The Cycle of Violence
Last year, Anita Bhatia, the CEO and Executive Director, of the Ramesh and Kalpana Bhatia Family Foundation, made an unprecedented $3 million donation to Sakhi, a New York-based non-profit that serves domestic violence survivors in the Indian-American community. Bhatia told India Currents about her experience growing up with intergenerational violence as a child with an abusive mother. Her mother admitted to her daughter that she was only repeating disciplinary patterns she had grown up with herself. She did not know any better.
The cycle of intergenerational violence that beset the Bhatia family reflects a form of domestic violence that author, essayist, and activist Angela Davis, calls the “oldest and most pervasive form of violence in the world.” Davis, a distinguished professor emeritus at UC Santa Cruz, explains that domestic violence has existed in most human societies for hundreds of years. But what is unfailingly common in most societies is that we have learned how to hide it and somehow represent domestic violence as the problem of the survivor, even today.
Rising rates of domestic violence
In America, domestic violence has long been accepted as just an inevitable part of the complex fabric of family relationships across all cultures, including mainstream American culture.
Data reveals that the rate of domestic violence has not fallen. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, “Over 1 in 3 women (35.6%) and 1 in 4 men (28.5%) in the US have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.”
But in recent years, a growing movement to break that mindset is emerging. At a November 2 Ethnic Media Services panel, advocates, politicians, and survivors shared information and personal stories about initiatives to counter domestic violence and ways to navigate the complex journey out of trauma. Speakers focused on efforts to find solutions through legislation, reforms in the judicial system, and grassroots mobilizing through social media by survivors of abuse.
A Question of Silence
Davis said she grew up in a community of complete silence about domestic violence, based on the assumption that nothing could be done. However, 50 years later, a public commitment to end domestic or gender-based violence for good is emerging, said Davis, representing a sea change in societal views of domestic violence. “It’s the most dramatic indicator of progress,” said Davis. “I feel very hopeful.”
The Right to be Housed and Safe
California State Senator Susan Rubio has authored over 25 bills addressing domestic violence. She herself is a survivor. “I’ve made it my mission,” said Rubio, who helped the passage of SB 914, the HELP Act, which provides resources to survivors experiencing homelessness. Shelters limit survivor stays for 30 to 45 days,” said Rubio, and “then they’re out on the street again.” Some families were on the street for nearly 10 years before they got help.
Rubio explained that any continuum of care that receives state funding is now required to have a gender equity lens and create policies to gather data that really focuses on domestic violence victims. “We want to see goals set and be measured and tracked, to make sure that we’re being successful with this policy,” she added.
In 2019, Rubio passed the Phoenix Act, which extended the statute of limitations for victims of domestic violence from 3 to 5 years. Victims, many suffering from PTSD now have more time to come forward and seek justice or get help. She hopes to extend the statute of limitations to 15 years.
Rubio also helped pass SB 616, Piqui’s Law, which mandates judges take training on domestic violence and child abuse to prioritize child safety in custody proceedings. Piqui’s Law is named after a five-year-old boy who was murdered by his father, despite the boy’s mother’s efforts in family court to protect her son against her ex-husband. “Children are being murdered because the legal system refuses to take responsibility for protecting them in family court,” said Sen. Rubio when the Bill passed. “Judges sometimes are uninformed, perhaps they don’t have the experience that is required to really make an informed decision.”
Piqui’s Law helps educate judges to ensure that they’re studying domestic violence cases, and child custody cases and understand the signs and patterns of abuse, and how to read them. “It’s about just giving them the tools to make sure that they’re making better decisions.”
One of Rubio’s first bills was to support children victimized by intergenerational trauma. Children experiencing violence in the home may not have anyone to call, she said. So the domestic violence hotline number was added to the back of ID cards of children from seventh grade to higher education.
Rubio also passed SB 1141 which changed the definition of domestic violence to include coercive control. This refers to situations when an abuser withholds basic necessities like food, shelter, or finances needed to survive; controls the victim’s communications by taking away a phone or reading text messages; isolates the victim from friends, relatives, or other support; and many other behaviors that cause severe emotional distress.
Who are the survivors?
“It could happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter who you are,” said Rubio. The misconception is to think that domestic violence happens only to women. But it happens to men as well. People who have an education and higher degrees also fall victim to domestic violence. What’s more important, said Rubio, is to change the narrative from ‘why didn’t a victim leave,’ to ensure they have the support system to be able to walk away in a safe manner.
Often, victims don’t know help is available. For example, perpetrators sometimes threaten to deprive immigrant women of their immigration status. Even though UVisas are in place to offer immigrant women protection, they are unaware of or uninformed about resources.
Family Court is the Wild West
Tina Swithin is dedicated to raising awareness about the crisis in the family court system. She is a survivor of both domestic violence and post-separation abuse. Swithin could not afford an attorney and fled from a shelter fearing for her life. Her abuser was not held accountable for violating the terms of a restraining order. “There was a long period of time that I slept with a hammer under my pillow because I was afraid for my life,” she said.
Swithin believes that the courts have lost sight of their primary focus, which should be in the best interest of the child, and instead, are too focused on parental rights. Children are suffering unnecessarily she believes, due to the lack of education on the front lines—and behind the judicial bench. Her children became vulnerable under the family court system.
“Minors counsel failed my daughters repeatedly,” said Swithin. A custody evaluation during the first year prioritized her ex-husband’s parental rights over her daughter’s safety. As a survivor, she learned that she could not depend on law enforcement or the family court system to protect her.
Swithin created the High Conflict Divorce Coach Certification Program and founded “Family Court Awareness Month” in 2020, to help other survivors understand Family Court and the importance of strategy in the system.
“The family court system has become the abuser’s playground,” observed Swithin. “This is a system that lacks basic training on domestic violence. And this should outrage everyone. It is a social justice crisis that belongs to all of us.”
“Family Court is the Wild Wild West,” she added. “You can place the same case in front of five different professionals or five different judges, and you will have five different outcomes. This has to change. There is no regulation, no consistency, no oversight, no accountability. But these are children’s lives and these children are the future.”
For advocates like Anita Bhatia and Tina Swithin, healing from the trauma of violence comes from education. Not only do families need to better understand healthy relationships, but survivors need to know what resources they can access and how. More importantly, the judicial system needs basic training on recognizing red flags about domestic violence.