SafeHaven CEO Kathryn Jacob recalls a chilling phone call her domestic violence agency received the weekend of President Trump’s inauguration. Seasoned hotline advocates can list the reasons offenders often supply to justify their abuse—the Bible, a patriarchal world view, the alleged provocation of a lover, a child, or anyone else. Never, however, had Jacob heard an abuser cite the President—until now. In January of 2017, a woman called the hotline after being assaulted by her spouse who came home from a bar agitated by the coverage of the women’s march. “Just so you know,” he declared after the assault, “we’re in Trump’s America now, and I’m master of this household.”
Two months later, a trans woman seeking a protective order in El Paso was deported. Jacob’s organization, situated in Fort Worth, Texas, saw calls coming into their hotline from undocumented or mixed-status families slow to a trickle. Deporting women who have experienced domestic violence, Jacob notes, can be a death sentence. In June of 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions dropped asylum protections for victims of domestic violence. “Sessions has essentially given permission to the offender to hold immigration status over the victim as a means of controlling her,” Jacob asserts. “In the Violence Against Women Act, it grants a victim refugee status. To claim it, however, she must provide an insane amount of documentation, including multiple police reports, which no one ever makes if they are undocumented. It’s an absurd argument. We’re not going to end our immigration problem by ending service delivery to this small, vulnerable group.”
SafeHaven, like many domestic violence agencies, opened its doors in the late seventies on the heels of the civil and women’s rights movements. Every day since then, SafeHaven saves lives by offering shelter to those fleeing domestic violence. It saves those lives, however, one night at a time, and so the agency constantly interrogates the root causes of violence as they seek to disrupt the cycle of abuse. Educating those who have experienced violence and coming alongside them to offer support and resources, is often easier, however, than transforming the offender.
As the #MeToo movement called out men across the political spectrum, pulling aside the veil of secrecy and shame about sexual harassment and assault, women have confronted disquieting reflections of our own internalized sexism. Sobering accounts of egregious assault have given way to the places where nuance, gray area, and conflicting experiences test how we talk about sex, sexual safety, and consent. Even as women continue to speak out, the men who have fallen from the heights of power will not all face conviction and time behind bars. Some of them, along with those still firmly cemented in positions of power, will continue to walk through our lives and make their homes in our communities. Domestic violence and sexual assault agencies insist that our work must evolve beyond intervention—it must prioritize victim safety while also addressing offender responsibility and transformation.
In the work of prioritizing victim safety, SafeHaven has enacted the evidence-based model of building High Risk Teams, comprised of an advocate, law enforcement officer, prosecutor, judiciary or probation officer, and health care worker. High Risk Teams are assigned to cases with a high vulnerability index, calculated by combining the danger assessment risk score of the victim with the offender’s recidivism risk score. Particularly in cases where an offender is not held behind bars pre-trial, the High Risk Teams have a proven record of intervening when dangerous indicators arise, to increase the safety for the victim. Jacob emphasizes that this partnership among team members, similar to innovative models currently addressing the opioid crisis, have proven crucial. “We cannot expect all police officers to be experts in domestic violence response. Instead, we work to establish partnerships, so their first call is to bring in a domestic violence response expert.”
Change is wrought through such collaborative partnerships. Jacob remembers a recent incident when bail was set far too low based on the offender’s recidivism risk score. A member of the High Risk Team approached the judge with the evidence-based science behind the scoring and advocated for a higher bail, which may have saved a woman’s life. In a conservative county in a red state, SafeHaven manages to bridge the deeply partisan politics and bitter divides of our time by working across the spectrum with, for example, an evangelical Republican DA who, Jacob asserts, is one of the most brilliant advocates for a competent domestic violence response. “When I can find people within the systems who are smart, innovative, and get it about domestic violence, it’s the light at the end of the tunnel,” she notes.
SafeHaven is now wading into the work of prioritizing offender responsibility. Utilizing a curriculum entitled Creating a Process of Change for Men who Batter, the teaching team models respect for women’s leadership. Always co-led by a female-male team, the female teacher takes the lead while the male teacher fastidiously defers to her advice and wisdom, with both facilitators naming any dynamics of domination within the group. Change, they have discovered, is not only possible, it liberates males caught up in a system of domination that constricts the expression of their humanity.
Meanwhile, the #MeToo movement has invited the nation into a time of self-reflection and the honest conversation that sheds light on our entrenchment in the gender-norms and sexual mores that fall within a patriarchal rubric. We’ve learned, perhaps, that the world doesn't need more fall guys. We need nuance. We need to examine what lives inside each of us. We need honest talk that helps us figure out together how we can all get a little closer to freedom, compassion, and respect.
Jacob, herself the mother of three young children, grapples daily with the toxic masculinity acted out in domestic violence as well as the victim-blaming emanating from the President’s bully pulpit. Most days, she’s steering a small boat through a perfect storm as her agency attempts to save lives, move the needle on homicide statistics resulting from domestic violence, and enact offender accountability in a community with many undocumented and mixed families. As women fleeing domestic and gang violence remain separated from their children at the border or detained in the new tent cities springing up, she still somehow maintains hope for her own children. “Every day, my husband and I are teaching them that they own their own bodies. They get to decide how they will be touched, embraced, whether a band-aid gets ripped off, what they will put into their bodies. The golden nugget,” she notes, “is consent. And they can learn that from the youngest age.”
The larger national context in which Jacob soldiers on with her domestic violence response advocacy is not lost on her. Instead, the tools for advocacy have helped her name and understand the victim-blaming unspooling on the national stage. Disparaging the most vulnerable, coded language that winks at violence, compulsive lying to the public, zero-tolerance for women and children seeking asylum, wrenching families apart, placing young children in settings that increase their risk of abuse, triggering (rather than healing) inter-generational trauma, and the might-makes-right philosophy all codify victim-blaming as a national policy. Perhaps Americans of every stripe should take notes from seasoned domestic violence response advocates and work together to ensure safety for the most vulnerable and accountability for the offender in chief.