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New York City Pledged to Fund Programs to Stop Domestic Violence Without Involving the Legal System. But There’s Disagreement About How to Do It.

Rates of reporting domestic violence are low in immigrant communities, where survivors of abuse often don’t want to involve the police. As an alternative, the de Blasio administration promised to fund community-based domestic violence programming—but those funds were delayed, and advocates fear programs with strong community ties may not meet the city’s requirements.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by Roshan Abraham)

For years, a group of Spanish-speaking men has convened at the Oberia Dempsey Multi Services Center, a church converted into a community center on 127th Street in Harlem. 

The men who show up have been violent toward their romantic partners—and their partners persuaded them to get help, without involving the criminal legal system. They speak about masculinity, trauma, and the harm they’ve caused. 

The program, organized by the nonprofit Connect NYC and currently being held online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, typically runs for a cycle of 12 classes, though some people had been returning for as many as seven years. 

The classes are led by Marlon Walker, a 53-year-old former high school history teacher who immigrated from Panama. He said there have been a range of outcomes to the classes, including divorces and reconciliations with partners. The course does not offer any kind of quick cure, but for some it provides space for more long-term transformation.

“I have guys who are with me seven, eight years because they understand it’s a process,” Walker told The Appeal. Most of the men are undocumented, he said. Most are there voluntarily; a few come to satisfy a court order. All those who are there by choice arrive with the intention of changing, he said. In many cases, their partners—for reasons ranging from fear of deportation to pragmatism—did not wish to involve the police.

Walker’s program is one of a small number of formal interventions for intimate partner violence that don’t rely on the criminal legal system. Programs for abusive partners are controversial among domestic violence nonprofits, said Margarita Guzmán, executive director of the Violence Intervention Program, which serves survivors in heavily Latinx communities in East Harlem, Corona, and the South Bronx.

“This is a really divisive issue. There are so many mainstream domestic violence organizations that think this is the worst possible paradigm shift that can happen,” she said. “We are running up on decades, if not a century of there being a very white middle class-led movement that was really focused on getting police to arrest perpetrators or abusers, and getting survivors to disappear.”

Guzmán said domestic violence organizations fear that funding help for perpetrators will take money from survivors. But she believes avoiding the need to heal perpetrators of harm puts the onus on survivors.

“The real issue is the person who is causing the harm,” she said.

In 2018, the government of New York City agreed to provide a rare injection of funding for programs meant to curb domestic violence without also fueling the machinery of law enforcement—including programming for abusive partners. 

New York City originally planned to release the funds this year. Now, though, the money has been delayed until 2021 because a first call for proposals from community organizations that might partner with the city did not end with anyone being chosen. Some advocates fear that the city’s requirements to receive funding will leave programs like Walker’s out in the cold.

In May 2018, the office of the city’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, announced Interrupting Violence At Home, an initiative that pledged $3.3 million to domestic violence programming and, according to McCray’s office, would be run through existing community-based organizations. 

A key component of the initiative was that the city would fund voluntary interventions for people who have abused their partners through a program called Respect and Responsibility. Unlike court-mandated classes, referred to as “batterer intervention programs,” these programs would have no connection to the criminal legal system. The approach would be particularly meaningful to communities that are already hesitant to involve police, like immigrants. A 2017 survey of over 700 advocates for immigrant survivors found that 78 percent had clients who had concerns about reporting their abuse to the police.  

Without any intervention, people who abuse their partners can eventually end up in new relationships where they harm again—so even survivors who no longer have contact with their abusive partners want them to get help. This was one of the findings of “Seeding Generations,” a roadmap to dealing with abusive partners written by independent consultant Purvi Shah that informed the Interrupting Violence initiative.

Respect and Responsibility will not directly fund existing programs, but new ones created collaboratively with nonprofits that will be subject to ongoing evaluations. The city’s request for proposals, viewed by The Appeal, states that it plans to select up to three vendors, each of which would receive up to $438,000 a year to build out the programming. 

But Respect and Responsibility is being delayed past its initial rollout date this year. In a statement to The Appeal, Cecile Noel, commissioner for the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence (ENDGBV), said that the program would start in early 2021. The city says it was delayed because an earlier request for proposals did not lead to any vendors being selected, although ENDGBV declined to say why. 

“Survivors need us now more than ever, especially in these extraordinary times, and our top priority remains to ensure continuity of services and unwavering support,” Noel said in the statement.

That means that community-based programs that have been around for years will have to work with the city to rewrite curricula and track data, hurdles they may not be prepared for. 

ENDGBV told The Appeal that the new curricula will be community-oriented, and the city will address potential gaps in trust by asking nonprofits to embed within existing neighborhood organizations. In addition to on-site programming at the facilities of nonprofits, the city asks providers to create off-site programming in 11 targeted community districts. These districts will encompass Harlem, East New York, Brownsville, Jamaica, Mott Haven, and East Tremont among other neighborhoods. The city hopes this strategy will reach vulnerable populations by “engaging trusted community validators and stakeholders and meeting program participants where they are.”

Quentin Walcott, co-executive director of Connect NYC, which runs Walker’s intervention program, said government funding could also have its downsides. 

“The thing about getting state or local government funding is the controls they end up trying to have over this, who you have running it, professionalization of it,” Walcott said. This can end up excluding facilitators who may not have credentials like an advanced degree, he said. According to the Respect and Responsibility request for proposals, for instance, facilitators for the program “must have advanced degrees in psychology, social work or a related field.”

In some cases, people with less formal credentials may be more skilled at reaching vulnerable communities. “Many people that do the work now may not be able to do it,” Walcott said. “They typically go for social workers, and social workers don’t necessarily learn all of this in graduate school. Professionalization of the field kind of eliminates creativity in terms of engaging these communities around this issue.”

While talking with McCray and other officials about Interrupting Violence, Walcott pushed for the city to fund existing programs at nonprofits, rather than setting up a city-run program.

“My struggle with the city is, why are you doing something that can be done in the community?” he said. “Don’t compete with the person on the ground.” 

Walcott, who serves on the NYC Domestic Violence Taskforce, lent his name to a press release announcing Interrupting Violence and hoped it could fund Connect NYC’s work with people who have abused partners. Ultimately, Connect NYC decided not to submit a proposal to Respect and Responsibility, fearing the program gave too much control to the city. Walcott said the city looked to Connect NYC’s model to help develop its own programming, but reiterated that he would prefer it funded existing programming directly. ENDGBV told The Appeal, without referring to Connect NYC, that it worked with existing programs to identify best practices.

ENDGBV told The Appeal that the second request for proposals for the Respect and Responsibility initiative has ended, but the city has not yet selected any vendors.

Walker’s Spanish-language interventions actively engage immigrants who are wary of the criminal legal system, a population the city would likely want to reach.

Survivors of intimate partner violence often do not report the violence to the police. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, only 56 percent of acts of domestic violence that took place from 2006 to 2015 in the U.S. were reported to the police. 

Christopher Bromson, executive director of Crime Victims Treatment Center, a nonprofit that supports sexual assault survivors, said the great majority of survivors who work with the organization do not want to report their abuse. Very few immigrant survivors he works with want to involve police.

Many survivors do not call the police for fears of economic instability, since their abusers may also be the main earner in the family, said Guzmán, the Violence Intervention Program executive director. Those fears most likely increased with the recent economic downturn. Domestic violence organizations say abuse has spiked during the pandemic, as partners are isolated at home with the person who is harming them. But reports of domestic violence to the NYPD decreased by 15 percent in March compared to the same time period last year, and the NYPD says domestic violence arrests went down 43 percent during the first few weeks of the shutdown. 

Fear of police violence can also lead to a lack of reporting.

“There’s always a very legitimate and very valid fear that police will brutalize the person who is calling for help,” Guzmán said.  

For immigrants, there’s also a fear of deportation. Walker says that as recently as April, one of the men in his program was deported. He now joins in on the group’s online meetings from Mexico.

Bromson said most of the survivors he works with just want the violence to stop and for the person causing harm to take responsibility.

“The majority of survivors that we work with do not want the person who is hurting them to be incarcerated or removed or taken out of their lives,” he said. “The stakes are too high.” 

The city spent $7.8 million in fiscal year 2020 on court-mandated batterer intervention programs for people who have been charged with domestic violence, including a family-based program called A Safe Way Forward run by the Administration for Children’s Services, and a program created by the Manhattan district attorney’s office that is funded by $500,000 a year in asset forfeitures. It also includes $925,000 spent on Program for Power and Control, 24 weekly, hour-long court-mandated classes run by QCC Services in all five boroughs. But critics say programs like this do little to decrease domestic violence. 

At a City Council hearing in November, representatives from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and ENDGBV were questioned about whether such programs could demonstrate that they reduce violent behavior.

At the hearing, Linda G. Mills, who developed the country’s first court-mandated restorative justice program, testified that there was little evidence that batterer intervention programs reduced violence.

Guzmán, like many who work in domestic violence nonprofits, does not think much of court-ordered programs.

“I wouldn’t categorize the court-mandated batterer intervention programs that exist as help. It’s more of a bureaucratic going through the motions,” she said.

The request for proposals for Respect and Responsibility indicates that ongoing evaluations built into the project are a response to the lack of data on voluntary programs. “A significant challenge in developing a community‐based non‐mandated [abusive partner intervention program] model is the lack of evidence and research in the field, as much of the existing evidence base is for court‐mandated APIPs,” the request for proposals says. For this reason, the city would plan to collect data during the project’s pilot period, which will last three years. 

Hannah Pennington, assistant commissioner for policy and training at ENDGBV, testified at the November hearing that the city was planning to move forward with voluntary batterer interventions, but that “we want to be very intentional about trying to fill that gap.” 

ENDGBV said it did not yet have criteria for how the city would determine success, but that a curriculum developer would help with this. 

Walcott of Connect NYC cited metrics as one of the difficult parts of evaluating a program of this type. Court-ordered programs track recidivism, which is counterintuitive to voluntary programs meant to keep people safe from police. Walker said that in his 13 years of running the program, none of the participants who come to his group to satisfy a court mandate have completed the course. He believes this is because his workshops are far more intensive than the court-mandated batterer intervention classes that the city funds. He assigns homework and requires deep reflection and participation.  

But Walker said he has seen evidence that men who attend voluntarily can stop harming their partners. “One of the first questions I get asked is, do men change? And the answer is, of course they do,” he said. 

Walker said it often comes down to outside motivation.

“Some guys say I don’t want my child to look at me as a monster, I’ll change for that,” Walker said. “But I see those who are really committed. This is a struggle.” 

On the flip side, there are those who manipulate the process to present themselves as changed and avoid accountability. Walker remembered one man who attended the class, appeared to grasp the material, and harmed his partner again. Walker learned about this when the partner contacted him.

“This guy, he had the language down, he knew what to say, he was even crying in the group, and I got an email from his wife pretty much saying I don’t know what you’re doing, every time he comes home, he’s more abusive than when he leaves,” Walker said.

He was shaken by the experience but said examples like this are rare. Ultimately, he said, his role is providing a space for men who do genuinely want to change and for whom no other programming exists.

Although Respect and Responsibility was delayed, other components of Interrupting Violence are underway. One part of the initiative that has been completed is a blueprint on restorative justice, produced through the city’s Center for Court Innovation, authored by Erika Sasson along with co-author Charlene Allen, an independent consultant, with additional consulting from Shah. The blueprint is meant as a guide for nonprofits and community members who wish to engage in restorative justice and ways the city can provide support. The city will release the document in the coming months.

Drawing from their findings, Shah and Allen helped facilitate a collaborative consisting of advocates and anti-violence nonprofits, including NYC Anti-Violence Project, Steps to End Family Violence, and Connect NYC. The goal is to share resources and information on restorative justice work. Though the collaborative grew out of the city-funded blueprint for restorative justice, it is funded privately, Shah says. Shah and Allen say the city has not yet committed to funding any restorative justice programs despite funding the blueprint.

If the city does fund restorative justice, it could potentially resemble the same city-led approach as Respect and Responsibility. “I don’t think any of us is looking to see a city-based intervention,” said Allen. “The idea is to have it be community-based, and to have the city’s approval and support.”

And there are grassroots restorative justice programs connected neither to the city nor nonprofits. Shah says nonprofits can still play a role in truly community-driven work by providing space or sharing resources, and the city can make community centers available for people doing the work.

“It is absolutely the case that we want people to support their friends and communities in interrupting violence, and people need community centers,” she says.

Hosting online meetings of the Spanish-language program during the pandemic has not been easy, Walcott said. Not everyone who wants to participate has access to fast WiFi, data plans, or laptops. Walker tried meeting with a few people in a Dunkin’, but finding space to speak confidentially was a challenge. 

Walker has tailored the curriculum for online classes to be less intense, as many participants are isolated in close quarters with family and can’t speak as freely. 

New York City’s 2021 budget will most likely be painful for organizations that work with survivors. Many rely on City Council discretionary funds, which were slashed by 17 percent. But there’s still hope that the current global uprisings against anti-Black police violence and push to defund police departments may motivate the city to fund more solutions outside the criminal legal system. Shah said any new commitments need to be sustained. 

“Even if this is a moment where there’s a spotlight on this issue, the investment needs to be long-term,” Shah said. “Ending violence will take generations.”