Domestic Violence

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. So, at a minimum, let’s be aware. Knowledge, after all, is said to be power. Let’s also beware of believing that awareness is enough. It’s not. We should support those who take action against this plague; and we should find avenues for action. Not just for a single month, but as part of our ongoing consciousness. Here is some background, or (more hopefully), some foreground, for our moving forward.

Fortunately, we’ve moved beyond the time when we ignored or downplayed domestic violence as a private or personal matter—a notion that too often prompted police, friends, and family members not to “meddle.” That’s good, but the known numbers are stark and disturbing. Nationally, three women a day are killed by their intimate partners. Over 50 percent of those deaths are caused by gunshot (with death being five times more likely when there is a gun in the room). Almost 40 percent of the deaths are caused by beating, stabbing, or strangulation. Fully half of the victims were “together” with their murderers; almost one-third were separated or trying to leave. These are death’s numbers “only.” The number of victims of domestic violence, apart from the killings, is almost beyond counting.  In Minnesota there are over 50 battered women’s shelters or safe sites. Not enough.  Imagine this: We could fill Target Field 18 times with Minnesota women who have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking. Along the way, one-third of homeless women are homeless as a result of domestic violence; and three-fourths of us know, whether we realize it or not, a victim of domestic violence.

Thankfully, Minnesota has been a leader against domestic violence. In the 1970s, Minnesota established the Women’s Advocates Shelter in St. Paul—the first shelter for battered and endangered women in the United States. In the late ‘70s, the Domestic Abuse Project was founded—the first domestic abuse treatment program for abusive men, and for women and children survivors. During the 1980s, the Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Project created the first coordinated initiative to respond to domestic violence—the “Duluth Model,” or CCR (Coordinated Community Response)—a unique and award-winning approach, now nationally and internationally emulated, involving police, prosecutors, judges, probation officers, advocates, and others. Minnesota is also the home of internationally-renowned leaders in this realm—Global Rights for Women (www.globalrightsforwomen.org) and The Advocates for Human Rights (www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org). 

On the national front, we are in the midst of important history. In the 1990s, two especially important advances were made—first, the declaration that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights;” and second, the passing of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). That statute created the possibility of perpetrator accountability, as well as the potential of support services for women. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed the 2019 reauthorization of the statute, which is now pending in the Senate. The current reauthorization initiative includes the expansion of the Act to transgender victims of domestic violence, and attempts to deal with the “boyfriend loophole” (an odd phrase—but one that reflects the reality that federal law currently prohibits a person convicted of domestic violence, or under a protective restraining order, from having a gun, but only if that person is married to, living with, or sharing a child with the victim). Meanwhile, Minnesota continues to consider what is sometimes called “Extreme Risk” or “Red Flag” legislation.

The reauthorization of VAWA also contains important developments relating to Native Americans—into whose lands many of our ancestors immigrated, and who were finally recognized fully as U.S. citizens in 1924. For example, the act affirmed the authority of Indian Country governments to prosecute certain non-Indians who violate qualified protective or restraining orders, or who commit domestic or dating violence against Native Americans on tribal lands. 

This really matters. American Indian women face murder rates that are more than 10 times the national average; Minnesota itself has the 9th highest rate of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the country. The Minnesota Legislature recently created the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force—the first such initiative to collect such important information, try to understand it, and then do something about it.

How can you help? How can you get help? (Remember, lawyers are both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence.) Here are a few resources:


  • Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault/Sex Trafficking: 1-866-223-1111
  • Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women (www.mcbw.org)
  • Domestic Abuse Project: (www.domesticabuseproject.com)
  • Domestic Abuse/Harassment Resources Sheet (www.mncourts.gov/documents/2/public/protective_orders/phone_number_resource_sheet.pdf)

This is central to our opportunity and obligation to serve our profession and our communities—our cultural contract and our duty of citizenship. Our goals and priorities are clear and shared: safety for victims and their children; accountability, intervention, and rehabilitation for abusers and perpetrators; and the continuing refusal to accept, tolerate, minimize, or turn a blind or a merely-wincing eye toward domestic violence. Becoming even more aware will help us to care—and help us dare to take action. Be aware; be safe; help make the lives of others safe; seek and offer help. Ask yourself and others: “Are you safe?”


TOM NELSON is a partner at Stinson LLP (formerly Leonard, Street and Deinard). He is a past president of the Hennepin County Bar Association.