Alisa Del Tufo is enabling communities to succeed where institutional intervention has not in preventing and addressing family violence.
The New Idea
Family violence was once considered a private family matter, and then in the 1970s became the business of the criminal justice and social welfare system. Alisa envisioned a better solution: Build the capacity of individuals and communities to see and address the root causes of family violence. Convinced that these problems can best be mitigated and eliminated where they arise—in the belief systems and cultural context of the families. Alisa enables communities to prevent domestic violence and preserve child welfare, with minimal reliance on or intrusion by social welfare and criminal justice institutions.
Although domestic violence (DV) services had been around for a long time, Alisa realized that few were taking into account the cultural context in which family violence occurs, and fewer were working on violence prevention. For Alisa, that context is crucial. She believes that everyone can be engaged in offering safety and support to adults and children in violent family situations and, even more importantly, can learn to recognize troubled families and help them solve their problems without resorting to violence. Alisa established CONNECT to end family and gender violence by transforming the beliefs that fuel abusive behavior, and to empower those closest to the problem, including men and boys, to come together to find solutions. Through transformative education, Alisa has pioneered programs that help batterers, victims, children, community members, service providers, clergy, and social workers, examine and change the assumptions that perpetuate family violence. In this model, social welfare and criminal justice organizations support, rather than co-opt, the power of people to take charge of their problems.
After proving these concepts in communities throughout New York City, Alisa is turning her attention to helping communities across the U.S. adapt this comprehensive “health model” to promote the safety and well-being of children and families. Working at the intersection of DV and child welfare, Alisa brings these artificially but historically separate systems together to work for the benefit of the families they serve. She also focuses on the problems that fuel much of this country’s family violence: Poverty and racism.
Domestic violence involves a pattern of coercive tactics used to maintain power and control over a victim. It affects families regardless of race, class, ethnicity, or religion. Its victims suffer long-term effects, including homelessness, physical and mental illness, prolonged fear and anxiety, poor school and work performance, substance abuse, unwanted and teen pregnancy, and HIV transmission. On average, at least one in three women are subjected to partner violence during her life. Each year, New York City police receive over 250,000 DV calls and 12,000 requests for emergency shelter. Because abuse is under-reported, documented cases reflect only 15 to 20 percent of the problem. An estimated 10 million women are abused in the U.S. each year. In 60 percent of cases where women are battered, children also suffer abuse. Indeed, DV is present in 50 percent of families reporting child abuse/neglect. Yet case managers of children in protective custody do not routinely look for signs of DV in assessing a child’s situation. The links between DV and child abuse are well-known, yet even when the two systems work with members of the same family, they rarely coordinate their efforts.
Violence in the family is exacerbated by the patriarchal organization of society, crisis-driven institutional responses, the lack of cultural competency within those institutions, and the absence of comprehensive prevention strategies. When DV is reported, the interests of the city and state are to preserve the victims’ safety and punish the batterer. The interests of the family are more nuanced and complex. Women and children who report DV are routinely removed from their homes and the batterer is arrested. Organizations formed to protect women and children have excluded men from the problem-solving process. Counseling is rarely offered to batterers until after they are in the criminal justice system; yet these men tend to be more violent when they return from prison. Typically, when a victim emerges from temporary housing, she lacks the financial means to support her family. Her children, already traumatized by the abuse, often become wards of the state for months or years.
The safety net of emergency services developed for victims of abuse is of great help to women who acknowledge that they are battered, meet certain thresholds of physical violence, seek to end the relationship they are in, and finally, are willing to risk the unintended consequences of state involvement. However, fearing loss of child custody, homelessness, deportation or other unwanted outcomes most battered women do not seek help until the violence reaches crisis proportions. In fact, 75 percent of serious injuries or deaths occur when women try to leave their batterers. Thus even women in danger of losing their lives are unable or unwilling to use the resources available to serve them. In the U.S., 40 to 70 percent of female murder victims are killed by husbands or intimates. Only one in five of these murder victims had sought help from a DV organization or obtained a restraining order. When children or concerned adults report DV or child abuse, the result—often a combination of jail, shelter, and foster care—is more drastic than they anticipated. Immigrant children who report abuse may unwittingly cause both of their parents to be deported. Immigrant women must hide “deep underground” to avoid their batterer and the authorities. The institutions created to protect family safety and well-being are failing to serve those most vulnerable and in need of help.
Through transformative education—centered around deep reflection on beliefs and behavior—Alisa helps people recognize, understand and learn to resolve the problems that cause family violence, child abuse, and neglect. At CONNECT, she established a training institute with a mission to expand the number of professionals and community members who have a deep understanding of the dynamics and consequences of violence in the family. By relying more on the strengths of the community than on institutional intervention, problems are recognized earlier, and solutions focus more on prevention. By staying small and nimble, and tapping the resources within communities, CONNECT accomplishes much more than its bureaucratic counterparts, and with less money.
CONNECT’s Community Empowerment Project recruits individuals whose ethnicity or culture reflects the community. These adjunct staff earn a stipend and childcare to work full-time with CONNECT. After an intensive four week training program the peer organizers go into their neighborhoods to conduct street corner surveys and focus groups in Laundromats, clinics, and around kitchen tables. Through this process they learn what women from each particular ethnic or immigrant group need and what inhibits them from seeking or accessing help. Based on these assessments, CONNECT works with its local partners to tailor training to each community’s needs.
Many battered women want to keep their families intact, stay in their communities, and even stay with their batterers. At CONNECT, rather than deny these women help (as most DV organizations would), Alisa designed non-residential services (e.g. safety planning), and pioneered programs to help men and boys become part of the solution. She has changed the question from “Why does she stay?” to “Why does he do that?” Through transformative learning, batterers can and do change their beliefs and behavior, and male “bystanders” become allies in preventing family violence. Alisa’s theory of social change is similar to erosion: Through charm and good ideas, she gets actors in the current system to articulate their goals and vision. Then she shows all stakeholders, including batterers, how their methods contradict their goals. She patiently but persistently helps them change entrenched patterns of thought and behavior, providing new information and insights that change their assumptions and actions.
Alisa was among the first to document and address the overlap between DV and child welfare. Using a “sandwich approach” to change the DV/child welfare field, she draws on her strong partnerships with government, foundations, and grassroots constituencies to put pressure on the “middle”—bureaucrats and middle-management—to change. She connected one system to the other by training child welfare workers to recognize and look for indicators of DV in cases of child abuse and neglect. She also published Collaborative Engagement: A guide for helping child welfare provider support for families struggling with domestic violence, mental illness, substance abuse, and poverty. The handbook describes the importance of cultural awareness that Alisa models in her work: The capacity to respect; be nonjudgmental; treat one’s own attitudes and values as relative, not absolute; display empathy; demonstrate reciprocal concern; and tolerate ambiguity. Alisa not only provides the tools but also guidance on how to apply the tools in each particular context.
Alisa engaged in small, working conferences convened by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Family Violence Prevention Fund and the Center for Social Policy on the future of child welfare and family violence efforts. The convenor noted that “Alisa is…changing the system by teaching the larger public agencies that starting at the local community level is where you can make change and build on it. Her advocacy for non-institutional, holistic approaches has changed the conversation.”
Alisa is now taking her work at the intersection of domestic violence, child welfare, and community well-being to the national level, by creating the Threshold Collaborative. Threshold focuses on the root causes of these problems (poverty and trauma, sexism, and racism) by working with communities to develop local strategies to support safety for individuals/families and to build community assets. Dream Catcher is one such program of Threshold. It seeks to develop narrative, oral history, and opinion to create community members’ own solutions to family violence and the issues surrounding it. Threshold trains community residents to interview and survey other residents to help them tell their “story.” Threshold and a collaborative of funders will help grassroots organizations participate in the training and establish their own Dream Catcher programs. Working from within like-minded regional coalitions, trainers, and field staff will help communities tailor the model to local needs. At the policy level, Alisa will continue to speak out about the connections between poverty, racism, and family violence and bring holistic, community-based prevention strategies to the national family violence agenda.
Compassion is more important to Alisa than anything else. Raised in a loving working-class Italian family in Paramus, New Jersey, Alisa describes her mother as an at-home mom and volunteer, as caring and peace-loving. Raised a Catholic, she left the church because of its doctrines on women and became a Buddhist. She chose Colgate University for its philosophy and religion program, mainly to expand her understanding of human suffering. She met her future husband at Colgate. During college, she was involved in the anti-war movement and Earth Day. At nineteen, while the Beatles were in India, Alisa was living in a mud hut in Nepal as an exchange student and later spent six months in Sri Lanka. She studied Buddhism, but found its rituals and practices patriarchal. She returned home to explore her own religious and cultural roots.
Interested in learning how people’s beliefs impacted their lives, Alisa declined acceptance into Harvard’s Tibetan Studies PhD program to enter Union Theological Seminary, where she earned a Master’s of Divinity. During graduate school Alisa started the first rape intervention program at St. Luke’s hospital. Later, she was sexually assaulted at knifepoint by a teenage boy. Alisa experienced personal trauma, the court system, being treated as a victim, and saw how politics affected the criminal. Despite her anguish, she felt compassion for the boy who attacked her, and for his mother.
After graduate school, Alisa entered the DV field to help individuals, but also to address the injustices that allow the problem to continue—the attitudes that support violence toward women and children, and the discriminatory practices, social norms, policies, and laws which are encoded in culture, families, faith institutions, and government. In 1983 she founded Sanctuary for Families, the first battered women’s program in New York to help women regardless of their income and provide non-residential services. She was also the first to offer victims legal aid, services for their children, and a transitional housing program with job training.
Early in her marriage, when Alisa lost her husband in a sudden, tragic turn of events, she found refuge in her work. Under her leadership, Sanctuary for Families grew from $250,000 to $7+ million and became an exemplar among battered women’s organizations. In 1991 Alisa moved on, because she saw that while Sanctuary and other DV organizations saved lives, they excluded many women who would or could not use their services due to culture, religion, or financial dependence. They offered little or no support to women who wanted to stay with their husbands or partners and build a safe, healthy family.
Before planning a program, Alisa listens to and learns from the people experiencing the problem. For example, in 1988 as a Revson Fellow, she wrote a policy paper on the overlap of child abuse and adult DV. Then she conducted an oral history project that revealed the impact children have on a battered mother’s decision to stay in or leave an abusive relationship. Her findings persuaded the City Council to form a Task Force on Family Violence with Alisa as chair. She produced a report, Behind Closed Doors that became a blueprint for change in the courts, law enforcement, housing, mental health, and health services and sparked a national movement addressing DV through child welfare.
Alisa founded CONNECT in 1993. Starting with $1 million from the City she created a program that now works with 130 community partners and has framed the dialogue among policymakers to a focus on the issue of family violence, not the separate issues of DV and child welfare. Today, people of all ages, ethnicities and gender attend training workshops in neighborhoods, at faith-based sites, at its training institute, and at the workplace: All of Verizon’s 36,000 union employees in New York City go through CONNECT’s training. Verizon unions in upstate NY plan to adopt the program.
In 1990 Alisa married Joe, a sculptor and carpenter. They traveled to India to adopt an infant son, Nilu. In 2006 the family moved to rural Vermont, followed by Alisa’s parents. To pursue the next phase of her work, Alisa has once again “shed a skin” she’s outgrown. She stepped down as CEO of CONNECT to continue to build the model, and share it with communities nationwide. Alisa is stepping onto the national stage armed with her deep understanding and compassion for human suffering and practical strategies gained from working in and with challenged communities. Her patient, upbeat personality, warmth and authenticity makes her a valued partner for the least and the most powerful people. Because the field is weary of failed crisis-driven models, and the latest Violence Against Women Act includes, for the first time, language about the need to support prevention efforts, Alisa senses the time is now to push for major reforms. Considered heretical eight years ago, many of Alisa’s ideas for preventing family violence—working with the whole family, community-generated solutions, educating children and youth, and engaging men as allies—have entered the mainstream dialogue. Alisa is taking advantage of this moment to push ahead and prepare society to nurture and support safe families and peaceful communities.