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NFL domestic violence case sparks conversation on the silence that surrounds abuse

September 9, 2014 at 6:38 PM EDT
Twenty years ago today, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, and in those years, domestic violence has been dramatically reduced. But the problem is far from solved: one in four women in the U.S. will be victims of assault by a partner in her lifetime. Judy Woodruff speaks with Esta Soler of Futures Without Violence about what it will take to end that abuse.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The numbers are staggering. One in every four women in the U.S. will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. And an estimated 1.3 million American women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year.

In many cases, the abuse is coupled with silence. But the release of a video this week of an NFL star hitting his then-fiancee has sparked a national conversation on how best to address the issue.

Ray Rice won’t be playing NFL football any time soon, but the storm swirling around him only intensified today. The star running back told ESPN and CNN he’s trying to be strong for his family. He was let go Monday by the Baltimore Ravens and suspended indefinitely by the NFL. That’s after TMZ Sports released video that showed him slugging his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, last February.

Vice President Joe Biden joined the national conversation about the incident, appearing on NBC’s “Today Show” with Tamron Hall.

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: And then, when the video was out there and you saw how brutal it was, the Ravens did the right thing, fired him immediately. Now, you can argue they should have done it sooner, they didn’t want it. Whatever the reason is, it’s happening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Ravens had defended Rice when the incident first happened, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him for two games. He later acknowledged he mishandled the case.

Today, there were new calls for Goodell to resign. And Rice’s now-wife, Janay, spoke out. In a post today on Instagram, she defended her husband saying, “No one knows the pain that the media and unwanted opinions from the public has caused my family. To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day is a horrible thing. This is our life.”

Her decision to marry Rice, even after the incident, also generated widespread commentary on social media. On Twitter, thousands of assault victims used the hashtags #whyIstayed and #whyIleft to tell their personal stories of abuse.

To help put this case in the context of domestic violence nationally, I am joined by Esta Soler. She is founder and president of Futures Without Violence. It’s a nonprofit group that works to end physical abuse. She was also influential in the passage of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which celebrates its 20th anniversary today.

Esta Soler, welcome to the “NewsHour.”

ESTA SOLER, Futures Without Violence: Well, thank you so much. A pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I understand — speaking of the Violence Against Women Act, I understand you just came from a celebration of the anniversary today in Washington.

ESTA SOLER: I did. I did, with Vice President Biden. We were celebrating the 20th anniversary.

And there’s some good news to celebrate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to ask you about that.

And it takes sometimes a case like this for us to begin to talk about these issues. But how — first of all, how common is domestic physical abuse in this country today?

ESTA SOLER: Well, it’s way too common, but let me just put that in context.

In celebrating the 20 years since the passage of the Violence Against Women Act, we have seen a 64 percent reduction for domestic violence among adult women. That is extraordinary. So, what I think we need to say is — take a pause and say, we have made some progress. But we’re only really halfway there.

And what this case points out, what the Ray Rice situation points out is, we still have so much more work to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why has there been progress?


JUDY WOODRUFF: And I just want to preface by saying that this — you were telling us this happens across all socioeconomic, racial lines.

ESTA SOLER: Correct. Correct. Correct.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It happens to men, as well as women and children.

ESTA SOLER: That’s right. That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But why has there been some progress?  What’s happened?

ESTA SOLER: Well, for a couple of reasons.

In every community across the country, there are women and men who have created services that are providing critical support to people who are in these situations. Since the passage of the Violence Against Women Act, we have seen a comprehensive response from law enforcement, from the judiciary, coming together and basically creating a support system and a prosecutorial system that holds people accountable.

So we have been able since 1994 to say in this country, though clearly we have so much more work to do, that there’s no excuse for domestic violence, that it’s not excusable. There’s no reason for it. And we need to continue to say that, because we’re only halfway there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it is still, as you were just saying, still happening in too many places.

ESTA SOLER: It is. It is. It is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why it is happening, and why, as we saw in the instance of Ray Rice and his now-wife Janay…

ESTA SOLER: Right. Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … people who are victims of abuse stay with their partners?  Why?

ESTA SOLER: Well, there are a couple of things.

First of all, I believe that this violence is preventable. I think it’s learned, and, if it’s learned, it can be unlearned. And while we have put in place a very good, comprehensive system with law enforcement and our judiciary and support services and shelters across this land, we have not done enough for our young people, for kids in high school, in middle school.

And we have been hearing about the horrific epidemic of sexual assault on our college campuses. We need to do way more for our young people, because, at the end of the day, you can give people tools to have healthy relationships. If you have seen it, if you have witnessed it in your home, you need to unlearn it.

And that’s the next body of work that we need to do. Why do people stay?  People stay for a lot of reasons. My question is, why do people abuse?  Because, at the end of the day, we need to make sure that before somebody abuses, we give them the tools so that they can lead a better life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But is there enough information out there for victims of domestic abuse to know where they can go for help?

ESTA SOLER: Well, I hope we have enough information out there.

And I think we will redouble our efforts. As I was going in the cab to celebrate the Violence Against Women Act and seeing the horrific image of that video, I said to myself, yes, we have done a lot, but we obviously have to do way more. There is a national hot line.

There are programs in every community that are doing extraordinary services. But we obviously need to reach everybody, and we have not done that yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this involves across — health care providers, doctors, nurses who see people.

ESTA SOLER: Correct. Correct. Workplaces. Workplaces. It’s really, really important.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So it’s not just police.

ESTA SOLER: I totally agree with you.

And we now know that most people either talk to a friend or they tell somebody who they know that this is going on. So it’s really important they — that we equip everybody with the right information.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what advice would you give for someone who is either in a situation where they are being abused, know of someone who is being abused, or someone they — a friend has confided in them or they have strong reason to believe it?

ESTA SOLER: Well, I think the most important thing is, if you can, get somebody to support you, speak out and believe that there is a better way.

I think, at the end of the day, too many people think that there’s a reason why they should stay in a situation. They might be afraid. They might think that, oh, my God, what am I going to do for our kids?  But at the end of the day, that’s not going to stop the violence. What’s going to stop the violence is the violent person needs to stop the violence.

And it’s really important for people to know that they’re not going to be able to do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because, in some of these instances, it is financial support. People, as you have suggested, believe…

ESTA SOLER: I absolutely agree. I absolutely agree.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … think if they — if they separate from this individual, how will they survive?

ESTA SOLER: Right. Right. I think that’s real.

So I think the programs that really empower women economically are absolutely essential, so that they have options to choose a different life, if that’s what — that they have that option. I also think what’s really important is that we change the norms.

It’s really critical that the social norm says very clearly that there’s no excuse. And that’s why I think it’s so important that the sports leagues step up. They are such a powerful conveyor of what’s acceptable behavior, not only to their fans, but also to the next generation.

And, as a parent and as a grandparent, what do you want to give your kids?  You want to give them the possibility of having healthy relationships. You want them to go to school and not get hurt. You want them to date and not get raped, and you want them to go to college so they can learn.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Esta Soler, the founder of Futures Without Violence, we thank you.

ESTA SOLER: Thank you.