Wow, I haven’t blogged in a while! I’ve been so stupid busy with everything that blogging has kind of fallen by the wayside. Oops! Forgive me?
Anyway, something happened yesterday that I cannot ignore. I knew I had to blog about it.
As I’ve said before, this year my graduate internship is at a domestic violence and rape crisis counseling center. Our agency also runs a batterers’ rehabilitation program, but I’m not involved in that. My sole focus is counseling survivors of violence. Sometimes we’re invited to attend seminars and conferences run by various agencies and institutions in the area. Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a seminar on the intersection of domestic violence and military families. Being in a military family and also working directly with domestic violence, my interest was peaked. I was really excited to hear what those in the court system had to say about domestic violence and how it affects military personnel and their families differently from how it affects civilian families. Dealing directly with survivors in a counseling setting doesn’t offer me many opportunities to see what the courts are doing to also fix the problem, so I was excited to come away with a better understanding of how the court system works especially in terms of bringing justice to survivors.
Oh boy. I was not prepared. You are not prepared.
The presentation started off with a discussion on the rates of PTSD and TBI in military personnel. They spoke on the need for mental health services and how these two problems that affect military personnel in a pretty prevalent manner need to be treated. All of this is true, but I was leery of what sort of premise this information was setting up. Social workers are always taught to trust their gut, and my gut was SCREAMING that I was not going to like what I was about to hear.
I was right.
The presenters used the information about PTSD/TBI/other mental health problems to essentially set up an argument that treatment of mental health problems abates intimate partner violence (IPV – the new term for domestic violence), and that IPV is triggered by mental health problems. I want to lay something down right now before we go further. THIS IS NOT TRUE. Battering in any of its forms (physical, verbal, emotional, psychological, and sexual) is a choice that somebody makes. It is not the result of a mental health problem or a substance abuse problem. Mental health issues and substance abuse can (and often do) exacerbate IPV, but they are not the cause of IPV. Does that bear repeating?
MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS AND SUBSTANCE ABUSE ARE NOT THE ROOT CAUSE OF IPV. Period. A batterer who also has a mental health/substance abuse problem is someone who requires TWO SEPARATE interventions: one for the battering and another for the mental health or substance abuse issue. Treating mental health alone will not stop battering.
The presentation was filled with justification for why military personnel (active and retired) batter, and that justification lied solely in their initial premise of the prevalence of PTSD, TBI, and substance abuse in military personnel. In between all of this justification were a few statements that I wish they spent a lot more time explaining.
The first was a pretty startling statistic. More than half of those enlisted in the military are survivors of some sort of abuse (whether in childhood or adulthood). That’s HUGE. It’s difficult to compare that number to the statistic for the general population, but being a victim of abuse is one of the primary risk factors for later being a perpetrator of abuse. This was glossed over and treated as a secondary problem (with mental health issues in vets being the primary reason for battering), when in fact, we could probably ignore everything else and say that this is THE reason that IPV happens so frequently in military families.
They also quickly stated and then moved on from the fact that battering is a learned behavior. It was never once mentioned that battering is a choice. In fact, it was frequently implied (but never overtly said) that battering is something someone cannot control (again, because they were posturing that battering is the result of a mental health problem). But at least it was recognized that battering behavior is something learned and not something innate. Baby steps.
Had enough of the BS? Well strap in because I’m about to shovel on some more.
They never once talked about military culture. Not one. single. mention. Battering is predicated on a need for power and control. The military as an institution is built upon quite similar beliefs. Pile onto that the prior statistic that over half of our active duty servicemen and women have previously been victimized, and you’ve created a petri dish primed for cultivating domestic violence. Again, there is no one to blame for battering than the batterer, but I’d be insane to ignore that culture plays a huge part in normalizing certain cognitions and behaviors. (Please note that I’m not saying that the military encourages IPV, but that the military culture is one that shares certain characteristics with IPV risk factors)
And then came the discussion of how the courts deal with battering vets.
Oh my goodness.
There are three different ways that courts can deal with battering in military families. There’s the DV court, which deals with the criminality of DV on its own. There’s the IDV court (integrated DV), which will consolidate family, supreme, and DV courts into one court to minimize the number of judges and court dates for the family. Then, for veterans, there’s the Veterans’ court. Obviously the Vet court is only available to vets who have self-identified as such. In DV and IDV courts, there are victim advocates that accompany survivors of DV and lend them support, and there is a focus on rehabilitating the batterer through BIPs (batterers’ intervention programs) as well as rehabilitating any other underlying issues via referrals to the appropriate agencies. However, the focus is on intervention and protecting the victim. How surprised would you be to hear that it’s entirely different in vet courts?
In the vet courts, there are no victim advocates. There is no focus on victims at all.
It’s seen as a partnership between the judge and the vet as a way of treating the problem instead of intervening. Vet courts operate very similarly to drug courts, and this model is highly effective when dealing with drug use and abuse and any other criminal issue. This does not work when dealing with IPV. Batterers must be treated much differently than those who abuse substances because the profile of a batterer is much different than that of a substance abuser. The vet courts don’t see this in that way, though. The vet courts do not refer to batterer intervention programs. They refer to mental health agencies and substance abuse treatment programs based on the assumption that treating mental health and/or substance abuse issues will stop battering. Treating these things may change the kind of battering, but it doesn’t ever stop battering. Ever. And to get a DV case moved from the DV/IDV court to the vet court, all the perpetrator needs to do is identify themselves as a vet. I don’t know that I have the words to explain at how much of a disadvantage this puts the survivor.
Upon immediately leaving the seminar, I was seeing red. I was furious. But upon further reflection, that anger gave way to sadness.
Veterans and active duty military personnel are among our protected populations (alongside the elderly and children). We do everything we can to protect them, serve them, and show them gratitude. They (and their families) make immeasurable sacrifices for our nation’s safety and security. It takes a very special kind of person to serve in our military, and they deserve the best of the best, especially when it comes to how we serve them after they’ve served us. Yet the rate of IPV in military families is 4 to 6 times higher than that in civilian families. And nothing is done in courts specifically designed to serve vets to stop this from happening and heal the wounds left behind by domestic violence. There are so many ways that we’ve failed our nation’s veterans (did you know that over half of the homeless population where I live is veterans? WTF is that?), and this is just one more. Yes, battering is a choice, and no, it is not caused by any sort of mental illness or substance abuse problem, but none of our choices exist in a vacuum, and we’re so reluctant to observe the culture in which these families live. In my opinion, that stems from fear. Fear of offending our country’s bravest. But what good are we doing and how are we best serving them when we ignore such a systemic problem? When we blame this cultural problem on issues not responsible for the problem itself?
There is no easy solution to this specific issue, but we need to stop couching it in easier-to-digest justifications. It doesn’t work, and it only perpetuates the problem because the problem is not being treated in the way it needs. Continued reluctance to say the things that need to be said is the worst injustice we can impart upon those who have sacrificed so much for us.