Denver Once Led the Way in the Fight Against Domestic Violence

Jacqueline St. Joan is now poetry editor of the Colorado Independent.
Jacqueline St. Joan is now poetry editor of the Colorado Independent.
The Brett Kavanaugh hearings are on a one-week pause, but the discussion of violence against women has not abated. From 4 to 6 p.m. today, October 1, there will be a demonstration at the Colorado Capitol against Kavanaugh's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. October 1 also happens to mark the start of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month across the country; at 10:45 a.m. today, Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen will be on the steps of the City and County Building to discuss the importance of shining a light on what's now known as "intimate partner violence," and the building will be illuminated purple for a week. 

In reality, Denver was the first city to not only illuminate the dangers of domestic violence, but to take action, as Westword detailed in a package we published twenty years ago. Here's the story of how that movement began, reprinted from June 1998.

On hot summer nights, when her children were sleeping, she would open her windows wide and listen to the sounds of Capitol Hill — the sirens, the screams. "Ambulances and fire trucks were going all night long," Clarissa Pinkola Estes remembers. "You'd hear angry voices. You'd hear a great big slap, and then a woman or a child would cry out. The police would come, and they'd tell the woman to calm down. The man would say, well, she aggravated me, and they'd tell her, well, don't aggravate him anymore."

In the late 1960s, when Pinkola Estes moved to Denver, it was considered perfectly fine for a man to hit his wife. That was a "private matter," though for a man to hit another man was often a crime. "Looking back on it now," she says, "I understand that people were completely asleep, as though they'd taken narcotics."

But Denver was about to wake up.

Through a timely alignment of events and attitudes, this city would become the leader in the fight against domestic violence. It took a group of strong women (although not necessarily women all working in the same group) and a certain independent spirit, the sort that Coloradans like to think they're known for. And it took money.

click to enlarge
Clarissa Pinkola Estes continues to write and lecture around the country.
In the beginning there wasn't much of that. In 1971 Pinkola Estes joined with several other women to open a house for battered women — although "battered" wasn't a word that was used back then. Other grassroots shelters were springing up across town, but this house on Lafayette Street, the Women in Transition House, was designed specifically to shelter women, sometimes women with children, who were fleeing violent men. "We put the biggest locks on the doors we could find," Pinkola Estes says. "Seven on each door."

The WIT house never had any funding, so the organizers would scrounge for food and clothes and donations, speaking to Rotary groups and Optimist clubs about domestic violence. "People looked at us — their eyes were like little blueberries in their faces," Pinkola Estes remembers. "They couldn't believe it happened across all classes, across all ethnicity groups, across all economic levels."

But if educating the Rotarians was hard, educating the women who'd left their husbands was harder. "The women were as asleep as the public," Pinkola Estes says. "How do you teach them that no one has a right to hit them, ever, even if they're provocative, even if they say salacious things? But the thing was, most of these women were not being provocative, not saying salacious things, and the men were still lashing out. Many, many of the women really struggled hard with whether they should go home again. Many women did go back into a battering situation time and again. Not because they were stupid, as some people suggested, or had a death wish, but because they'd been shocked into thinking nothing else was possible.

"It was a tremendous amount of work. It was a 24-hour-a-day life. But slowly, gradually, social services woke up and policemen woke up. All across the city, people began to wake up."

Money was the real eye-opener.

In 1975, the same year WIT finally closed its doors, psychologist Lenore Walker moved to Denver to take a job at Colorado Women's College. She brought with her a reputation for work she'd done on child abuse while on the faculty of Rutgers medical school in New Jersey. As she'd collected data, she'd found one underlying theme: "Women were always getting blamed," she says. "No one wondered what was happening to them."

At CWC, Walker had the perfect opportunity — and plenty of subjects — to continue studying women in abusive relationships and to question the prevailing "male-dominated, mother-blaming" theories regarding child abuse, many of them promulgated by the Denver-based Kempe Center. "I became part of a national group of people concerned about domestic violence, about women abuse," Walker remembers, "and at the same time, we were absolutely insistent that we were not going to work with the child-abuse people, because of their anti-women attitude."

Representative Pat Schroeder introduced the cause in Congress.
In 1976 Walker went to England to meet activist Erin Pizzey, who'd started the "refuge movement" there and set up that country's first shelter for women. Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, then in her fourth year as Denver's representative, paved the way for Walker's visit. "It was my first trip abroad, and I was treated like a guest of state," Walker remembers and laughs. "A guide took me to the shelters. Here I was, a little assistant professor of psychology, and they were treating me like an important person."

But on her return, Walker was an important person. Schroeder asked for an official briefing, and "I reported I thought the shelter movement was a good idea," she says. "I saw the need to have a central place in a community that would give the message loud and clear that we don't accept wife abuse." The feds offered grant money if Walker would organize a women's conference in this country featuring Pizzey; that first conference took place twenty years ago in Denver.

In the audience was Fern Portnoy, then the head of the Piton Foundation, which was financed by oilman Sam Gary. Within a matter of weeks, Piton had arranged the funding to set up two battered-women's shelters — one in Jefferson County, the other Denver's Safehouse for Battered Women, the first long-term shelter in the country.

At the same time the shelters were taking off, Walker was running a quarter-million-dollar research grant out of CWC. "I was looking at the psychological effects of battering, and two theories: that battering came in a cycle rather than all the time or just randomly; and the theory of 'learned helplessness,'" she says. "It wasn't that women had some defect, like masochism, that got them into the situation. It was learned behavior." Which, she believed, meant that the behavior could be unlearned — at least by the victim.

Mix the abused-women research with work being done on post-traumatic stress disorder and a dose of feminist perspective, "and the trauma theories really came together," Walker says. They came together most prominently in Walker's The Battered Woman, published in 1979. This was the first book for laypeople that explained the process and psychology of domestic violence and also gave it a name. But Walker wasn't limiting her explanations to the printed page. By now she was also working as an expert witness for women who had been battered and who had responded by killing their abusers.

"People were fascinated with women who kill," she says. "It was so against the norms. They made for great cases." They also made for great publicity for the battered-women's movement, publicity that could be used to get more grants and develop more resources in the community.

The battered-women defense — the notion that it should be legal to kill someone who posed a threat to your life, even if he wasn't necessarily attacking you at the time — was particularly successful in the West. "Judges in Colorado were much more supportive," Walker says. "The notion of self-defense is a strong Western concept. What we were really doing was giving women independent rights. If a man has a right to self-defense, a woman has a right to self-defense."

As the battered-women movement took hold, federal money kept coming into Colorado — a very deliberate decision on the feds' part, says Walker, because Denver's strong grassroots groups made the city a perfect test case for domestic-violence strategies. By the late 1970s, the Colorado Association for Aid to Battered Women was up and running. The CAABW worked with the Department of Justice as well as with state and local officials, using government grants to study models for shelters, to get more shelters up, to organize other states. "Ink wouldn't be dry on the computer printout, and Congress would call me and we'd be reading our new data," Walker remembers.

Within a few years, though, Ronald Reagan was president, and most of the federal money dried up. The CAABW went out of business, with the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence taking over its shelter work. Walker went on to the Colorado Coalition for Justice for Abused Women, known not so fondly by some as "JAWs." There she joined lawyer Jackie St. Joan, who'd written a legal-rights pamphlet for battered women, and other advocates pushing for a change in how police and the criminal courts handled domestic-violence cases.

click to enlarge
Jacqueline St. Joan is now poetry editor of the Colorado Independent.
"We had some really important lessons to learn," says Walker, "including the fact that leaving doesn't stop the violence. Our success isn't when a women leaves; it is when she lives violence-free."

And so they decided to take on Denver police chief Art Dill. St. Joan had collected half a dozen cases in which the police had failed to protect a woman from a violent spouse, and JAWS moved to file a class-action lawsuit against Denver for its failure to protect battered women.

In 1982, members of JAWs met with Denver District Attorney Dale Tooley and his deputy, Norm Early, as well as Mayor Bill McNichols's city attorney and Chief Dill's representative — a group of women facing a line of men. "We were saying we needed statistics," Walker recalls. The police representative "turned red in the face and said, 'If you think I'm going to give you statistics so you can sue this department, you can just hold on to your jockstraps.'"

Tooley, however, promised to deliver the stats from the DA's office, which had already set up a special system for dealing with domestic-violence cases: "vertical prosecution," in which one person followed a case all the way through the system so that it wouldn't get lost. (The only other such program was in Los Angeles, where it was headed by a young prosecutor named Johnnie Cochran.)

Tooley vowed that if he were elected mayor in 1983, there would be no need to sue the city. But though Tooley lost, Federico Peña's surprise victory signaled an end to the old-boy system. The new mayor promised to give JAWs what it wanted. And Peña delivered.

Shortly after his election, he set up the Denver Domestic Violence Task Force, chaired by St. Joan and a representative of the district attorney's office; its membership included representatives from the police and city attorney's office, as well as activist Barbara Shaw, who would soon head Project Safeguard. One of the task force's main charges was to establish a comprehensive written protocol for the handling of domestic-violence cases, from police to prosecution to probation.

Co-authored by Shaw and federally funded as a national demonstration project, the Denver Domestic Violence Task Force protocol was adopted in late 1984. The main points of the landmark document included mandatory arrest if probable cause was established that a crime had been committed; a "no drop" and "no plea bargains" policy for prosecutors; court-ordered domestic-violence counseling for perpetrators; and the establishment of victim advocates specifically trained for domestic violence.

Denver had woken up.

The Denver demonstration project was soon being emulated all over the country. But adoption of the program's objectives proved slow in much of Colorado.

Some jurisdictions — El Paso County, Jefferson County, Aurora and, in particular, Boulder — were faster to adopt practices similar to Denver's or to develop their own. Others picked up bits and pieces, such as mandatory arrest or making it easier to obtain restraining orders. Some officials, however, particularly those in rural areas, ignored the issue or complained that they didn't have the resources to handle it.

In 1988, the Colorado Legislature enacted a law defining domestic violence, mandating treatment for offenders, adopting guidelines and standards for domestic-violence therapists, establishing certification boards for therapists in each of the state's 22 judicial districts, and creating a state commission to oversee those boards. That same year, lawmakers removed exemptions from sexual-assault statutes that had prevented husbands and live-in boyfriends from being prosecuted for raping their wives or girlfriends.

click to enlarge
Congresswoman Diana DeGette fought in the Colorado Legislature, then Congress.
Six years later, in 1994, the legislature went further still. Then-state lawmaker Diana DeGette sponsored the first omnibus domestic-violence bill in the country, one that provided a statewide "template" of the protocols that had been adopted in Denver ten years earlier. "They were the most progressive in the country," says DeGette. "But once I was elected, I realized that the rest of the state was far behind." Getting that legislation through wasn't easy. DeGette remembers one of the male members of the House Appropriations Committee mumbling, "What are you going to do next — put cameras in our bedrooms?"

After a long, hard fight, most of Denver's protocols were adopted as state law, including those for collecting evidence, taking statements, officer training and mandatory arrest. Prosecutors were now prohibited from dropping cases solely because a victim wouldn't cooperate. Before these cases could be dismissed, they would have to be put on the record, before a judge, and factual reasons would have to be given as to why they should not proceed. But DeGette had to jettison the provision she'd included demanding that all Colorado jurisdictions adopt Denver's policy of keeping suspects in jail at least until they'd seen a judge — in other words, mandatory jail time. "It's one of the most effective deterrents," she says, "but it's also one of the most costly."

Although mandatory jail time wasn't made law, it has since been adopted by all metro-area jurisdictions. In those cities and many others throughout the state, the "no bond" policy means the accused spend a night in jail — period. And last week Governor Romer signed into law another measure that expands on DeGette's effort. Among other things, House Bill 1272 gives courts the flexibility to order longer jail sentences for repeat offenders of restraining orders and also clarifies language that should cut down on victim arrests. This bill sailed through the legislature, according to Laine Gibbes, director of the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "They've heard us talk so many times, it's like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,'" she says.

"It continues Colorado's strong efforts," said Romer at last week's signing. "I'm very proud of what we've done on this issue."

In just twenty years, Denver's domestic-violence movement has had an amazing impact, one that's reverberated across the country. Today domestic violence is the number-one topic for students writing doctoral dissertations in psychology; five psychology journals are devoted solely to the issue of family violence. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence is based in Denver, and research continues.

But even as Denver's progressive — and aggressive — approach to domestic violence has spread, many members of that first generation of activists have moved on. Jackie St. Joan was appointed a judge of the Denver County Court, where she established the country's first restraining-order-and-domestic-violence court in the late 1980s; today she works at the University of Denver law school. Pinkola Estes became a Jungian psychoanalyst, and in 1992 published Women Who Run With the Wolves, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly two years. Although Colorado Women's College closed in 1981, Walker still has an office in Denver. But she's frequently out of town: Walker has a contract with the Broward County, Florida, public defender's office to work on domestic-violence issues; her Domestic Violence Institute, which she set up when CWC's domestic-violence center shut down, has centers in a dozen countries, providing training and education around the world. And she still does legal work, including a controversial stint a few years ago for Johnnie Cochran, who by then was a defense attorney representing the nation's most notorious wife-beater, O.J. Simpson.

Cochran contacted Walker after Judge Lance Ito allowed prosecutors to introduce evidence about Nicole Brown Simpson's 911 calls to police. "He wanted to know how domestic violence fit into it," she says of Cochran, "which seemed a perfectly appropriate use of my skills. Had I testified, the most I would have said is that you cannot say that because O.J. was a batterer — which he was — that he would kill her." Those predictions are almost impossible to make, Walker says. Out of the 2.5 million women battered each year in this country, between 1,200 and 2,000 are killed.

That Walker would even consider working on the Simpson case raised eyebrows in the domestic-violence community. But on the issue of domestic violence, there have always been arguments — sometimes heated ones. Some activists want nothing to do with men; some want to rehabilitate them. Some want all language to include references to lesbian relationships; some do not.

click to enlarge
The Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence is now Violence Free Colorado.
Even Walker's battered-woman defense is not as effective as it once was. Twenty years ago, she says, the stigma of being a battered woman was such that no woman would claim to be one unless she'd truly been battered. Today, though, the defense is employed in some questionable cases — and even if the woman truly was battered, the jury may wonder why she didn't take advantage of the myriad services that exist for her now.

Still, the advances are real — and undeniable. Twenty years ago a police officer couldn't arrest a man who hit his wife unless she signed a complaint. The onus of having the man arrested and prosecuted fell solely on her shoulders. But after DeGette's 1994 legislation, the burden was now on the system to see these cases through.

In the past, police would often hand out written summonses to misdemeanor domestic-violence suspects that would require them to appear in court days, even weeks, later. No more. Now suspects are hauled off to jail on the spot or as soon as the police catch up to them.

"I don't think we'll ever go back," Walker says. "When you think about the fact that this is a social-movement change, and twenty years has made this kind of difference. People don't tell 'When did you stop beating your wife?' jokes anymore."

"The difference between how it used to be and how it is, is day and night," says Pinkola Estes.

"It's like we picked up the rock and you see all the worms underneath," says Walker. "Once we took the lid off of it, we had no choice in a decent society but to do something about it."

But the worms keep turning.

DeGette is now a U.S. representative, serving in Schroeder's old seat. Last fall she managed to tack an amendment on to a banking bill prohibiting insurance companies from discriminating against survivors of domestic violence — a law that Colorado's legislature passed two years ago. According to a 1994 survey by the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, half of the nation's largest insurers used domestic violence as a factor when deciding whether to issue insurance and in determining what rates are charged for both property and health insurance. "Everyone on the committee was shocked," DeGette says. "They couldn't believe it. Misunderstanding of domestic violence is so omnipresent."

At a convention of insurance officials this spring, DeGette outlined her anti-discrimination proposal (which passed the House in May). When she asked for questions from the floor, a man stood and said, "If I have a skydiving hobby, don't you think that could be an underwriting condition? What's the difference with domestic violence?"

"This is 1998," DeGette says, sighing, "and that was the first question. Skydiving is a lifestyle choice. Domestic violence is not a lifestyle choice."

This story first appeared on in June 1998.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun