Breaking down

Breaking down

Increasing reports of abuse in the home becoming the norm

By Art Van Kraft 01/16/2014


“We are an aggressive society; we value aggression and reward it.”
— Dr. Drew Pinsky CNN

Have the holidays become a barometer of aggression? ABC aired a series called The Great Christmas Tree Fight; a female shopper in Philadelphia used a stun gun on another woman shopper and in Ventura County, a surprising new statistic — one in three young adults’ said they  experienced a violent or abusive relationship. It’s a figure that cuts across social and economic lines. Students at Pepperdine University reported the same results as youth in Oxnard and Camarillo, according to a County Interface Services report.

We also know that certain types of violence are on the rise. Ventura County has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the state, and now child abuse cases are increasing dramatically. Experts in public health along with criminologists and elected officials are looking for ways to stop the trend or at least understand what is going on. Psychologists say the problem may be in our thinking.

Gilbert Estrada, 51, burned to death at a West Hollywood street party on Halloween, his burlap costume ignited when he lit a cigarette. A YouTube video (Man on Fire at West Hollywood) shows the crowd chanting and clapping around the flaming man, as a few bystanders try to help. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Lt. John Corina investigated the death and said he was not surprised by the crowd’s casual reaction. “We see this type of behavior all the time. Usually it is younger people, maybe drinking, and they have this attitude. In the video they never stopped clapping and cheering.”

Psychologist Douglas La Bier, director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C, said, “I see in that crowd what I term an empathy deficit disorder. EDD has profound consequences for the mental health of individuals and society. Rises in assault and domestic violence are symptoms that something is very wrong.” According to La Bier, when you combine a lack of empathy with economic stress and personal frustrations, you have a recipe for violence, the kind of violence not found in the headlines but in the homes.

The number of major violent crimes involving robbery, kidnapping or murder is slowly dropping. It is the lowest it has been in Ventura County since the early ’90s, according to recent FBI statistics. Yet in Ventura County, violence in the home has skyrocketed. According to Interface Child and Family Services statistics, 7,143 calls were reported in 2011. That figure jumped to 7,478 in 2012, which is three times the state average. In 2008, when the economy hit bottom, child abuse began an upward trend that has now reached an increase of more than 50 percent. Interface reports that child abuse has jumped 25 percent in just the last year.

Many factors are being identified as causes: the stress of an economic downturn, blocked goals, substance abuse and emotional immaturity. But La Bier said we can change our thinking for the better. “Just as you can develop empathy deficit disorder by too much self-absorption, you can also overcome EDD, or any other dysfunction, by retraining your brain. Research also shows that your brain is capable of being trained and physically modified through conscious practices.”

In Ventura County, that is exactly what Interface Children and Family Services Director Eric Sternad is trying to do. “Families are breaking down. Both parents are working and there is no supervision for kids after school. Worse yet, there is the unemployment situation that is often combined with substance abuse.”

With the home a potential powder keg for violence, Sternad and his staff have adopted a sophisticated new plan. The Family Strengthening Initiative was distilled down from hundreds of programs to five protective factors. The first four are directed entirely at the parents.

1.      Parent resilience.
2.      Knowledge of parenting and child development.
3.       Social and emotional competence of children.
4.      Social connection
5.      Concrete support in time of need.

Sternad said the nonprofit program is being used to educate families that are at risk. “We are definitely seeing high levels of stress in families due to economic pressures. This is really contributing to the abuse of children and spouses. Because of what we are seeing, we have doubled the amount of preventative education in schools, but funds are short. We also have a 24/7 response team that goes out and helps victims. Safe Haven is our shelter; it offers refuge and counseling to adults and any children.”

The Coalition for Family Harmony is another nonprofit organization. Its shelter is located in Ventura and has four rooms with bunk beds and cradles, all designed for families escaping abuse. One refugee, who will be called Dolores for anonymity, is a 23-year-old woman with a young daughter.

“I’ve been here three weeks and it was just so hard to get up and leave. He (my husband) would be really possessive and would hurt me. He kept me in his control. He would tell me to look for work, but when I would find a job, there was always some excuse why I couldn’t work. The police came and arrested him many times. I took it for nine years. One day my daughter told me she wanted to leave, and when a 5-year-old tells you they don’t want to be there any more, that was it.”

Dolores said she asked her mother to find help, and a team from the Coalition for Family Harmony was sent to her home to help her leave. “This time I actually stood up and left in front of him. I had people there to help. I stood my ground and feel good about myself for the first time in a long time.” Dolores expects to transition into a safe household now. She was told that the first 12 months will be the most dangerous period for her. That is when abusers often seek revenge.  

Caroline Prijatel-Sutton, the director of the Coalition for Family Harmony, reports, “We have a lot of women here who were never touched, but they were undergoing serious abuse. Spouses would steal their money, damage their credit or take away their car or not let them see family. All these things are types of abuse and the women usually don’t leave.”

Some local doctors have started screening patients for domestic violence. Dr. Victoria Sorlie-Aguilar has a family practice in Oxnard. She said her questions have uncovered surprising results. “I asked a female patient last week about experiencing any violent behavior. She said she and her husband take a swing at each other now and then. Now mind you, she was pregnant and also in her 20s. I asked her if she sees a problem with that, and she said that we just fight and it gets physical and that’s just how we are. She thinks it’s normal for an adult person, especially one who is pregnant, to fight with another adult. I asked if she might consider other ways to deal with her emotions, and she said, ‘No way’ to counseling. After some coaxing she agreed.” Sorlie-Aguilar also sees what she calls a pretty heavy intake of alcohol in her patients. “All this behavior goes under the radar until something bad happens,” she said.

Ventura attorney Paul Tyler defends people accused of domestic violence. He said emotional abuse is not illegal and he has never had that type of case. Tyler said many of the people he defends have technically broken the law, but don’t necessarily deserve jail. “I had a case where a client with a clean record was trying to do homework with his kid. Something happened, he got mad and took the book and threw it. It hit the ceiling and came down and hit another kid in the room. It didn’t really hurt the kid, but somehow the police were called and my client went to jail. I call that a b.s. case and see those kind about a third of the time. My clients are usually lower socioeconomic because you don’t usually see billionaires beating each other up because they don’t call the police. I am on the front lines; people don’t have the money now to get out of trouble as easily. Many also don’t have the bail money now.” Tyler said that about a third of his clients’ charges are based on trivial incidents, another third on intentional misconduct and another third on serious violence.

People convicted of violent behavior, no matter how serious, are usually sent to anger management classes through the courts. Cornerstone Counseling Center has four court-approved locations in Ventura County. Director Scott Borella said there are lots of ways to end up here. “You don’t have to physically beat someone to commit assault. Terrorist threats, persuading a witness from reporting a crime or vandalism like breaking things is enough. If you break someone’s cell phone, that’s enough; you don’t have to touch the person at all.”

A man was arrested numerous times for domestic violence and completed a year of court-ordered anger management classes. Jim (last name withheld) has a history of violence in relationships. “I finally got married in my 40s and pretty soon I was breaking stuff and threatening her and grabbing her around the arms. When she started trying to get me jealous I scared the living s**t out of her. I shook her up. I slammed a car door once so hard it shattered the glass. Then another time she rolled the car window up and trapped (my arm) and started to drive away. I ran along and it nearly broke my arm.”

Jim said that though he is pretty big, 6 feet 5 inches, he is not violent in other areas of his life, only in intimate relationships. He said that as a child he saw his father throw furniture through the living room window in drunken rages. Jim admits to a serious substance abuse problem as well.

“I learned a lot in the classes. When you get mad there are signals before you go into a rage. When you feel those signals, get out!” he said. “I learned how to cool down. I know that men have control issues with women. I was in jail for nine days because I couldn’t control myself. I know what I did, and for a long time I thought it was a two-way blame thing but now I know better. She is gone but I am changing.”

It is theorized that most misdemeanor assault goes unreported. In Ventura County assault remains near or below the state average, but reports of domestic violence are unusually high. According to California Department of Justice figures for 2012, the rate of reports per 1,000 people in California is 6.2 percent. Ventura has 13.4 percent.  Only three other counties are higher, Inyo County at 18.1 percent, Glenn County at 17.4 percent and a surprising 53.0 percent for Del Norte County on the Oregon border. Katie Leathers is the program director at Harrington House family shelter in Del Norte County. She said they are ground zero for domestic violence in the state. “In 2008 there were 69 cases reported; in 2012 we have over 1,000, nearly 10 times the state average. This is a rural, underserved poverty-stricken area with alcohol and drug abuse. Most of the cases we never even hear about.”

La Bier explains, “People who feel they are on the margins can generate deep feelings of anger and resentment, and that leads to violence. Then they take it out on each other, as is the case in Del Norte County.”

Seth Wagerman is a professor of psychology at California Lutheran University. He attributes most aggression to various forms of frustration. “There is some research in the idea of what is called the frustration-aggression hypothesis by Dollard and Miller, a study from the ’70s. When peoples’ goals are blocked, they get frustrated and lash out, usually at whoever is nearby. The only solution is to be aware of it, to know what is going on in the moment.” Wagerman said that methods to do that have change dramatically from the ’50s. “There are a lot more institutions in place now to help people, a lot more self-help groups. When I look at society I am pessimistic, when I look at individuals I am optimistic,” he said, paraphrasing a favorite quote.

Sternad with Interface said he is proud of the individual success stories in the Volunteer Youth Development Program. Groups of junior high and high school kids meet mostly after class and make a pact to change their lives. “The kids are trying to be the first in their families to move up, go to college and improve themselves. They are dedicated to that.”

La Bier is optimistic as well. He said that while we are highly conditioned in our society to self-interest, we don’t have to be selfish. “There is a major shift in our culture toward responsibility to each other and acceptance of differences. People are actually moving toward helping the common good, not just when there is an emergency, but just to help those in need or being  bullied. I think that’s a normal human reaction.”

La Bier also warns of a countermovement. “Because of this new momentum, you see a backlash. Some people hunker down into more self-interest. They want to preserve and hold on to what they have, and their fear changes what they see around them.”

There are many theories among experts on the violence we see projected by the media. La Bier suggests that violent movies and video games are not the instigators of violence, but simply the messengers. He said, “Now may be time to change that message.” 


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