Women and the Law: Domestic Violence

A million women a year fall victim to nonfatal domestic violence.

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What is domestic violence?

Answer Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior used by one intimate partner or spouse to control the other. A domestic violence abuser may be physically violent, and may also use coercion, threats, intimidation, or isolation to control the victim. Abusers may be emotionally or sexually abusive, and may frequently try to control their partners or spouses by controlling family finances.

Dr. Mary Ann Dutton, a member of the American Psychological Association's Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family, a member of the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence, and nationally prominent clinical psychologist, defines domestic violence as a pattern of interaction in which one intimate partner uses threats or abuse to force the other intimate partner to change his or her behavior. Linda Fairstein, who heads the Sex Crimes Unit in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, adds that some abusers assault their partners for no other reason than to inflict pain and suffering and/or humiliation.

How often does domestic violence occur?

Answer By the most conservative estimate, 1 million women each year suffer nonfatal violence by an intimate. Other surveys estimate up to 4 million American women each year experience a serious assault by a partner, and nearly one in three adult women experience at least one physical assault by a partner during adulthood.

Sources: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Violence Against Women: Estimates from the Redesigned Survey, August 1995 (NCJ-154348); American Psychological Association, Violence and the Family: Report of the American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family (1996)

Does domestic violence occur primarily in low-income families?

Answer Domestic violence affects people from every ethnic, racial, age, national origin, religious and socio-economic background. Studies have shown that the only common trait among victims is that they are being abused by their intimate partners or spouses, and that the majority of heterosexual victims are female. Neither victims nor perpetrators can be identified as a certain "type" or "profile." Abusers may appear charming and articulate in public, or they may be seething with rage; victims are just as likely to seem angry or aggressive as frightened or passive.

Sources: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Violence Against Women: Estimates from the Redesigned Survey, August 1995 (NCJ-154348); Adams, David, Identifying the Assaultive Husband in Court: You be the Judge, Boston Bar Journal, July-August 1989

Why don't victims of domestic violence just leave their abusers?

Answer Most victims do leave their abusers, often several times. It may take a number of attempts to permanently separate, because abusers use violence, financial control or threats about the children, to compel victims to return. Lack of support from friends, family members or professionals, such as court personnel, law enforcement, counselors or clergy, may cause victims to return.

In addition, the risk of further violence often increases after victims separate from their abusers. According to the Department of Justice, women separated from their husbands were three times more likely to be victimized by spouses than divorced women, and 25 times more likely than married women. Another study found that 65 percent of intimate homicide victims had physically separated from the perpetrator prior to their death.

Source: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report: Violence Against Women: Estimates from the Redesigned Survey (NCJ-154348), August 1995; Florida Governor's Task Force on Domestic and Sexual Violence, Florida Mortality Review Project; 1997; American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence, The Impact of Domestic Violence on Your Legal Practice: A Lawyer's Handbook, 1996.

Are law enforcement and judicial responses -- arresting batterers or issuing civil protective orders -- effective in stopping domestic violence?

Answer A strong criminal justice response sends a clear message that offenders will be held accountable for their actions. Because some victims are afraid or reluctant to press charges against their abuser, some law enforcement authorities have implemented pro-arrest policies in domestic violence situations, and will prosecute cases even without the cooperation of victims.

Civil protection orders evolved as a useful tool for helping victims of domestic violence in the 1970s, when domestic violence cases were rarely criminally prosecuted. By opening up this option in civil court, communities gave victims the opportunity to petition for safety protections on their own behalf, rather than finding themselves left with no remedies at all if local prosecutors decided not to go forward with their cases. Such orders typically bar abusers from having any contact with their victims or from coming within a certain geographical distance of her. Civil protection orders, which are generally issued by a family court judge, may also make temporary provisions for child support, custody and visitation, in order to reduce the need for the victim to have to negotiate such issues with the abuser.

Because civil protection orders are issued in family court, sanctions for violations are often limited to warnings or fines for contempt. Some jurisdictions, like the District of Columbia, treat the violation of a civil protection order as a form of criminal contempt, and the abuser may face jail time as a result of a violation. In other jurisdictions, like Maryland, the violation of a protection order may be treated as a misdemeanor, and if the abuser is found guilty, criminal punishments will apply. The federal Violence Against Women Act of 1994 contains a "full faith and credit" provision that requires all states and territories to enforce protection orders issued by sister jurisdictions.

Most experts agree, that the actions by one piece of the system are only effective when the rest of the criminal and civil justice systems are functioning, and that improved protocols can decrease domestic violence related homicides. Law enforcement officers must make arrests, prosecutors must prosecute domestic violence cases, and courts must enforce orders and impose sanctions for criminal convictions.

Sources: Buzawa, Eve S. and Carl G., eds., Do Arrest and Restraining Orders Work?(1996); Sherman, Lawrence W. & Berk, Richard A., The Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experience, Police Foundation Reports 1 (April 1984); Zorza, Joan, Must We Stop Arresting Batterers? Analysis and Policy Implications of New Police Domestic Violence Studies, 28 New Eng. L. Rev. 929 (1994); Keilitz, Susan L., Courtenay Davis, Hillery S. Efkeman, Carol Flango, and Paula L. Hannaford, National Center for State Courts, Civil Protection Orders: Victims' Views on Effectiveness

Can men be the victims of domestic violence?

Answer Domestic abuse can be inflicted by women on their male partners. It also occurs between homosexual couples at the same rate as among heterosexuals. However, 90 to 95 percent of victims of severe domestic violence are women. Most female violence is committed in self-defense, and inflicts less injury than male violence. Also, male perpetrators are four times more likely to use lethal violence than females.

Sources: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Violence Between Intimates (NCJ-149259); National Resource Council and Institute of Medicine, p. 42, Violence in Families: Assessing Prevention & Treatment Programs, Chalk & King, eds., (1998); Florida Governor's Task Force on Domestic and Sexual Violence, Florida Mortality Review Project, 1997, p. 44, table

Reprinted by permission from Facts About Women and the Law. Copyright )1998 American Bar Association. All rights reserved.

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