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Communities of tomorrow can be free of violence by focusing on prevention today

By: Foundation staff
An illustration that shows scenes from communities of the future

We explore five ways communities of the future can prevent domestic violence.

Domestic violence is a crisis of epidemic proportions, with more than 12 million adults in the United States experiencing domestic or intimate partner violence every year. In California, the majority of adults report some experience with physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, according to survey findings from March 2020. This troubling trend is cast in even sharper relief when viewed against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made it more difficult for survivors of domestic violence in particular to break free from the person causing them harm.

These survey findings and the current pandemic have propelled the issue of domestic violence to greater prominence—but still, the subject is often dismissed as a family issue best handled in the privacy of the home.

This article seeks to bring the conversation about domestic violence into the public sphere, where we can convene multiple perspectives and discuss it as a systemic issue that affects the health of entire communities. Solving the problem of domestic violence, which touches every aspect of life, will require addressing its root causes.

A community that successfully rids itself of domestic violence is one that tackles the root causes and systemic problems embedded deeply in its social and political systems. To help us determine how a community could one day get there, we caught up with three Blue Shield of California Foundation grantees and three members of our staff and asked them a simple question: What would a community without violence actually look like? What are its distinct features?

Their answers were illuminating and varied, but they all coalesced around a single idea: The community of the future will need to reimagine its inherited systems—economic systems, housing programs, education models, social services, public safety infrastructure, and gender norms—in order to help prevent domestic violence among its members. In this article, we explore some of their thought-provoking suggestions. What follows is not a roadmap, nor a grant-making guide. Rather, it is offered in the spirit of exploration, and we hope it will spark ideas and inspire others to think about creating a future without domestic violence.

“There is a reset of our worldview that needs to happen in order to solve domestic violence,” said Lucia Corral Peña, a senior program officer with Blue Shield of California Foundation. “We need affordable structures and equitable ways in which racial, gender, and economic inequity can be mitigated, in order to create environments and conditions that limit violence within a community.”

Illustration shows a magnifying glass and community members consulting a large book1. Accessible community-based resources

Every year, roughly 240 million calls are made to 911 in the United States. When faced with a home intruder or immediate threat of violence, we are conditioned to call an emergency line. But research has shown that police interventions for domestic violence often don’t have their intended effect.

“Often, when the police get involved, and the state gets involved, the likelihood of violence increases rather than decreases,” said Marc Philpart, managing director at PolicyLink, a nonprofit organization that advocates for economic security for people of color.

Further complicating this relationship with the police is the social stigma associated with involving them in the first place. The fact is that the vast majority of victims of domestic and sexual violence never file formal reports with the police. That’s why we must augment tried-and-tested domestic violence interventions with robust prevention-driven and community-based social services and supports.

“We need to have some community-based alternatives out there that people can rely upon,” Philpart said. “Why not be able to call and go to an entity that can provide support and service to help you work through things on the front end, versus letting them get to a boiling point into a crisis?”

It’s what Emma Mayerson, executive director of Alliance for Girls, calls a “navigable system of services,” which would make it easy for people to find appropriate social services to help them navigate life’s ups and downs well before a crisis materializes that requires police or shelter intervention.

This accessible collection of social services could include text-based “warmlines” for counseling and prevention, restorative justice programs for vulnerable youth, and community dispatchers trained to diffuse early signs of domestic violence.

Illustration shows community members seated on a book, signifying learning, and watching a presenter2. Teaching a new set of social expectations

For some experts, education remains a bedrock component to a violence-free community of the future. But the education they favor distinguishes itself from a typical conflict management curriculum by focusing much more foundationally on politics, gender dynamics, and structural issues, such as systemic racism and misogyny.

“I think we have to socialize people differently,” Philpart said. “This piece about patriarchy, misogyny, and the culture of violence, and how it's deeply rooted in masculinity and power, is something that I think we have to interrogate a bit more in our society.”

In this case, a robust political education has deeply personal consequences: Our research suggests equitable gender norms that challenge traditional notions of masculinity and gender support safe and healthy relationships.

This political education would also be paired with more personal strategies, including mindfulness, which some experts believe is critical to teaching anger management and emotional regulation techniques. Learning to recognize anger by observing physiological changes in the body, like quickening heart rate and tight chest, is an effective way to use mindfulness techniques for prevention.

“Imagine getting serious with a new partner and wanting to better understand what their triggers are, how to manage the relationship, take a deeper look into anger issues,” Philpart said. “People think that violence just kind of happens. But it doesn't—it's a buildup.”

Illustration of a couple walking into a building labeled community center3. Community and neighborhood spaces for the 21st century.

There remains a very real demand for in-person, physical institutions to serve not only as safe spaces for domestic violence survivors but as real incubators for self-improvement and community cohesion.

Our research already corroborates this idea: People who live in neighborhoods with ample opportunities for connection and community involvement are less likely to experience social isolation, a risk factor for domestic violence. The inverse is also true: People living in neighborhoods that lack places to connect socially are more likely to experience the erosion of social networks and trust.

After COVID-19, Karen Earl, the CEO of Jenesse Center, a nonprofit that supports survivors of domestic violence in the Los Angeles area, collaborated with the city’s mayor to open a temporary shelter that serves 90 local families. Jenesse’s approach incorporates preventative measures believed to reduce the incidents of domestic violence in the long-term.

“Our programs have economic development for clients and entrepreneurial support. There's youth development. We have a camp for kids. We have a boutique there. We have an educational center. We have a beauty shop,” Earl said.

While Jenesse’s model serves as a promising pilot, many shelters are under-resourced and struggle to consistently accommodate families in non-emergency situations. Establishing more prevention-oriented programs—community centers that cultivate the type of social cohesion and trust proven to reduce the risk of domestic violence in the long-run—requires not only substantial funding but the tenacity to tear down stubborn silos.

“I am envisioning a community where these services are replicated without the focus on domestic violence,” Earl said. “This I call pre-, pre-, pre-prevention.”

Illustration shows a woman with arms, signifying victory over the calculator and notepad she stands over4. More responsible financial institutions

Economic instability is both a cause and result of domestic violence, culminating in a vicious cycle that can place immeasurable harm on communities vulnerable to violence.

On average, survivors of domestic violence report having $1,280 stolen by their abusers every month and lose out on more than $23,000 of income every year—not to mention ruined credit and rental histories, as well as thousands in property damage costs, according to FreeFrom, a Los Angeles-based organization that addresses the relationship between domestic violence and financial insecurity.

Insurance, banking, and financial institutions that offer enhanced fraud protections, waive health care premiums in cases of violence, and supply ample paid time off for survivors are critical to the community of the future.

For example, a credit card company committed to preventing domestic violence may choose to waive police report requirements for establishing fraud and offer flexible repayment programs for survivors of domestic violence. Similarly, a health insurance company might expand medical coverage for injuries sustained in a domestic violence-related situation.

Calls for this type of institutional reform are even more urgent amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which for many has contributed to the social isolation, financial insecurity, and mental stress known as being risk factors for domestic violence.

“COVID-19 has illuminated the severe lack of infrastructure that we have in the U.S. to support survivors’ long-term safety. We need an ecosystem that includes every pillar of our society coming together to play their part in supporting a survivors’ recovery—state and federal legislatures, banks and credit card companies, employers, health insurance companies, and others,” Sonya Passi, the founder and CEO of FreeFrom, said. “If we don’t use this moment to transform our approach, COVID-19 will come and go and survivors will still be trapped.”

Illustration of a set of house keys next to a house, signifying access to capital like home mortgages5. Access to money

We know that domestic violence is three times more prevalent in couples experiencing financial hardships, a direct cause of stress and relationship dissatisfaction. Furthermore, when it comes to deciding whether to leave an abusive relationship or to stay for economic stability, many are forced to choose the latter—and oftentimes, they return because they can’t afford to start a new life.

That’s why, in addition to reforming its financial institutions, a violence-free community of the future will need to ensure its most vulnerable members have easy and direct access to capital.

“A violence-free community of the future has children that are thriving and adults with real economic opportunities,” said Debbie Chang, president and CEO of Blue Shield of California Foundation. “Not just a stable job but a high-quality job that comes with benefits.”

Some programs, such as the Domestic Violence Housing First program in Washington State, are offering victims of domestic violence unrestricted cash grants to help them pay for rental applications, utilities, and overdue rent—all immediate causes of homelessness, which in turn is closely associated with domestic violence.

The emphasis on unrestricted cash grants is especially important, considering just how intertwined the relationship between homelessness and domestic violence really is. One California study showed that women who experienced domestic violence were four times more likely to report housing insecurity. A CDC survey found that women who experienced housing insecurity were significantly more likely to experience domestic violence. The vicious cycle self-perpetuates, and we believe that easy and unrestricted access to capital can help shatter the bond between the two risk factors.

Ultimately, we believe that domestic violence can only be prevented in a community that treats it as a component of a larger structural economic issue. Banks, employers, credit card companies, and insurers can seize the opportunity to be changemakers by adopting institutional reforms designed specifically to attack one of the most pernicious root causes of domestic violence: economic instability.

Finding the path ahead

These are just some ideas, and there are many more still. Although it may be a while before a violence-free community of the future materializes in a scalable way, there is a lot to be hopeful about: Domestic violence prevention is being talked about seriously and stakeholders are beginning to look at both the individual family as well as the systems that need to change to support them.

“I envision a community where there is early education and parents and children are lifted up,” Earl of Jenesse said. “Prevention is so great and important. That's why our work with children is equal to our work with victims of domestic violence. If we don’t act on prevention, then we'll be continuing to build more shelters—and we don't want to build new shelters for the 21st century.”

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