More than 30 years after it started, the Duluth Abuse Intervention Program has received an international award as one of the world’s most innovative and effective programs to address violence against women and girls.
“The Duluth model” launched in 1981. It pioneered a coordinated, community-wide response to protect victims of domestic abuse and to hold abusers accountable. It requires that police, shelters, the legal system, and social workers take a consistent and coordinated – rather than fragmented – approach.
Since the beginning, AFSCME members were involved in making the revolutionary approach work. They still are.
Safety is the priority
Making a woman’s safety the top priority is one standard that sets the Duluth model apart. Places like Safe Haven Shelter put that standard into practice daily.
For example, Local 3558’s Margo Colomb, a legal advocate at Safe Haven, first helps women obtain the legal protection they and their children need. She then escorts women through the court process until their abuser is sentenced.
At the shelter itself, staff such as Local 3558’s Angie Wynn help victims find the safety and support to escape an abusive relationship, to heal, and to start their lives over. That can mean finding a new place to live, finding clothing and furniture if necessary, enrolling children in a new school – “the whole big picture,” Wynn says.
Safe Haven also sponsors support groups for any member of the community, through its downtown Resource Center. “That’s part of coordinating the community response,” Colomb says.
Part of a familiar pattern
Another ground-breaking trait of the Duluth model is that it treats domestic assault as a pattern of abusive behavior, not as a single incident or a “heat of the moment” criminal act, says Melanie Shepard, a retired professor of social work at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
“A lot of the women we work with have been in an abusive relationship for a long time,” Wynn says, “and if they don’t have the money or the funds, they stay out of fear. They feel really trapped.”
The Duluth model uses a visual tool – the “power and control wheel” – that illustrates tactics abusers use to maintain control.
It’s similar to the “power wheel” that union organizers use, Wynn and Colomb point out, because intimidation, isolation, and other tactics of control often are the same ones supervisors use on workers.
Most visibly, the Duluth model sets a new expectation by mandating arrest of the abuser.
“Previously, the officer had discretion,” Shepard says. “A lot of times, they didn’t arrest. They didn’t prosecute. And, typically, the women were too frightened to press charges themselves.”
Mandatory arrest, combined with firm prosecution guidelines, means the city no longer takes a “wishy washy” approach to domestic violence, she says. That approach has spread nationwide and beyond.
Always trying to do better
Finally, the Duluth model tracks results and constantly tweaks tactics. That’s evident at the 911 call center, where Local 66 members such as Ryan Stauber and Stefanie Peterson often are the first ones to respond to a domestic assault.
Dispatchers take part in “quality assurance” trainings where they team with police, attorneys, case managers, and others to assess how actual cases are handled – and how everyone’s response can improve.
Dispatchers, for example, learn which questions to ask and how to ask them, depending on what they hear and perceive on the phone call. “Can I go in-depth vs. yes-and-no questions?” Peterson explains.
“The level of intensity just varies,” Stauber says.
The Duluth program received the Future Policy Award from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, UN Women, and the World Future Council.