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Can Domestic Violence Be Prevented? 

North Carolina leads in efforts to stop the abuse before it starts

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The same is true of the idea that family violence crosses all social lines. It's true, but it doesn't explain why the rates of "intimate partner violence" are higher for some groups than others. (Researchers still haven't found the answer to that one.)

And there are layers beneath the layers. While studies have found that African Americans and Native Americans have higher rates of family violence than whites, those differences shrink when socioeconomic status is added to the mix, suggesting that race may be less of a risk factor than class.

Historically, doing something about domestic violence has been left largely up to the grassroots battered women's shelter movement that began in the 1970s. With so many organizations caught up in the daily struggle to provide services to victims, education and outreach are still a "luxury" too few can afford.The same dynamic is true of public schools, which are now studying ways to fulfill requirements to teach more violence prevention.

"This might be considered as one of those unfunded mandates," says Marguerite Peebles, section chief for the state Department of Public Instruction's Alternative and Safe Schools initiative. "We haven't found many barriers to people wanting to do this. We have found we need more resources."

But federal and state prevention dollars remain scarce. The CDC's Violence Prevention Division got just 1 percent of the agency's $7.7 billion budget this year. In North Carolina, the public policy center's new report found only a fraction of a percent of the $27 million the state spent on domestic violence programs in 2003-2004 went to community education, anti-violence programs in schools or other preventive efforts .

Public health leaders say prevention has always been a hard sell because it's about what doesn't happen. As a result, research and programs are scattered and vulnerable to short-term changes in legislation, funding or political will.

"We don't have a national institute of violence the way we have a National Cancer Institute" to consolidate funding and findings, says Beth Moracco, a researcher at Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Chapel Hill and a member of the state Commission for Women and Domestic Violence. "As a researcher, I'm frustrated about the lack of long-term focus on this issue. I'm not optimistic that enough resources are being devoted to it."

Signals from Washington are not encouraging. The Bush administration wants to "zero out" grants made under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the 1994 law that supports domestic violence and sexual assault services — making it even more unlikely that prevention will move to the top of anyone's agenda.

Clouds on the federal funding horizon have already caused a negative trickle-down at the state level. This year, the N.C. Governor's Crime Commission decided to change the way it distributes the state's VAWA block grant, reviving a competitive process and funding some groups for two years rather than one. While the block-grant total increased from $4.6 million in 2004 to $6.6 million this year and some groups got increases, 46 of 88 organizations funded by the commission will see cutbacks.

The resource squeeze means the tension between prevention and "intervention" is very real, Orton says. "We've heard that over and over in the focus groups that we've done. People are at pains to make clear to funders and policymakers that they don't see the need for intervention going away."

Advocates for prevention argue that if more resources were devoted to stopping violence, costs could be reduced in other areas through lower incarceration rates, fewer visits to hospital emergency rooms and fewer kids dropping out of school because of problems at home.

"Really, the hardest sell is convincing people what we believe," says Jo Sanders, co-director of Family Violence and Rape Crisis, which founded the Coalition for Family Peace. "That if you were to reduce domestic violence, you'd have an impact on a lot of other social problems."

Besides, say a growing number of advocates for battered women, ignoring prevention is no longer an option.

"We just can't leave it in the hands of the cops," says Paige Hall Smith, director of the Center for Women's Health and Wellness at UNC-Greensboro who has published studies on domestic violence. "They're the cleanup crew."

There are three reasons why Fran Bumgarner is interested in domestic violence prevention: her 2-year-old grandson, Kendall Dianis, his 21-year-old mom, Cordae Lee, and her 24-year-old friend, Valerie Gates. All three were murdered by Gates' father, who is now serving a life sentence without parole.On a July night in 2002, Alan Gates sneaked into his estranged wife's trailer in Orange County armed with a length of rope, a pistol and a plan to "talk some sense" into her about her having found a new boyfriend. Gates, who had a record of domestic abuse, worked himself into a drunken rage waiting for his wife to come home. Instead, Valerie arrived with Bumgarner's grandson and his mom — they'd stopped off there on their way to a movie. Gates made them lie on the floor in a back bedroom and shot them one by one at close range. Kendall was last, shot in the side as he lay next to his mother.

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