Domestic Violence Service Network, Inc.’s new fiscal year began last month, in July 2023. This year, we are celebrating our 25th anniversary! Over the last quarter century, DVSN has grown leaps and bounds and has been able to provide tens of thousands of people with vital, life-saving services and support. We have trained hundreds of community members, police officers, and service providers to better understand the issue of domestic violence and to help empower victims and survivors to make informed decisions to improve their situation however works best for them. We will be commemorating this achievement in numerous ways throughout the fiscal year, beginning with introducing a modified version of our logo to be used during this period.
Thank you so much to everyone who has been a part of and supported DVSN over the last 25 years. We could not have reached this occasion without you!
As we kick off our silver anniversary year, let’s take the opportunity to educate ourselves on the issue of abuse by looking back at the history of domestic violence and the development of DVSN.
Historical Treatment of Women
Domestic violence is by no means a new phenomenon and has been regarded by society and the law as a reprehensible and illegal act only rather recently. While people of any gender can be victims and abusers, the majority of victims are women with male abusers. This is no wonder, given the treatment of women for thousands of years. From ancient times, women were regarded as property of their fathers, husbands, sons, or some other male, with no legal rights, whose wellbeing did not matter. Legal violence against women is evidenced as far back as Hammurabi’s Code, circa 1750 BCE, which instructs a husband to drown his wife if she commits adultery or leaves him without proving cruelty to her (BetterHelp). Under the Laws of Chastisement, dating from 753 BCE, a wife could be beaten legally as long as the rod or stick used had a circumference no bigger than the base of a man’s right thumb, known as the “rule of thumb” (Columbia), a “rule” which would be applied as a legal standard for over 2000 years (Pitt). During the Pax Romana (27 BCE – 180 CE), the “pater familias” (the “father of the family”) could sell his wife, children, and other family members into slavery, beat them if they offended him in any way, and kill them for transgressions such as leaving the house in insufficiently modest clothing (BetterHelp).
By the 14th century, the Roman Catholic Church encouraged husbands to beat their wives out of concern for her spiritual wellbeing and to benefit her soul (Columbia). Early American colonists frowned on excessive violence but were allowed to physically punish their wives and children as long as it did not disturb the neighbors (BetterHelp). This is an example of a shift beginning, where domestic violence was still considered perfectly acceptable and sometimes encouraged, but it was becoming a private, family matter. A man had to exert complete control over his household and human property, be they slaves, wives, or children, and if that control was enforced through violence, as long as his tactics were not excessive enough to bother the rest of the white men, society and the law simply looked the other way. A man’s authority in his family was his business. For some, the religious acceptance of domestic violence and its use being seen as a private, family matter persist to this day.
A Slow Change Begins
The temperance, abolition, and women’s suffrage movements throughout the 19th century paved the way for society to view women, children, and black people as individuals with their own rights, not just property of white men. Protests against the brutality of husbands toward their wives gained traction in the mid-1800s and changes to laws were proposed. In 1871, Alabama became the first state to rescind a husband’s right to beat his wife. Many other states followed suit soon after, with Maryland being the first state to make wife-beating a crime in 1882, punishable by 40 lashes or a year in jail. However, some states merely clarified a husband’s rights, such as North Carolina, which in 1886 declared that a criminal indictment cannot be brought against a husband unless the battery was so great that it could result in permanent injury, death, or was malicious beyond all reasonable bounds (Pitt).
Across the pond in Victorian England, wives could no longer be kept locked up or sold into prostitution by their husbands, and life-threatening beatings were considered grounds for divorce. It wasn’t until 1966 that New York became the first state to adopt the same grounds, though wives had to show that a sufficient number of beatings had taken place. In 1911, New York also created the first Family Court, designed to solve family problems in a setting of discussion and reconciliation with social services intervention. In 1962, domestic violence cases were transferred from Criminal Court to Family Court in New York, meaning only civil procedures applied to assault of one’s wife, versus criminal procedures to assault of a stranger, so that penalties were much less harsh for domestic abusers (Pitt). These opposing changes in how domestic violence was viewed by the law in New York are emblematic of the protracted, convoluted, and varied shift of attitudes toward abuse in the country overall.
A Surge in Services
Refuge House, the first battered women’s shelter in the world, opened in London in 1964, but it wasn’t really until the 1970s that there was significant progress against domestic violence and toward supporting survivors. The first shelters began operating in the US in the late 1960s and early 1970s; the first emergency rape crisis line opened in Washington DC in 1971 (UN Women); and the first hotline for battered women was established in Minesota in 1972. That same year, two survivors in Cambridge opened their apartment to battered women, creating the first program in Massachusetts. Four years later, Casa Myrna Vazquez, now known as just Casa Myrna, became the first shelter opened by women of color in Boston. Emerge, the first abuser education program in the US, was founded in 1977, and 1978 saw the establishment of the Massachusetts Coalition of Battered Women Service Group, now known as Jane Doe, Inc. Also in 1978, a grassroots organization called the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) was organized and would become a leading voice of the battered women’s movement in the US. NCADV established the first national toll-free domestic violence hotline in 1987. By 1989, the United Sates had 1200 battered women programs, sheltering over 300,000 women and children per year (Pitt).
Governments Take Notice
By 1975, most US States allowed wives to bring criminal action against a husband who inflicted injury upon her (Pitt). NCADV introduced the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act in the US Congress in 1978, and Massachusetts enacted the Abuse Prevention Act, M.G.L. ch. 209A. Federal money was allocated to battered women’s programs through the Domestic Violence Prevention and Services Act in 1979. That same year, the Office of Domestic Violence was established in the US Department of Health and Human Services and the first congressional hearings on the issue of domestic violence were held. The US Attorney General established the Task Force on Family Violence in 1984 to examine the scope and nature of the problem, with nearly 300 witnesses providing testimony at public hearings in six cities.
In 1983, Massachusetts enacted one of the first Victim Bill of Rights in the country and instituted victim witness advocates in each DA’s office and Victim and Witness Assistance Board (aka Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance). Marital rape was made a crime in 1984 by New York’s highest court (Columbia). In 1985, the US Surgeon General issued a report identifying domestic violence as a major health problem and declared it a leading health hazard for women in 1988 and the leading cause of injury to women ages 15-44 in 1992 (VAWnet). Stalking was first identified as a crime in 1990 and judges were first required to consider spousal abuse when determining child custody and visitation rights (Pitt). By 1993, the United Nations considered domestic violence an international human rights issue and adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and the US Center for Disease Control established the Division of Violence Prevention and began to fund community-based prevention efforts, studies, evaluation programs, public education, and training (VAWnet). Abuse laws still varied widely by state, however.
Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)
Finally, in 1994, a landmark piece of legislation was passed: the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). VAWA was the first comprehensive federal law addressing violence against women, providing funding for services, training, advocacy, and prevention to end domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. It also established the National Domestic Violence Hotline, created new federal crimes related to domestic violence, and provided many battered immigrants with the ability to establish residency without relying on their abusers. VAWA was reauthorized in 2005 and amended to include victims of dating relationship violence in domestic violence law, which previously had only covered married couples, couples living together, or those with a child in common. It also expanded stalking protections to include “surveillance” and “interactive computer service”, and added “harass”, “intimidate”, and “cause substantial emotional distress” to “cause death or injury” as a stalker’s required intent.
After a long debate in congress over the inclusion of protections for LGBTQ individuals, Native Americans, and immigrants, VAWA was again reauthorized in 2013 with those protections intact. VAWA’s next reauthorization passed the House of Representatives in 2019 but stalled in the Senate over language closing the “boyfriend loophole” by prohibiting those convicted of abusing, assaulting, or stalking a current or former dating partner (not just a spouse, cohabitant, or coparent) from owning a firearm. President Biden reauthorized VAWA in 2022, without the provision to close the boyfriend loophole (Wikipedia). The definition of domestic violence, how the law protects victims, and who can legally be considered a domestic violence victim has developed and been amended over the years and will likely continue to be as understandings of domestic violence issues evolve.
Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM)
Domestic Violence Awareness Month, or DVAM, began as a “Day of Unity”, conceived by the NCADV in October 1981 as a way to connect advocates across the country who were working to end domestic violence. It soon expanded into a week of activities on local, state, and national levels mourning lives lost to domestic violence, celebrating survivors, and connecting anti-abuse advocates. The first domestic violence awareness month was observed in October 1987, to mark the establishment of the first national domestic violence hotline. In 1989, Congress officially designated October as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, as it continues to be observed today through various campaigns and activities. The first Monday of DVAM is still celebrated as the Day of Unity (G.R.O.W.). Purple is the symbolic color representing domestic violence awareness, chosen as it is the traditional color of royalty (DomesticShelters). Each October, DVSN marks DVAM by holding its annual Light in the Darkness Candlelight Vigil honoring Massachusetts lives lost to domestic violence in the previous year.
The DVSN Coalition is Born
Like DVAM, DVSN has grown and changed over the years. It began in October 1998, when the Concord Police Department (CPD) provided seed money from a Department of Justice (DOJ) grant, office space, and equipment to form a community collaboration known as the Domestic Violence Victim Assistance Program (DVVAP). The Acton Police Department (APD) joined the collaboration in April 1999, and DVVAP evolved into Domestic Violence Services Network, Inc. (DVSN). In July 2000, DVSN was incorporated as a nonprofit, inter-community umbrella organization dedicated to collaborating with local community agencies to serve the unique needs of the central Middlesex area. Within two years, five new police departments had joined DVSN-DVVAP and by 2008, the collaboration included a total of ten police departments and Hanscom Air Force Base. Two more joined in the mid-2010s to make up the 13 partner communities DVSN works directly with today.
Close relationships with the Eliot Center and Emerson Hospital were community partnerships DVSN developed early on and soon became formal referring partners. Town Social Workers, Community Resource Coordinators, Metro West Legal Services, Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, Emerge DV, the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, the Concord District Court, local Councils on Aging, food banks, and faith communities are a few of DVSN’s significant partnerships, and the list is growing. DVSN is unusual in that it serves an average of 1,200 individuals and families each year with a small staff, devoted volunteer advocates, a committed board, strong partnerships with law enforcement and the court, and a wide variety of stable, productive community partnerships. Collaboration is our hallmark and allows DVSN to meet the varied needs of our clients appropriately, effectively, and in a timely manner.
Training the Community Together
DVSN strives to educate community members to better enable them to support and advocate for victims of domestic violence. In February 1999, DVSN-DVVAP held its first training class of volunteer advocates. Starting in 2008, DVSN included service providers, community colleagues, and its police partners in the training with volunteer advocates. Training people with different perspectives and roles together creates a collaborative and well-rounded environment where trainees can also learn from each other, find common ground, and develop an appreciation of varying outlooks and one another. With these 40-hour trainings typically held twice annually, to date DVSN has equipped over 600 community members with the skills necessary to advocate for victims of domestic violence as well as over 160 law enforcement personnel who develop a better understanding of the complex and multi-layer dynamics of DV and of the immense pressures on DV victims to stay with their abusers.
In 2022, DVSN staff revised its advocate training curriculum to focus even more on listening without judgment or blame and to build greater awareness of and sensitivity to implicit biases and unfounded assumptions and presumptions when working with clients. A new training logo was designed to incorporate the key tenets of the advocate training. DVSN strives to empower its clients to make informed decisions to improve their situation however works best for them, as safely as possible, at a pace they can manage.
DVSN Programs and Services Grow
After completing the 40-hour training and 10-12 hours of additional shadow and mentor shifts, DVSN’s volunteer advocates respond to calls to DVSN’s toll-free and confidential Help Line and to referrals from our community partners. DVSN Advocates provide early crisis intervention and support to DVSN clients, which includes listening without blame or judgment, assessing risk, assisting victims with safety planning, providing information and referrals for community resources, and meeting with them personally at a safe place to complete applications for civil restraining orders. Beginning in 2004, DVSN offers two legal-related programs: the Court Support Project (CSP), providing support services to those seeking restraining orders in Concord District Court, and Lawyer for a Day (LFAD), a free one-time legal consultation to those investigating or seeking separation from an abusive partner. A high-risk team, implemented by DVSN in 2012, works closely with Concord District Court officials and the nine police departments in its jurisdiction (including Hanscom AFB), to monitor aggressors exhibiting high risk factors for lethality.
In the wake of the pandemic, in 2021, DVSN began offering free online support groups for women who are in relationships with controlling and abusive partners. Each group meets weekly for 8-10 weeks, and provides an opportunity for participants to share experiences, doubts, worries, and, most of all, validation for the very complicated dynamics that are part of controlling and abusive relationships. DVSN holds four support groups annually. Alumni from DVSN’s support groups formed an ongoing community of care and compassion calling themselves the Sisters of the Phoenix – helping each other with emotional support, childcare, court accompaniment, expressive art showings and performances, and social gatherings – all supported and facilitated by DVSN. DVSN will continue to adapt and expand our programs and services so that they best serve the needs of our clients and the community going forward.
The history of domestic violence and how it is viewed by the law and society in general is an account of millennia of suffering. The hope and strength of victims, survivors, and advocates fighting for the rights and safety of all has resulted in slow but meaningful change. By working together and continuing to promote awareness and support domestic violence victims and survivors of all gender identities, sexual orientations, ages, races, ethnicities, religions, cultures, and socio-economic statuses, we can make a difference and create a better future for all.
If you are interested in learning more about domestic violence and helping to support survivors, consider participating in DVSN’s free, 40-hour Advocate Training Program. The next training starts on September 18 and goes through October 6, 2023. For more information and/or to request an application, call 978-254-1761 or email training@DVSN.org. Applications are due no later than Friday, September 8, 2023.
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