosecution if rearrested. Second-time arrestees became “B-class” offenders and were subjected to a full-scale intervention that included both offers of assistance (such as substance abuse treatment or job training) as well as clear threats of significant jail time if they were arrested again and thus became “A-class” offenders.
The city’s new strategy, implemented in 2011, was risky. What if abusers responded to their C-class or B-class designations by retaliating against their victims? Officials worried that some spouses or partners might be held incommunicado or even killed. But they also worried that continuing to do things as before would continue to put those same victims at risk.
Fortunately, High Point’s focused-deterrence program proved to be effective. Fatalities are way down. The recidivism rate for domestic-violence offenders has fallen far below the national average. Reports of retaliation against victims are rare. High Point has now become a frequent destination for public safety officials, scholars, and activists from across the country who work on domestic violence.
Changing law enforcement’s approach is a necessary condition for addressing the problem in North Carolina, but it isn’t a sufficient one. Other interventions are also needed. Agencies and nonprofits that combat domestic violence are increasingly focusing on employment training for victims — not just skills for doing particular jobs but also critical life skills such as personal responsibility, budgeting, time management, customer service, professionalism, and communication.
Why? Because chronic victims are often poorly prepared to support themselves. That’s one of the root causes of domestic violence. Abusers frequently use their dominant financial position in the home as a method to control their spouses or partners, deterring them from leaving their abusive relationships and getting help.
One promising effort is underway in the western North Carolina community of Hendersonville. A nonprofit called Safelight provides programming for victims of interpersonal violence, sexual assault, and child abuse. One of its programs, Dandelion Eatery, is a restaurant and catering business where victims of domestic violence learn practical skills while delivering valuable services. The John William Pope Foundation recently awarded Safelight a $100,000 grant to expand this program.
It’s going to take everyone working together, across multiple sectors and organizations, to fight domestic violence effectively. I’ve told you some good news about progress in High Point, Lexington, and Hendersonville. I’m sure there are other success stories in other North Carolina communities. Let’s share them, learn from them, and keep the momentum going.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and president of the Pope Foundation, a North Carolina-based grantmaker.