By Bob Feikema
As published in The Winston-Salem Journal, Monday, December 19, 2016
Imagine opening your morning paper to these headlines: Intimate partner violence is down by 63%! Child abuse and neglect rates have dropped by 40%! Sexual abuse of children has declined by 62%! You wouldn’t be dreaming. These are the facts. You can look them up. The U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have been tracking these statistics since the mid-1990s. The lines on their charts drop steeply from then through the first years of this century, with a gradual leveling off over the past decade.
All this should be cause for celebration, if not jubilation. So why are these positive social indicators overlooked?
It wasn’t that long ago that the very existence of child abuse and domestic violence were either denied or minimized. Raising awareness of the pervasiveness of the problem was a necessity for the agencies that were created in the 1960s and 70s to serve the victims of family violence. After decades of struggle to adequately fund family violence programs, it could seem risky to suggest that the magnitude of the problem has diminished. It’s difficult to walk the line between celebrating success and maintaining that a deadly, serious problem still remains to be addressed.
The story is also complicated by the difficulty of providing precise reasons for the declining rates. However, Dr. David Finkelhor, Director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, has identified a number of factors that contributed to the decrease in child abuse: greater public awareness, stepped-up prevention efforts, specialized policing efforts, the establishment of service systems that assist victims, more effective psychotropic medications, and the deterrence afforded by the prosecution of offenders. It seems reasonable to credit similar factors in reducing the incidence of intimate partner violence. Taken together, they have rewritten the code for what is expected and acceptable behavior. They have combined to change community norms, which is the ultimate basis for achieving a lasting, sustainable reduction in family violence.
Family Services is proud to have been a part of this effort in Forsyth County. Since the mid-1980s, we have provided a women’s shelter, 24-hour crisis lines, victim advocacy and case management, and education and awareness programs. In 2000 we established the Child Advocacy Center to provide a child-friendly place where children who have been abused can be assessed by a skilled forensic interviewer. And since 2005, we have coordinated Safe-on-Seven, a collaborative of social service, law enforcement, and legal aid agencies connected to the district attorney’s office, which serves 1,800 victims annually. These services save lives and help women, men, parents, children and families reclaim the safety and security they need to restore their well-being.
But it’s not enough. The prevalence of violence within families – across all racial/ethnic and socio-economic groups – remains unacceptably high and undermines the economic and social vitality of our community. That which has brought current success may not take us further. Future progress depends on new methods for transforming community norms.
That’s why Family Services convened a group of leaders in the domestic violence and child abuse fields to develop a community-wide initiative to eliminate family violence in our county. These leaders are convinced that creative ideas for eliminating family violence can be found across all sectors of our community and that once implemented these ideas will have the power to change attitudes, practices, values, and behavior.
As a result the Family Violence Prevention Initiative was launched this past October, involving a wide range of organizations in Forsyth County, including the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, the District Attorney’s office, the Department of Public Health, the Hispanic League, Salem College, Winston-Salem State University, and the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter. These organizations created teams of 8 to 12 members. Throughout the fall months, each team participated in a series of five, facilitated “dialogue-to action” sessions to study family violence from the vantage point of their organization and to identify what their organization can do to contribute to a reduction in the incidence of family violence. Three more groups will get underway in January. Early next year, all the groups will convene for a Community Action Forum, during which they will formally adopt action plans that they will implement during the coming year.
It seems like a novel approach to reducing family violence. Yet, it’s what Americans have been doing since the founding of the republic. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America after his visit to the United States in 1835, “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition, are forever forming associations” as the means for solving community problems. In 2017, we will learn how this exercise in everyday democracy leads to further progress in the continuing effort to eliminate family violence in our community.
Bob Feikema is President and CEO, Family Services
For recent articles on the Family Violence Prevention initiative, visit our “It’s Working” page