Kimberly Baxter 1“Where I come from, calling the police is not an option.  [The police] are not there to protect us.”  — Participant in the Iowa Accountability Program Focus Group

Webster’s dictionary defines accountability as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions”. My goal is to create a system that enhances safety for victims of domestic violence (DV) and increases offender accountability. Accountability must be an integral part of the community and system response to issues concerning DV.

DV and abuse is serious: period! It can lead to health problems like substance abuse and mental health concerns (e.g., PTSD).  For the past seven years, I have exclusively dedicated my career to help lessen the impact of DV in my community. From this need, the Judicial Branch, Iowa Accountability Program (IAP) was born.  The mission of the IAP is to examine the criminal justice system’s response to domestic violence.  Specifically, IAP was established to address the disproportionate numbers of African Americans affected by DV in Iowa.

DV affects every member of society, however, minorities, and specifically African Americans, experience higher rates of domestic violence when compared to other groups.  This is especially true in Iowa, where African Americans are over-represented in DV statistics at a higher rate than any other minority community.  Reported focus group responses of police at a domestic abuse scene as well as responses from victims indicate that police tend to be less empathic toward African American victims by threatening them with arrest if emotions run high.  Further, participants report that their children were likely to be removed if the victim was arrested.  DV has been linked to poor economy, unemployment, low graduation rate, etc.  Drops in the economy, employment, and graduation rates are correlated with increased levels of domestic violence.

These responses are but a taste of the epidemic problem of DV as seen around the world today.  A recent study released by the World Health Organization (2013) found that an estimated 35% of women in North America experience intimate partner violence or sexual assault by an intimate partner at some point in their lives.  I, along with other DV activists, believe this is a low figure, as many victims of DV do not disclose their abuse.

Governments, both nationally and internationally, have an interest in preventing domestic violence, protecting victims, and increasing offender accountability. In Iowa, IAP was developed exactly for these purposes. In previous years, IAP conducted safety and accountability audits (SAA’s) within eight Iowa communities to examine DV-related systems performance in communities with the largest populations of African Americans.  These audits resulted in more African Americans being hired to work in the field of DV and become spokespersons on the complex and intertwined issues of DV and institutional racism.  Victim service agencies involved with the audits experienced an increase in the number of African American women seeking services and found new avenues for referrals.  Activist organizations, such as traditional DV victim service agencies and the NAACP, which previously had no relationships, began working together to protect African American victims of DV.  Further, IAP also used transformative educational techniques and processes to dramatically change individuals’ thinking and actions as related to domestic violence and cultural competence.

In order to tackle issues related to DV, IAP is creating Iowa’s first ever DV Court – the DV Court Project. The project will be piloted in Black Hawk County which has a unique population makeup when compared to other locations in the state. This northeast Iowa county is the fourth most populated in the state, with a population of 131,090 and “urban-like” qualities.  It also ranked as the third most populated county for African Americans in the state (11,536 as of 2011).  According to Iowa’s 2009 Uniform Crime Report (UCR), 26.3% of DV victims in Black Hawk County were African American, a rate that has risen steadily over the past ten years.

A DV Court is imperative in Iowa due to high rates of dual arrests (arresting both the victim and offender) and DV victimization; resource reduction in response to deep budget cuts for all systems having contact with victims or offenders; and disproportionate minority representation as both victims and offenders.

Both DV victims and offenders will benefit from the DV Court in Black Hawk County through improved linkages to community services designed to help break the cycle of violence.  Victims and offenders in Black Hawk County will benefit from enhanced case and resource coordination, close court monitoring of the offender, and follow-up on the services victims request.  The end results will be enhanced victim safety and increased offender accountability. In addition, more streamlined court processes and procedures for addressing protective order parameters will help the courts address the large number of protective orders issued in Black Hawk County.

This specialized DV Court cannot succeed in increasing victim safety and offender accountability without deliberate training and technical assistance designed to change problem-solving skills for judges and other court personnel.  Merely creating “streamlined” court procedures only results in a process and not necessarily a substantive change. To that end, the DV Court in Black Hawk County will improve victim safety and offender accountability through: intensive offender monitoring and compliance with court orders; enhanced collaboration with community-based organizations to improve the coordination of services for both victims and offenders; specialized training and technical assistance for judges and other court personnel; and DV, leadership, and cultural competency training for law enforcement, prosecution, and other agencies/organizations that have contact with DV victims or offenders.

IAP is working on true community accountability!

Kimberly Baxter has advocated for equity, and on the importance of a diverse workforce for over the past 20 years.  Currently she is the Director of the Iowa Accountability Program, an initiative established from funding by the U.S. Department of Justice to increase system accountability to better protect victims of domestic violence, hold batterers accountable, and integrate the concerns and expertise of African Americans into domestic violence prevention and intervention.


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