After I was elected to the bench for the Cleveland Heights Municipal Court in 1993, I was astonished by how many domestic violence cases I saw. I remember one guy who had a room in his house his wife couldn't enter. He monitored her car's odometer and her telephone calls. He even timed her coming home from work. Eventually he hit her. Another case involved a man who hit his wife's head against the dining room table. He actually said to me, "I took her head and I put it under the table to show her the dirt that she had missed when she mopped."
I saw that by the time people got to court, what I could do was too little and far too late. We have to educate people in order to stop abuse before it happens. Also, the sooner you discuss domestic violence, the better. In Ohio, I brought together all the relevant local agencies and resources — not just the court but the police, probation officers and domestic violence shelters — to coordinate our response to these incidents. I also started mentoring at-risk teenage girls. I stayed with the same eight to 10 girls for a whole school year, encouraging them to delay pregnancy and advance their educations. "Books, not boys," I'd tell them. I talked to them about their values, to make it less likely they'd become victims of abuse.
Now that I live in Arizona, I'm working with an organization called the Purple Ribbon Council. We visit junior high schools and high schools to talk about abusive relationships. An abuser usually doesn't start out swinging. It's more a slow chipping away at the partner's self-esteem. We give kids the tools to recognize these things. We also teach people to be active bystanders, so if they see a friend not treating a girlfriend or boyfriend well, they can speak up.
We've done a pilot project and now are working to engage the school system here in Arizona to make it a consistent program. I'd like to see it become a model for programs all over the country. Early intervention is the key to getting out in front of domestic violence. It can't just be the courts responding afterward.
Lynn Toler, 56, is the mediator on TV's Divorce Court and the author of Making Marriage Work.
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