It's all connected, and so are we: a life course perspective

Lucia Corral Pena and friends

I get together with a small group of close friends from law school every year. We’ve been friends since before we had babies, husbands, and careers — and before we knew about diva-camping trips. We are now seeing our children off to college. They are my sister-friends, and the luxury of time together means we generally don’t talk about our jobs. 

So it was unusual when this year, I shared research that our Foundation released several months ago: A Life Course Framework for Preventing Domestic Violence

While we don’t typically spend our time together talking about work, we’re aware of the role our work plays in our day-to-day lives. One friend recently got a new job as a domestic violence attorney. Two others are long-time public defenders in Los Angeles County representing children. They were very impressed with the what the research showed: there are clear connections between trauma, such as witnessing domestic violence in childhood, other complex risk factors, and domestic violence. For my friends, these connections are common sense. The life course data affirms what they see every day in and out of the courtroom, so their collective response was “We know it’s all connected, Lucia. We see the effects of trauma on kids, and by the time we meet them, our clients are already involved in two or three systems and being diagnosed for the first time with PTSD, depression, or anxiety.”

There are clear connections between trauma, other complex risk factors, and domestic violence. For my friends, these connections are common sense. 

They are right, of course. It is all connected. At the Foundation, we’re using the life course analysis to help us better understand how those connections are made. It has helped us understand how the intergenerational cycle of family violence works from a health perspective. Life course analyses demonstrate how health is a consequence of multiple determinants and contexts that change as a person develops. The timing and sequence of biological, psychological, cultural, and historical events and experiences influence the health and development of both individuals and populations. Through a life course analysis, we can begin to better understand the points in a person’s life at which we can most effectively break the cycle of domestic violence. Forward Change, our partners in this project, synthesized a large body of research on the individual and ecological risk factors for perpetrating domestic violence that occur across the life course, from in utero birth to young adulthood. It reinforces some of what is known from public health research and what is emergent in child trauma and brain development science fields. It also uncovers new insights:   

  • Domestic violence is far too common in the lives of men and women — and far too many children witness violent assaults between their parents.
  • Serious negative health and developmental consequences for children and teens follow in the wake of exposure to domestic violence incidents. 
  • Children below the ages of five are disproportionately exposed to trauma of various kinds compared to older children.
  • Teenagers who have experienced violence in the home in the past or concurrent with exposure to violence in teen dating relationships are at elevated risk for a variety of negative health and social outcomes.
  • Intergenerational framing for understanding and promoting practice innovation is a promising approach for future efforts to end domestic violence. 

Intergenerational poverty, housing insecurity, overreliance on punitive solutions, family separation, and anti-immigrant discrimination are structural factors that perpetuate the cycle of violence and often silence many vulnerable children, families, and communities. As the Foundation continues the journey toward prevention, we hope to create conversations that generate new pathways, partnerships, and innovations to advance a long-term vision for a world that is not just free from violence, but also abundant in opportunity for healthy relationships, healthy families, and healthy communities.

Our renewed commitment to end domestic has inspired new questions and new ways to pursue solutions. It is the right time to take this inclusive approach. In the past few years, gender-based violence — domestic violence, sexual violence, and sexual harassment — has occupied a near-constant position at the fore of our societal consciousness. #MeToo, #TimesUP, #SayHerName, women’s marches, and a steady stream of national news on the latest predators have empowered survivors across the country to stand up and share their stories. And their voices have inspired action and new allies. It is critical to understand that the context for these movements affects attitudes toward women and the feminine, promotes a culture of fear, and dehumanizes certain groups. 

In response, we are excited to serve as a lead funder in the Culture Change Fund and the California Gender Justice Funders Network to fuel momentum for understanding and action within the philanthropic community and in partnership with movement and culture change leaders.

The first step toward building a successful prevention model is shifting our mindset from “they” to “we.”

The life course report concludes with eight principles for prevention, as well as the Foundation’s insights for applying a life course perspective as one new lens to end domestic violence. We know that the root causes of domestic violence are complex. They’re forces, seen and unseen, in our society, systems, institutions, and communities. They are driven by trauma in our families, relationships, and even ourselves. It’s incredibly complex. And it really is all connected. The good news, however, is that we are too. The first step toward building a successful prevention model is shifting our mindset from “they” to “we.” If the causes come from all corners of our lives, the solutions can, too. We can start by making and exploring those connections — in our communities, in our families, and even in a group of sister friends.

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