Fathers & Families Hosts Debate Between 2 Leading Domestic Violence Authorities (Part I)

stark2Domestic violence and the DV policies of family courts and law enforcement is a multi-faceted issue that has an enormous impact on American families.

During the 1970s, feminist organizations fought hard to make domestic violence a public issue, as opposed to a private one, and to gain governmental and societal support for policies aimed at protecting abused women. Current policies have largely been shaped and influenced by the DV establishment which arose from that movement.

However, today those policies are coming under increasing attack from dissident domestic violence experts, as well as civil libertarians and fathers’ advocates.

Fathers & Families is hosting a debate between two of North America’s leading domestic violence authorities, feminist DV expert Professor Evan Stark, Ph.D, MSW, and dissident DV expert Dr. Donald G. Dutton.

Evan Stark, Ph.D, MSW (pictured, right) is a forensic social worker who has served as an expert in more than 100 criminal and civil cases, consulted with numerous federal and state agencies, including the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control, and won a number prestigious awards for his work.  A founder of one of the first shelters for abused women in the U.S., in the 1980″s Dr. Stark co-directed the Yale Trauma Studies with Dr. Anne Flitcraft, path-breaking research that was the first to document the significance of domestic violence for female injury as well as its links to child abuse and a range of other health and behavioral problems.

He trained at the National Centers for Post-Traumatic Stress at the US Veteran”s Hospital and maintained a clinical practice with men for over a decade. His recent book, Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life (Oxford University Press, 2007) was named the best book published in sociology/social work in 2007 by the American Publishers” Association. Dr. Stark is a Professor at the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University-Newark and Chair of the Department of Urban Health Administration at the UMDNJ School of Public Health. To learn more about Professor Stark, click here.

Dr. Donald G. Dutton, Ph.D. has published over one hundred papers and ten books, including Rethinking Domestic Violence, The Abusive Personality, Domestic Assault of Women: Psychological and Criminal Justice Perspectives, and The Batterer: A psychological profile. Dutton (pictured, middle right) has served as an expert witness in criminal trials involving family violence, including his work for the prosecution in the O.J. Simpson trial. He is currently a Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. To learn more about  Dr. Dutton, click here.

The debate will run in several segments and will be posted on both and Readers are asked to keep comments respectful and on topic. Our rules of moderation can be seen here.

Professor Stark begins our debate below.

Glenn Sacks, MA
Executive Director, Fathers & Families

Ned Holstein, M.D., M.S.
Founder, Chairman of the Board, Fathers & Families

Fathers & Families’ Question #1: The Obama administration recently appointed Lynn Rosenthal as the first-ever White House Advisor on Violence Against Women. Vice President Biden, who wrote the Violence Against Women Act, said that creating the post will help the White House focus on stopping domestic violence. The mainstream domestic violence establishment arguably now has the most sympathetic administration ever. What should the administration do to improve how the United States deals with the problem of domestic violence?

Stark’s Response: Current domestic violence policies are predicated on four widely shared assumptions, that abuse can be equated with physical and sexual assaults; that a straightforward calculus of physical injury and psychological trauma or fear can be used to assess its seriousness (and by implication to ration services); that criminal justice should be the front –line response to perpetrators and shelter for victims; and that female victims and male perpetrators should be the major targets of this response. I disagree with the first two of these beliefs and at least one of my suggestions, that a new crime of “coercive control’ be added to existing domestic violence statutes, arises from this disagreement. In general, however, I think major changes in policy are unlikely in the near future. As a result, my suggestions for Lynn Rosenthal and the Obama administration are incremental and build on the current framework.

The appointment of Ms. Rosenthal represents the first time an advocate for domestic violence services has been in the White House, a major step forward. Ms. Rosenthal”s role has yet to be defined, however. The Obama administration may turn out to be “sympathetic’ to our concerns as the question suggests. Thus far, however, there have no specific policies or proposals to show that this is so.

“It is a mistake to believe that funding or support for domestic violence services is a liberal issue…[current DV policies] have had broad bipartisan support.”

It is a mistake to believe that funding or support for domestic violence services is a liberal issue. In every instance, policies based on the four assumptions above have had broad bipartisan support. Moreover, in the two areas that are of particular concern in my work, criminal justice and health, the major initiatives were taken by President Reagan. This was the encouragement of mandatory arrest by an Attorney General”s task force and the unprecedented focus on domestic violence as a public health issue by the U.S. Surgeon General Koop.

Presidents Nixon, Carter and Clinton also took important steps. Nixon was the first to provide federal support for shelters; Carter held a special White House conference on DV, opened a National Clearinghouse on Domestic Violence and supported the hearings on DV before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that led us to form the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

President Clinton had mixed motives for bringing VAWA to the forefront. These included his desire to keep women”s support–which he did–without having to openly endorse abortion and his hope to lure liberal votes for his crime bill (of which VAWA was part) that had provisions on the death penalty and sentencing which liberals opposed. Many in the advocacy community were ambivalent about VAWA, largely because the money was funneled to the states and because most of the funds were ear-marked for criminal justice rather than direct services for victims.

Senator Biden played a key role in drafting VAWA. But it only passed because of support from Newt Gingrich, Utah Senator Orin Hatch and other conservatives. The two Bushes took a more low-keyed approach, though they supported VAWA, formed various advisory panels of domestic violence experts and various reviews of research and services in the field.

“[O]pposition to mainstream [DV] beliefs, initiatives and policies has been minimal…[anti-VAWA] protests were ineffectual, the arguments transparent, and never commanded an audience in the scientific community. They were a non-factor when VAWA came up for its various reauthorizations.”

It is also important to appreciate that opposition to mainstream beliefs, initiatives and policies has been minimal. While “conservative feminists’ like Christina Hoff Sommers and some conservative journalists publicly railed against VAWA, these protests were ineffectual, the arguments transparent, and never commanded an audience in the scientific community. They were a non-factor when VAWA came up for its various reauthorizations.

The goal of these proposals is to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of current interventions in establishing safety for victims and accountability for perpetrators.

Proposals for Change

I: A National Surveillance System


Currently, there is no consensus in the research or service community about what constitutes a “case’ of domestic violence. Current attempts to apply a definition of violence as a discrete act or assault are drawn from criminal justice and have hopelessly confounded data collection and analysis, making it impossible to distinguish incidence (“new cases’) from prevalence (the total burden on the community at any time.). In contrast to this definition, the research we have from surveys and service sites shows that abuse is typically ongoing or repeated and continues for somewhere between 5.5 and 7 years in a typical case. Cross sectional or survey data make no useable distinction between new and ongoing cases. Since the aim of prevention is to reduce the number of new cases (incidence) and the aim of other interventions is to reduce the total burden abuse places on the community (prevalence), we can neither design effective interventions or evaluate them without accurate information on incidence and prevalence.

Conversely, the fact that someone was abused “ever’ in their adult life-time does not mean it is a current problem requiring a commitment of resources. Despite some limitations, the National Violence Against Women Survey (NVAWS) was the best designed measure of which I am aware and should provide an important model for a new surveillance system. But any surveillance system should be rooted in hospitals, courts, police departments, shelters and other facilities to which victims turn for help.

“[T]he executive branch should use its influence to develop a national surveillance system that can provide accurate and regular data on the incidence and prevalence of domestic violence.”


Working with the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Justice, the executive branch should use its influence to develop a national surveillance system that can provide accurate and regular data on the incidence and prevalence of domestic violence. This would be comparable to the current surveillance systems used for other health problems as well as for child abuse and neglect. At a minimum, the surveillance system would include stalking and sexual abuse as well as physical assault, distinguish long-standing from current abuse, incorporate questions on major control strategies (see below) as well as threats and other forms of coercion, and identify abuse by incorporating questions related to fear, injury and help-seeking. Partners in this process would include, at a minimum, CDC, Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Surgeon General, the National Institute of Justice, and the Bureau of Maternal and Child Health.

“[Most abuse victims] have experienced…tactics to degrade, isolate, intimidate, exploit and control them…this pattern of abuse has been…termed…coercive control…[we need] legislation to make coercive control a federal crime akin to kidnapping or hostage-taking.”

II. Criminalize Coercive Control


Recent evidence suggests that between 60% and 80% of the victims who currently seek outside assistance have experienced a pattern of abuse that includes tactics to degrade, isolate, intimidate, exploit and control them as well as to hurt them physically. This pattern of abuse has been variously termed intimate terrorism or coercive control, the term I prefer. The harms occasioned by coercive control extend to basic liberties and rights, including rights to speech, association, movement, communication, work, and to control one”s own resources. For instance, more than half of the persons arrested for domestic violence in Quincy, Mass. admit they have taken their partner”s money and ‘controlled” them in other ways. Many of these tactics are currently offenses if committed against person in the public sphere. Current laws target physical assault and threats almost exclusively and result in little or no significant jail time for perpetrators even when an arrest occurs.


Working with the Justice Department and the Judiciary Committees in the House and Senate, the executive branch would prepare and submit legislation to make coercive control a federal crime akin to kidnapping or hostage-taking and encourage states to adapt similar legislation defining a new class A felony. These laws would supplement rather than replace existing domestic violence laws. Current attempts to criminalize coercive control in Maine, Missouri and Florida could provide a starting point.

[This ends Part I of Stark’s answer to question #1. Part II, in which Stark deals with Family Courts and custody, will follow after Dutton’s response to Part I. All of the posts relating to this debate are available here–GS]

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