How to Support the Safety of Black Women Survivors of Domestic of Violence
October is Domestic Violence Awareness month (DVAM). DVAM was launched 34 years ago as a way to raise awareness about the prevalence of the issue and mobilize individuals, communities, and organizations to fight against it.
by Janaé Bonsu
Domestic violence refers to violent or aggressive behavior within the home, typically involving the violent abuse of an intimate partner. Black women in the United States are especially vulnerable to domestic violence, having reported a higher lifetime prevalence of physical violence, sexual violence, and psychological aggression relative to women of other races according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. This vulnerability increases with marginalized statuses and structural disadvantage: Black women with lower incomes, living in under-resourced communities, who are younger in age, disabled, or queer have higher incidence rates of domestic violence.
Since the 1990s, policymakers and carceral feminists in the U.S. have posited criminal legal strategies such as policing, prosecution, and imprisonment as solutions to address domestic violence. However, these strategies have often proven more harmful—not helpful—to survivors who are Black, queer, immigrant, disabled, or otherwise marginalized.
NBWJI has launched a study on Black women, trans, and gender nonconforming people’s encounters with police to help fill critical gaps in our collective understanding of how various types and contexts of police encounters affect this population. (See if you are eligible to participate in our survey at bit.ly/NBWJI-POLICING.) What we do know from previous studies and anecdotes shows that police contact contributes to criminalization and punishment of survivors, particularly survivors of color and LGBTQ survivors. This criminalization and punishment have often occurred through mandatory arrest policies, child protective service involvement, deportation of undocumented survivors, eviction and loss of employment or welfare benefits. Moreover, police responses to domestic violence have led to neglect, physical violence, and sexual violence by police. For example, one study found that the vast majority of Black and Native American survivors reported police use of force and that police often completely dismissed their claims of violence.
We affirm the call of BIPOC-led and anti-violence groups, organizations, and communities to support survivors’ safety:
Decriminalize survival by addressing policies and practices that punish instead of protect survivors, like mandatory arrests, failure to protect policies, bail (fines and fees), and the criminalization of homelessness and street economies (such as sex work and drug trades).
Remove police from schools: The Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act, for example, would prohibit the use of federal funds for maintaining and growing police presence in schools and establishes a $5 billion grant program to support schools that choose to invest in counselors, nurses, mental health professionals, and trauma-informed staff.
Divest much needed resources away from the criminal punishment system and reinvest in survivors’ and their communities’ needs: Many places across the country have started to make this shift.
While we continue to learn more about how police contact contributes to the criminalization and systematic punishment of marginalized Black survivors, we can say with confidence that more policing, prosecution, and imprisonment is not a solution to domestic violence that fosters healing. Domestic violence agencies, advocates, and policymakers must understand that policing and criminalizing domestic violence have adverse impacts on Black women and girls. It’s high time to invest in anti-violence strategies that center survivors’ needs to prevent, escape from, and heal from violence.