The Booming Domestic Violence Industry
The social-work movement that fights domestic violence has grown large on state and federal tax monies
By John Maguire, Massachusetts News
August 2, 1999--All across Massachusetts, the social-work movement that fights domestic
violence is booming.
Only ten years ago, the women's safety-advocates were a small group of idealists, operating on pennies. Today the movement has grown large on state and federal tax monies.
Every month, it seems, it spawns new sub-programs, clinics, shelters, research institutes, counseling centers, visitation centers, poster campaigns. The state disbursed about $24 million for domestic violence services last year, but that certainly is not all the money spent. Today domestic violence is a big industry in Massachusetts.
Mapping the full extent of the domestic-violence industry is not easy, because it's a cottage-industry, spread out in hundreds of places. State and federal money goes to well over a hundred institutes, clinics, programs for counseling or outreach or coordination or training, computer databases, coalitions, shelters, PR agencies and other groups.
Most would say that's just fine: Domestic violence is ugly and ought to be dealt with. But others are beginning to wonder if the huge industrial cure is as bad as the disease.
One of many critics is John Flaherty, co-chairman of the Fatherhood Coalition. "This industry is an octopus," he said recently. "It's got its tentacles in more and more parts of everyday life. It's a political movement. Many of its employees are, directly or indirectly, damaging children. This industry doesn't answer to anybody. They're in it mainly for the money -- and the children be damned." The industry's problems may be about to increase, because it is becoming clear through scientific research that the whole premise of the movement and the industry it spawned -- that "domestic violence" means bad men hitting helpless, innocent women -- is just plain wrong.
The truth about violence in the home is that it's pretty much a 50-50 thing. Respected social scientists Murray A. Straus and David Gelles have been publishing research for years that shows the standard Only-Men-Batter story--probably visible on a billboard near you -- just doesn't match reality.
Women and men attack each other about equally in the home. Solid research now shows that women begin the physical fighting in their homes about half the time. Equally solid research shows that mothers are responsible for 65 per cent of physical abuse of children.
Although the words "domestic" violence are commonly used, some commentators say that a better description would be "shack-up" violence, because violence is most common, especially where children are involved where the woman is living with a boy friend. In a piece in the Weekly Standard last December by John A. Barnes, he cited four studies which show "that the incidence of abuse was an astounding 33 times higher in homes where the mother was cohabiting with an unrelated boyfriend than in a stable nuclear family."
The uncomfortable truth is spreading. The very liberal, if not PC magazine Mother Jones ran a news story last month admitting as much. "A surprising fact has turned up in the grimly familiar world of domestic violence," reported Nancy Updike. She wrote: "Women report using violence in their relationships more often than men. The research disputes a long held belief about the nature of domestic violence -- that if a woman hits, it's only in response to her partner's attacks."
The writer admitted that 20-year-old myths in the movement were starting to fall. The study of 860 men and women, she said, "suggest that some women may be prone to violence -- by nature of circumstance -- just as some men may be."
In 1999, the state spent $24 million of its own and federal tax dollars
"fighting has grown large on state and federal tax monies violence." The budgets have risen steadily every year. Slightly more than half of that money ($13.6 million) goes to pay for 37 battered women's shelters and to pay their staff. There are no shelters or services for men who are victims of domestic violence -- only women or homosexual men get these services.
About a fifth of the money ($5.3 million) is spent in and around the courts, paying for prosecutors, legal representation for women, and training for court personnel.
Of the remainder, at least $1 million goes to posters, ads, and other "outreach" campaigns telling people not to be violent. The high-school campaign gathers teen-agers to watch a play called "The Yellow Dress." Its point is that dating can end in murder, and men should not be trusted. It costs the state $500,000 each year.
"Massachusetts and the Boston region have been very successful in winning federal money," said Clare Dalton, of the Northeastern University Domestic Violence Institute.
"We've got some federal money here. The Police Department has also been very successful in getting federal money."
Federal money for domestic violence programs flows into the state in several streams. One large source is the Victims of Crime Act money, which is disbursed by the Massachusetts Office of Victim Assistance. Another source of big federal dollars is the federal Violence Against Women Act, which is administered by the Executive Office of Public Safety (EOPS). Both MOVA and EOPS are located in state offices at 1 Ashburton Place, next to the State House. MOVA's on the 11th floor, EOPS is on the 21st.
Getting answers even to simple questions on how much money is being spent is not easy. Three weeks of repeated calls and visits to staffers in the Cellucci administration brought sluggish or no response. Jean Hurtle, the Executive Director of the Governor's Commission on Domestic Violence, when asked repeatedly for a fact sheet on how much money was being spent in this field produced nothing. Jason Kauppi, an executive office press aide, failed to respond to roughly ten phone calls requesting information on the domestic violence budget. The figures above and in the accompanying box came from the staff of Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, D-Lowell.
According to Cam Huff of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, budgets at the Department of Social Services have risen almost seven per cent per year, since 1993. Compared with the overall budget, he says, this is "significantly higher than average."
If the domestic violence industry were an old-fashioned textile mill, the central
power-shaft turning all its machinery would be the 209A restraining order. Judges issue
them at the rate of 145 a day, according to the Boston Globe. Without the steady roll of
restraining orders, all the machinery of the domestic violence industry would grind to a
To the activists, the 209A law is almost a magic sword that saves women's lives. "There's almost a religion of restraining orders among women's advocates," commented Ray Saulnier, a fathers' rights activist from Maine.
But a growing number of men, their relatives, and lawyers find the 209A law grossly unfair -- almost a police-state tool that destroys families and saves very few. Recent efforts to reform the law have gained sympathetic hearings in the Legislature.
On the books for 20 years, 209A became the tool of choice for the activists in the early 1990s. Almost every year since then, that scope of the law has been expanded, and the grounds for defense diminished. Activists have sought and gained almost draconian powers for women, on the argument of a "crisis" in domestic violence.
As the law has expanded, its enforcers have multiplied. Today this state has hundreds if not thousands of 209A specialists who have been trained. Training in getting restraining orders, and in helping and urging women to get them occupies a significant amount of the curriculum at Northeastern University's Domestic Violence Institute internship program. Federally paid advocates in many if not all district and probate courts in the state are also trained to assist women in getting restraining orders. To the movement/industry, the restraining order is a shining sacred sword of power that can never do harm, but magically protects women and children at all times.
The restraining orders bring the police power of the state immediately to the woman's protection, and the man she says she is afraid of is immediately thrown out of his house, if not arrested.
But to others, a restraining order looks an awful lot like the tool of a police state.
Attorney Sheara Friend, of the Wellesley firm Kahalas, Warshaw & Friend, estimates
that about half of all restraining orders are merely legal maneuvers, where there is no
real fear of injury on anyone's part. If she's right, about 20,000 of this state's
restraining orders each year have nothing to do with domestic violence -- other than to
claim it. If each of those phony orders harms seven people (a father, two kids, two
grandparents and two other relatives) then 140,000 Massachusetts citizens suffer needless
disruption and emotional pain each year.
About ten years ago, some evidence was required. Someone had to show bruises, or bring in testimony to support the accusation.
The legislature has loosened the standard. Now the person seeking the order need only state he or she is "in fear" of the other person.
It doesn't take a cynic to point out that when a woman is getting a divorce, what she may truly fear is not violence, but losing the house or kids. Under 209A, if she's willing to fib to the judge and say she is "in fear" of her children's father, she will get custody and money and probably the house.
"Mediation and communication counseling are critical in a divorce," says Sheara Friend. "The 209A non-contact order prevents that. Especially if it's a divorce that involves children, you need the parties talking with each other. The 209A completely stops that. It's a very divisive thing to do right at the time the parties need to talk. You can't even get the parties in the same building."
Long-term emotional damage to children's fathers -- surely not good for children --
often begins with a restraining order, she says.
"A man against whom a frivolous 209A has been brought starts to lose any power in his divorce proceeding. They do start decompensating, and they do start to have emotional issues, and they do start developing post-traumatic stress disorders. They keep replaying in their minds the tape of what happened to them in court. It starts this whole vicious downward cycle. They've been embarrassed and shamed in front of their family and friends, unjustly, and they totally lose any sense of self-control and self-respect. They may indeed become verbally abusive. It's difficult for the court to see where that person was prior to the restraining order."
This is a different era from the 1950s, she points out, and many fathers are very close to their children, and bond closely with them from an early age.
"In this day and age, we have fathers who take an extremely active role in parenting -- sometimes more than the mother."
"I call them mother-dads," she says. In many restraining-order cases, she says, "These fathers are completely frustrated because they can't co-parent their child because of a restraining order. They have been raped of their parenting relationship with their child."
While Friend and others see false restraining orders as enormously destructive, and permanently traumatizing, the $24 million domestic violence industry is built on the restraining order. Most of the activities that people get paid for in the domestic violence industry cannot start until a restraining order has been issued.
The restraining order is entered into the state's restraining order registry on a
computer in downtown Boston. It is never deleted. Police officers, probation officers and
judges have the right to check the database.
What will it do to someone's career if they are in there indefinitely and an employer somehow calls in to check? "We can't respond to that question," said Coria Holland, press person for the Mass Probation Service. "Probation is just the conduit for getting the information into the system. We're just the recording arm."
"Supervised visitation" is a booming part of the industry today. In
1994, only three visitation centers existed -- they were pilot projects in Springfield,
Roxbury and Brockton. Today, there are 13 state-funded centers absorbing nearly a million
dollars a year. These centers not only get state funding, they also charge fathers for the
privilege of seeing their own offspring. Rates go as high as $120 for ninety
The assumption "is that a lot of dads are abusing their children and their access to their children must be supervised," declares Michael Ewing, a fatherhood activist. Though research suggests this assumption is completely false, the supervised visitation industry has skyrocketed anyway.
The centers strongly assume that children's fathers are guilty of some unnamed crime. Caring fathers with the bad luck to be accused often endure insulting, exploitative treatment to see their children. They complain rarely, because the social workers can and do end visitation for little or no reason.
Pamela Whitney, a social worker who came to the Massachusetts Department of Social Services in 1986 as a consultant, has been Director of Domestic Violence and Family Support Services since 1994. Her office is at 24 Farnsworth Street in Boston. She supervises a budget that was $13.6 million last year, and may go higher.
She says supervised visitation is recommended "where there has been a separation between the parents and a history of domestic abuse."
When challenged, she backtracks and admits she meant to say "accusation of domestic abuse."
She says her department pushed for visitation centers, beginning with three pilot centers in the early 1990s. The department recommended expansion, "because the courts found it so helpful and useful." Now there are 13. She said her goal was to have at least one in every county. More are probably coming.
"The feeling on the part of the courts and others was it was often unsafe for children to visit with their offending parent," she said. She acknowledged that when she said "offending parent" she meant a parent who had been accused of an offence.
Each state-supported visitation center is funded by D.S.S. to such a level that it has at least $75,000 to work with. The money goes to fund staff and a "budget coordinator." The coordinator "does outreach to the courts and other agencies." D.S.S. funds also pay, she said, for "the people who are actually doing the visit between the parent and child."
"Some visits don't need to be supervised," she said. "But in other cases where there is higher risk involved...this provides supervision for those who are doing the actual visit." The observers are trained according to "guidelines" developed by the central nexus for DV policy in the state, theGovernor's Commission on Domestic Violence.
She acknowledged that the same accusation that forces a man into a center, also forces him to pay both his and his wife's fees. "If A says that B is abusive, then B has to pay the money," she said.
Ms. Whitney said she thought the sliding scales ranged from $1 to $5, and that an indigent parent could do community service to pay for his visitation time.
But in reality, at least in Robert Straus' center in Cambridge, the sliding scale runs from $20 to $40 or $80 per hour, and any parent who cannot pay cannot see his children.
Asked her reaction to the case of the father of three who recently had to pay The Meeting Place $120 to see his children for 90 minutes, she said, "I've never heard of such a thing. One hundred twenty dollars a visit is extraordinary."
"All these visitations have been ordered because the children involved are at risk," explains Robert Straus, a lawyer and social worker, and currently director of the Meeting Place, in Cambridge. Straus has been a key figure in our state's development of professional supervised visitation. Asked to explain "at risk", he says: "You have a range of physical and sexual abuse situations where the parent is either alleged to be, or been proved to, abuse the child."
"As you know," he adds, confidentially, "there have been a number of deaths in Massachusetts." When asked to name an actual child's death he was referring to, however, he said he could not remember.
Straus has been part of an informal matrix of lawyers, judges, social workers, academics and domestic violence activists since the early 1990s. These people, some idealistic and some merely pragmatic, have networked, talked with each other, served on various commissions, boosted each other' s careers, and helped to expand the definition of domestic violence, and the size of state and federal funding massively.
Straus is a leader now, and heads what is called the Supervised Visitation Network. He described the growth of that group in glowing, emotional terms during a phone interview.
"The Supervised Visitation Network started in 1992. A group of people met in New York through the Ethical Culture Society, which had started a supervised visitation program in New York City. At that point it was just 30 people from around the country, most of whom had never met anyone else doing supervision. We had all been working in isolation. It was an extremely high energy meeting. It was very much an informal association of people helping each other out. It began with a handful of members and now has over 400 members throughout the U.S., Canada, and Australia. It's a fascinating field...because when it began it was virtually without funding."
But not any more. Though The Meeting Place began in 1991 with only a grant from the Boston Bar Foundation, and continued to 1998 "without a penny of public money" that public money is starting to flow now, Straus admits with a tone of satisfaction.
The major state source is through the state DSS Domestic Violence Unit, whose budget of over $900,000 "has been an immense advance over the last few years.."
What if the father doesn't have enough money to see his kid in a given week? "Difficult question," answers Straus, who pauses and then says the father gets "a week's grace" and then the child-father contact is cut off.
His program never tries to get husbands and wives to talk out their problems privately, he said, but urges them to go back to court instead. He said children are in visitation for long periods, from nine months to many years. He said that no matter how well, how happily, the father-child interaction is going, his program never recommends to the judge that supervision should end and normal parent-child contact resume.
These programs have sprung up all across America " entrepreneurial tricks and ideas spread easily each summer at this industry's conferences. Wherever supervised visitation has appeared, criticism has followed.
In Virginia, Michael Ewing, president of the Virginia Fatherhood Initiative, has an unusual perspective. He is one of the few pro-father people ever to run a "visitation center." His non-profit organization applied for and got a federal grant to negotiate access and visitation issues between divorced parents. He hoped to show that in situations of conflict between divorced parents, supervised visitation was not necessary. He sees such programs as "designed to humiliate men." In his program's first year, the Norfolk area courts made more than 700 case referrals. "We solved all of the problems but two," Ewing said. "Only two families required supervised visitation."
"There are many ways to handle the exchange of children without having parents supervised. We ran a neutral pickup and drop off program and there were no problems. We made clear to parents that they had to be 'model citizens' during drop off, or they would be reported to the court."
He said the supervised visitation idea has been " beefed up with phony statistics" and there is very little need for it.
Solid research shows that most physical child abuse is done by mothers, or by mothers' live-in boyfriends. Ewing is one of many in the fathers' movement who wonder why natural fathers " who in reality are quite unlikely to abuse their own children " are targeted for the humiliation of supervision "I think there's another agenda here," he says. "Some special interest women's groups think that males in general are disposable. We're great sperm donors and paychecks " but beyond that there's not much need for good fathers or good men."
He said he thinks supervised visitation came about "because women wanted to con- trol the dad's access to their children, and to humiliate them by making them see their children in the presence of a social worker and pay for the privilege of doing so."
Perhaps because of its success, Michael Ewing's non-visitation-center approach to family conflict lost its funding in the second year. He said he thinks a local social worker who had lost clients due to Ewing's success complained to an influential state senator.
How many of these supervision cases really require supervision for the safety of the children? Michael Ewing doesn't think very many: he found two cases out of 700.
But the domestic violence entrepreneurs and state officials live in a different world from us. A sense of nameless vague threat is always in the background. To hear the pros talk, all the men they deal with are batterers, sexual abusers, or virtually time bombs of violence. Repeated cliches like "at risk" and "a safe place" and "maintaining safety" pepper their sentences. Yet, in many cases, there is no evidence of violence or any kind of serious harm to children " merely an accusation by the mother. But in the DV industry, when the accusation is made, the case is closed.
At least some of the men interviewed for this story are devoted fathers. It is clear that some have heroically maintained contact with their children over a period of years, despite having to pay a small fortune in cash and endure repeated harassment by petty, vindictive state officials. During a dozen hours of telephone interviews, not one supervised-visitation official spoke any word of praise for any man's love of his children.
Return to CPF home page