With studies showing intimate partner violence in the U.S. has dramatically increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe it’s time our state Legislature fully funds court-required domestic violence intervention programs.

As a Seattle Municipal Court judge assigned to a DV caseload, I observe the impact intimate partner violence has on abusers, survivors, their children and extended families.

Seattle and other Washington courts are developing new interventions as alternatives to jail. While health insurance covers substance-abuse and mental-health disorders, it does not cover DV treatment. Consequently, often the biggest hurdle to the successful completion of any program is the cost. This inability to pay also directly impacts the dwindling number of treatment providers in our state who cannot afford to keep treating nonpaying participants.

I had the privilege last year of serving as a member of a statewide work group convened by the Legislature and the state Supreme Court’s Gender & Justice Commission. At the table were judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, victim advocates, treatment providers, social workers, probation counselors and research scientists reflecting concerns from across the state. We issued a report in October 2020 that urged the Legislature to “fully fund treatment, including state-certified remote treatment and culturally competent treatment options, to promote greater access.” 

So far, the Legislature has not acted on our recommendation.

In Seattle, we’re piloting the Domestic Violence Intervention Project (DVIP), a program that provides individualized treatment to address the root causes of a person’s violence. In addition to DV, participants are screened for substance-abuse and mental-health disorders, and their cases are monitored by a multidisciplinary team that includes the treatment providers, a probation counselor, and an advocate to provide a victim perspective.

The intervention project is a collaborative effort involving criminal legal system members, community-based programs and experts. Partners include Refugee Women’s Alliance, Salvation Army, Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence, YWCA, Anger Counseling Treatment & Therapies, Asian Counseling & Referral Service, the Mayor’s Office on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, Harborview Medical Center and Seattle Municipal Court.

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What is the cost of DV intervention? For the intervention project, where more than 70% of the participants qualify as indigent, the community-based treatment providers charge a sliding scale that begins at $25 a week or $100 a month. If a person is screened for a 12-month program, that’s $1,200 out of pocket per year.

The intervention program is one example of effective treatment. Consider the case of Aaron (a pseudonym), who was arrested in August 2019 for slapping and punching his wife in front of their nine-month-old daughter and other witnesses. Charged with assault, he faced a maximum sentence of 364 days in jail if convicted.

But Aaron’s case did not go to trial. Instead, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office offered him a unique pre-conviction opportunity — the assault charge would be dropped if he completed the intervention program. Last month, he achieved that goal and had his case dismissed.

“I learned how to control my anger,” Aaron said at his final review hearing. “Patience, empathy and accountability … understanding the feelings of others … being more respectful. I’ve learned a lot.” 

Through the course of his intervention, Aaron shared many profound insights with his probation counselor. He said the intervention groups he attended as part of his treatment helped him see his abuse through his wife’s eyes. They also made him realize he needed to be a better father for his daughter so she has a chance to have a healthy family of her own when she grows up. 

For Aaron and others like him, programs like DV intervention are life changing. They provide a compassionate alternative to jail that holds individuals accountable while giving them tools and support to have healthy relationships. This is what many victims want.

But effective treatment comes with a financial burden most participants can’t afford. For the safety of our entire community, the state Legislature should step up and give them a helping hand.