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Can Domestic Violence Be Prevented?

North Carolina leads in efforts to stop the abuse before it starts


Maj. Gary Blankenship doesn't fit the typical profile of a domestic violence survivor. For one thing, he's a man. For another, he's in law enforcement as Operations Commander for the Chatham County Sheriff's Department. With his military bearing and close-cropped hair, Blankenship is the picture of brisk professionalism and control. Yet, here he is, at a panel discussion at a recent "Strong Men are Gentle Men" conference in Siler City, NC, telling a story that's a world away from all of that. It's a story that few of Blankenship's colleagues have heard before, about a violent, alcoholic father who frequently beat his wife (she had broken fingers and toes from where he stomped on them) and years later, ended up dying a violent death himself. It's about a mother who, when her husband began to turn on her eldest son, decided to gather up her five kids and leave for good.

"I don't have very many fond memories of being a child," Blankenship says, leveling his gaze at the 30 other men in the audience while the hum of Spanish translation goes on in the background. "I just don't remember very many happy times. When we're exposed to violence like that, we think it's the norm. As a 6-year-old child, I didn't know any different from a father who would come home and beat my mother."

"So how did you avoid following your father's example?" the moderator asks.

"If it wasn't for my mother leaving and getting away, we could have grown up very different," says Blankenship, who wears a beribboned photograph of his mom on his lapel. "It took her nine years to get to that point. At a time in your life when you know right from wrong no matter what you're exposed to, I decided I did not want to be violent."

Like the moderator's query, the focus of the Siler City gathering last month was on prevention. A new community group, Men for Family Peace, organized the half-day conference as a way to encourage more men to start examining the causes of violence — and ways it can be stopped before it starts.

The event fits into a larger patchwork-quilt of efforts to recast family violence as a public health problem that can be eliminated, not just "band-aided," as one agency director put it. North Carolina is a leader in this growing push, home to nationally recognized pilot programs and training centers.

Many battered women's advocates, who've spent years fighting for services for victims — as well as adequate punishments for abusers — are eager to shift into preventive gear because it holds out the promise of getting to a solution faster.

"This gives us a chance to be proactive instead of reactive," says Jo Ann Harris, coordinated community response specialist for the NC Coalition Against Domestic Violence, whose job is to spread the prevention message statewide. "And it allows us to reach out to a broader audience with our trainings, not just preaching to the choir."

The public health approach moves the beam of attention from individual victims and batterers to the larger community, Harris says. It focuses on educating people about beliefs and behaviors that lead to family violence — as well as those that keep it from happening. (Imagine public service ads on the sides of city buses touting healthy relationships, or parenting classes that discuss the effects of violent video games.)

"It means working with populations and teaching children at an early age," Harris says. "It means tracing things back to find out where people learn violent behavior and why it is that some people grow up in violent homes but don't choose violence."

The new approach uses science to target groups and settings where anti-violence strategies can be most effective. Pilot projects funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, are aimed at children, men, adolescents and communities of color because research shows they are most at risk.

While still in the early stages, North Carolina's pilot programs follow along those lines. A major facet of Men for Family Peace's work has been reaching out to the Latino community. In Wilmington, Domestic Violence Shelter and Services has been conducting a survey of public attitudes toward gender roles and violence in the wake of some high-profile stalking and murder cases of local female college students.

In recent years, a combination of federal funding, advanced research, more media attention — and, in North Carolina, landmark legislation that mandates more anti-violence education in public schools — has helped move prevention to the front burner. Even state Attorney General Roy Cooper has called family violence an "epidemic that requires extraordinary remedies."

Perhaps even more important is the conviction that, despite important progress, existing remedies in criminal justice and social services haven't made enough of a dent.

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