A Call for Action: Changing the Culture of Teen Dating Violence

Empowering young people with the tools and the language to decipher healthy relationships from abusive ones is imperative in order to quell the epidemic of teen dating violence. We often forget that dating violence, which encompasses physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse between two people in a close relationship, can occur at any age, and can be most detrimental for young people whose ideas about what is normal are still being formed. Among adult victims of rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner, 22% of women and 15% of men first experienced some form of partner violence between 11 and 17 years of age.  Absolutely paramount in the attempt to end a widespread issue like this is prevention through early education. We must make communication about this issue accessible to teens and introduce intervention before patterns of abuse are cemented. Studies demonstrate that parents and peers are the most effective avenues to reach adolescents and because parents, unfortunately, continuously prove too squeamish, too detached, or too ignorant, the greatest prospect of social change will be through popular opinion leaders and peers.

What does teen dating violence look like?
Dating abuse is a pattern of destructive behaviors used to exert power and control over a partner. When does a relationship cross the line between tumultuous and downright abusive? Loveisrespect.org offers some warning signs: if your partner is checking your cell phone or email without permission, constantly putting you down, extremely jealous or insecure, exhibiting an explosive temper, isolating you from family or friends, making false accusations, demonstrating constant mood swings, physically hurting you in any way, possessive of you, controlling, repeatedly pressuring you to have sex, you are in a violent relationship. Technology and social media are an especially effective way that power and control manifest themselves in teenage relationships. In a generation that garners equal sustenance from smartphones and oxygen, how much texting is too much? Is he checking in or checking up? Does she get frustrated if you take too long to answer? It can be very hard for teens to distinguish dysfunctional behaviors from healthy ones, especially when this may very well be the first relationship they have ever been in.

Why does it happen?
While both young women and young men can be victims of dating violence, the majority of cases deal with abusive boyfriends. Why? Dating violence continues across generations in large part because of prevailing gender stereotypes or what Tony Porter in his Ted Talk calls the collective socialization of men. He posits that until we deconstruct and redefine the view of men as the superior, domineering, emotionless sex we will have problems of inequity in society that lead to accepted relationship dynamics of aggression and control. Young men are taught, explicitly and implicitly, that women have less value, are to be viewed as property, and objectified. These perceptions breed violence. Porter suggests that “my liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.”
More recently, the Always commercial by Award-winning director Lauren Greenfield communicates a sobering message about the destructive nature of gender stereotypes around the idiomatic insult “you [throw, run, hit, etc.] like a girl.” At what point does run like a girl go from meaning run as fast as you can to run like a frolicking fool? The commercial demonstrates that the phrase “like a girl” becomes insulting as women get older and negative gender roles are deeply inculcated in their perception of self. As long as this inequity stands it will lead to power imbalances in relationships and contribute to the objectification and abuse of women.

How can we stop it?
Early education is key. Just as campaigns have successfully led to the vast diminishing of cigarette smokers and the almost ubiquitous use of seat belts, if we can spread awareness through middle and high schools with the hope of fostering the spirit of activism, perhaps the demeaning and controlling relationships will be stopped before they become lifelong habits. Currently, there are several state bills pending that will mandate education regarding dating violence in schools. If we educate the population, we will create an environment where a victim of an abusive relationship will have friends who know how to address them and additionally, someone demonstrating abusive behaviors will be reproached by peers. This can stop a young man from becoming a lifelong batterer.  We cannot underestimate the power of getting teens to simply tell someone “that’s not cool.” 

Mary Byron Scholars Program
The Mary Byron Scholars Program selects exceptional and dedicated young women in high school to undergo training to become community liaisons in the effort to prevent dating violence. They raise awareness at Assumption High School and throughout the community. Specifically, they conduct training sessions at male high schools geared towards getting young men involved in the cause and creating valiant bystanders. In April they spearheaded a Teen Dating Violence Awareness Week with three male high schools. Following the awareness campaign, the scholars led a fundraiser in which three boy’s high schools competed in Walk a Mile in Her Shoes® donning high heels and carrying purses in the international men’s march to stop rape, sexual assault and gender violence. By educating young men on healthy relationships, these young scholars are helping to promote vast social change. Eloquently put in his piece in the New York Times, Charles Blow writes, “Fighting female objectification and discrimination and violence against women isn’t simply the job of women; it must also be the pursuit of men…Only when men learn to recognize misogyny will we be able to rid the world of it. Not all men are part of the problem, but, yes, all men must be part of the solution.”  And not only are these young women doing fantastic work in their communities now, they will also be activists throughout their lives, communicating the message of gender equality and healthy relationships wherever their journeys take them.

Celebrating Solutions Programs
The Mary Byron Project’s Celebrating Solutions Program awards exceptional programs honing in on specific characteristics that make an action plan against domestic violence successful.
In 2004 the Mentors in Violence Prevention program won the Celebrating Solutions award for utilizing the coveted status of athletes as role models to address the problem of men’s violence against women. Every MVP session is co-facilitated by a mixed-gender, racially diverse group of former athletes. Their approach to prevention includes interactive playbooks to spark discussion about the ways that young men and women are taught how they can interrupt, confront and prevent violence by their peers. 
2009 Celebrating Solutions Winner SafePlace’s Expect Respect program pioneered legislation mandating that Texas schools address teen dating violence through policies, training, counseling for affected students, and education for students and parents. Their broad range of services for students throughout grade school and high school acknowledges that youth leadership is key to changing social norms related to intimate partner violence and ultimately breaking multi-generational cycles of violence. Research and experience demonstrate that youth need to see their peers as leaders and positive role models in order to adopt new, healthy attitudes and behaviors.

Taking Action
Breaking the cycle of teen dating violence depends on our youth. It depends on our ability to teach them to recognize and put an end to abusive relationships before they start. Dating violence will persist until prevention is made a priority throughout the nation. We must educate both young men and young women of all backgrounds and empower them with the strategies to recognize and react to teen dating violence. Through tried and true methods of peer education and support from popular opinion leaders, we can live in a world where being an activist is what all the cool kids are doing.

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2013 Celebrating Solutions & Roth Award Winners

Domestic violence remains one of the leading dangers for women in today’s world. An estimated one in five women will be a victim of abuse in her lifetime. With an issue so pervasive, so long standing, and so deeply ingrained in society, solutions are not easy to come by. The Mary Byron Project’s Celebrating Solutions Program hones in on specific characteristics that make an action plan against domestic violence successful. Through months of reading applications from all over the nation, The Mary Byron Project commemorates initiatives that present innovative solutions to broaden the scope of available services for victims to turn to, and ultimately create a world where there are far fewer occurrences of intimate partner violence altogether. 2013 boasted groundbreaking models for the nation to follow in shelters, housing, law, education, and medicine. Domestic violence transcends all dimensions of life and therefore must be combated with a multi-front approach. It is the honor of the Mary Byron Project to recognize these valiant efforts.

Greenhouse 17
A little fresh air can go a long way. Greenhouse 17 presents a creative and inventive solution to help victims rebuild their lives after violence has caused extensive loss and damage. Their solution is agriculture based healing. That’s right, aside from providing advocacy, emergency shelter, legal services and housing support, they also give victims the empowering opportunity to help cultivate the land on their beautiful 40 acre farm. Peaceful moments in gardens, where witnessing plants growing can inspire feelings of hope, serve to counteract stresses victims have experienced through their trauma. There is something very life-affirming about planting a seed and seeing it grow—the literal affirmation that confidence in the future is not futile. They benefit from these efforts and are able to eat the fresh fruits and vegetables which also teaches good eating habits. Further, through these efforts the farm plans to become an entirely economically self-sustaining program while offering survivors microenterprise opportunities. They are deeply committed to community involvement and garner support from local establishments. Greenhouse 17 redefines the meaning of healing and helps victims get back on their feet while learning life-long skills.

District Alliance for Safe Housing
Home should be a safe place. DASH posits that every survivor of domestic violence should have stress-free access to a roof over head where they can heal. Lacking a safe place to stay often traps victims and their children in abusive and potentially very dangerous situations. DASH’s innovative design for providing housing departs from the traditional model of shelter and housing for victims, instead offering emergency, transitional and permanent housing services to residents in an apartment setting, where they have leases in their own names and are able to transition in place rather than moving from one facility to another after completing each predetermined stage of housing. They call this program “Rapid Re-housing” and move victims into their own housing units immediately after they have escaped abuse and keep them housed for the long-term. The settling allows residents to have their own private space to heal and recover, conducting their lives as they would in their own homes. Their reach has been nothing short of astounding. In 2013, DASH safely housed 225 individuals (94 women and 131 children) providing over 800,000 safe nights. 350 women and families were placed into emergency, transitional and permanent housing. DASH also works to educate the community and has reached over 2,000 women and advocates. In an article by WUSA 9 DASH resident Janet M. Copeland offers a chilling testimonial: “When she gave me the key to open my door I fell to my knees and kissed the floor because I was so happy. I felt safe. It was like a new awakening. I was just so grateful. That’s the word. I was just so grateful that it was a place that I could go with my baby and feel safe.” DASH places victims in highly secure housing at undisclosed locations so they can rest assured that their perpetrator will not find them. And in the long-term, with DASH by their sides, victims can build a life free of violence in a home they can afford.

Rutgers School of Social Work
Domestic Violence is a complicated issue. In order to enrich the education of those serving in the field, Rutgers School of Social Work has crafted a certification program specifically pioneered for studies surrounding violence against women and children. They are the only university in the country to offer this program to graduate level social work students. Through in-depth courses, specialized field placements and supportive scholarships Rutgers tailors the program to create professionals who have the skills needed to work effectively and sensitively with survivors of violence. Graduates have gone on to obtain professional leadership positions working in the fields of domestic violence, sexual violence and child abuse in clinical and administrative venues. The program’s research, education, and training impacts communities and policies in New Jersey, the U.S. and throughout the world. Rutgers is leading the way in encouraging schools of social work across the country to implement a focus on research on violence against women.

National Crime Victim Law Institute’s Responding to Violence Against Women Project
Victims of domestic violence all too often become victims of the criminal justice system as well. The National Crime Victim Law Institute recognizes that historical and cultural myths and biases create unique hurdles to women’s access to justice. The NCVLI recognizes the necessity to curb the pretenses that intimate partner violence is a woman’s fault for staying in the relationship. They have launched the Responding to Violence against Women Project to focus on ensuring that victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and/or child abuse are empowered in their attempt for justice. The project ensures that service providers and lawyers responding to these victims have the knowledge and skills necessary to protect a victim’s rights, particularly in the criminal case against offenders. The victims are not merely pieces of evidence in the case against the defendants but persons whose independent voice and rights need to be protected so that they can heal from the trauma they have been through. NCVLI conducts research, hosts a myriad of trainings, issues legal publications on rights enforcement to aid practitioners, crafts model legislation and drafts public policy briefings. In short, NCVLI recognizes that the system is flawed and all too frequently puts the victims on the defense. If we want more women to come forward, to seek justice, to pursue protection, the system needs reform.

Every year along with the four Celebrating Solutions winners, the Mary Byron Project recognizes an outstanding program that specifically works with underserved populations with the Roth Award. Because domestic violence affects the full range of socioeconomic, cultural, ethnic and religious groups, there is a demand for programs specifically tailored to reach diverse groups.
Migrant Clinicians Network, Inc.’s Hombres Unidos Contra la Violencia Familiar (Men United against Family Violence)
The epidemic of domestic violence will not change until men join women in the fight. Hombres Unidos engages Latino migrant men in group dialogue, facilitated by their peers, to learn about sexual and intimate partner violence. They learn to define healthy relationships through knowledge, attitudes, behaviors and beliefs. The Austin Texas group recognizes the importance of using a culturally sensitive approach to address the issue of intimate partner violence across socio-economic and ethnic boundaries. They conduct workshops in the language most participants find comfortable, usually Spanish, and foster a safe environment for discussion and learning. By training 150-300 men annually, they create community leaders and activists among Latino men who can spread positive messages of respect and exemplify healthy behaviors to their friends and families.

The Celebrating Solutions and Roth Award winners generate a sense of hope in the continuing fight against intimate partner violence. Their superior efforts to improve the resources available to victims and their drive to educate the masses to create informed foot soldiers of change are integral in ultimately ending the stigma surrounding one of our nation’s largest public health downfalls. These promising initiatives will help to end the cycle of violence that still exists in profundity in this day and age. To see more outstanding programs that we have honored, visit our website.

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Campus Sexual Assault: Our Nation’s Silent Shame

Colleges and universities are being educated by Washington and are finding the experience excruciating. They are learning that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous (“micro-aggressions,” often not discernible to the untutored eye, are everywhere), and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate- George Will, Washington Post.

 Micro-aggressions? Belittling the trauma that college women have suffered into a phrase as dismissive as “micro-aggressions” is truly infuriating in this day and age. We live in a society that still questions “Well, what was she wearing that night?” and Will’s column simply perpetuates that mindset. The fact that a well-respected columnist for the Washington Post would belittle a victim’s anguish after harassment and/or assault only heightens the stigma that already surrounds sexual assault and accounts for the diminutive percentage of victims who actually come forward. So let’s delve deeper into this issue…

For many, the journey to college means the launch from the comfortable, nurturing nest of suburbia to a campus beckoning new experiences, new areas of study, new friends, and new jobs all far away from home. These years are often some of the most transformative where students enter as 18 year old boys and girls and depart at the ripe age of 22, young men and women with big plans and ideas. However, for an 18 year old girl entering college, she also enters an incredibly dangerous environment. Hampering the prospect of self-discovery is the dauntingly high risk factor for sexual violence on college campuses.  Statistically speaking, 20% of college women experience dating violence, yet these incidents go vastly unreported. Only 12% of these women will ever come forward. Perhaps victimhood isn’t as coveted as George Will suggests. These women are ashamed and frightened, not seeking attention and recognition. What’s more, when reported, the compulsory response from campuses under Title IX legislation often does not result in more than a slap on the wrist for the perpetrator. The mission of the Legal Aid Society’s “Legal Representation of Sexual Assault Victims on Campus” training I had the privilege of attending, was to elicit a response to attempt to quell this epidemic by giving lawyers and activists a fundamental understanding of how to provide legal representation to victims of sexual assault in campus administrative hearings and counseling on other legal options with both sensitivity and competence to the needs of victims specific to sexual assault. The hope is to empower young women to hold the system accountable for keeping themselves safe and comfortable in the learning environment.

 

Challenges Specific to College Campuses

Victims of sexual assault often want someone to know about the incident, but the shame and fear they feel following the event inhibits them from reporting even anonymously. This proves, again, that there are no “privileges” (as Will suggests) that accompany coming forward as a victim. They have a strong tendency to blame themselves, especially if they voluntarily consumed alcohol/drugs or engaged in sexual acts. They may have fears about the criminal justice system and may not trust the campus administration, and with good cause. Most frequently their offenders are not even required to leave their living arrangement even if it is near their victim’s. And reminders of the incident are often everywhere. The perpetrator might live in the very same residence hall as the victim. She might have to see him every day in economics class. Or in the dining hall. The rigor of academia coupled with the daily struggle of the psychological experience of being a survivor has a negative impact on the student’s grades, social life and decision making. They have high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, dropout rates, and even report contemplation of suicide. In other words, being in the enclosed sphere of the college bubble exacerbates the trauma experienced by the survivor.

 

Title IX and the Clery Act

What rights do victims have if they do decide to come forward? Title IX dictates that “No person in the United States shall on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” In cohesion with the Clery Act, the government holds schools receiving aid accountable for the action taken against dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. In the 2011 the Dear Colleague letter was published by the Department of Education stating, “Education has long been recognized as the great equalizer in America. The U.S. Department of Education and its Office for Civil Rights (OCR) believe that providing all students with an educational environment free from discrimination is extremely important. The sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination and, in the case of sexual violence, is a crime.” However, navigating the process to present a case to the school could be confusing for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. In an initiative to address the overwhelming statistics of sexual assault on campus, the White House launched an initiative against sexual assault…the same initiative Will bashes in his article. Their website NotAlone.gov offers advice on how to navigate the tricky process of filing a complaint and details the services that are available for the victims. There has been an effort to let victims know that, in Obama’s own words, “We’ve got your back.” But do we? Have there been real changes in practice? When administrative hearings often result solely in the perpetrator going to “sensitivity training”, do we call that justice?  

 

Lawyers getting involved

Gasps were heard and hands shot up from lawyers all around the room when the presenter explained the process of administrative hearings. Unlike a normal case, attorneys are not permitted to participate in the examination of witnesses nor the presentation of materials nor information unless they are specifically asked to do so by the hearing official, an unlikely occurrence. Rather the advisor (who need not be a lawyer) may confer and give advice to the student in a quiet, confidential and non-disruptive manner. The presenter, much to the amusement of the lawyers present, added that she personally prefers to use flashcards to communicate with the women she represents. There is merely a thin separator between the victim and the perpetrator and the victim must call witnesses, make statements and face the account of the other side, with her voice alone…. a large burden considering the trauma that she has gone through… Not to mention the fact the she is 18-22 years old with no experience in the ability that it takes to argue a good case. The system therefore is markedly geared towards the offender.

 And the clincher—the advice about the importance of mitigating the client’s expectations. It is essential going into the hearing for the victim to realize that there will likely not be any consequences for the one at whose hands she suffered. Schools are worried about their reputation and are hesitant to acknowledge the problem. The fact that there are 55 schools in violation of Title IX this year alone demonstrates a dysfunctional system. 

 

Remaining Questions

Why is it that the protocol for perpetrators of sexual assault is markedly different on a college campus than it is off of it? The law indicates that rape and sexual assault are felonies, yet in administrative hearings offenders are rarely even suspended. Until schools hold perpetrators accountable, it seems unlikely that these crimes will substantially decrease. But with antediluvian opinions from respected men like George Will that sexual assault is not an issue to be discussed, do we have any hope of real policy changes? While it is important to hear both sides of issues, the proposition that sexual assault and harassment are undetectable “micro-aggressions” merely takes several steps backwards in the quest for social justice. And proposing that being a victim is a coveted status? That those who find the strength to take action against their perpetrators are lying or exaggerating? It is this poisonous rhetoric that plagues our system. According to the Legal Aid seminar, it is absolutely essential that victims speak up even though the results may not be super satisfying. But why put victims through more than they’ve already experienced?  It seems as though the only solution would be a totally new approach on the collegiate system of appeals, and a complete change of priorities by people who have the ability to support the strange notion that victims of sexual assault deserve more.

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Only in Kentucky . . .

Only in Kentucky . . .

 Kentucky stands alone as the only state with NO civil protection for victims of dating violence.  That’s right . . . We are the only ones who fail to recognize that being a victim of intimate partner violence does not depend on where you live, but on the nature of the relationship you are in.

What does this mean to you?  Let’s take a common example.  My mom was 68 when my father passed away.  After a year or so, she entered the dating world, albeit somewhat tentatively.  She dated a man for about 6 months.  Had he become abusive, she could not have sought a protective order to keep him away from her because, at her age, she was certainly not going to live with him (or any man, for that matter).  Her ability to seek protection depends SOLELY on where she chooses to live, not whether or not she is being abused by an intimate partner.

Similarly, I have a 17 year old daughter.  If she dates a boy and he becomes abusive, she, too, cannot seek civil protection to keep him away from her, her home, or her school.  If she gets pregnant and has a child, she can get protection.  If she is responsible and uses birth control, she cannot get protection.

Sound absurd?  It is.  Your aunts, mothers, grandmothers, friends who are entering the dating world after a divorce or the death of the spouse cannot get protection from an abusive partner unless they put aside their values and live with their partner.  Your daughters, nieces, cousins, friends cannot get protection from abusive dating partners unless they get pregnant and have a child or choose to live with their partner, despite what their religious beliefs or family values might dictate.

Perhaps even more absurd than the current reality is the reality two members of the General Assembly are trying to create.  For more than five years, advocates and a few dedicated members of the General Assembly have tried, in vain, to bring Kentucky’s antiquated law in line with that of the rest of the country and make civil protection available for victims of dating violence.  For more than five years, we have failed.  But now 2 members of the General Assembly, Sen. Jared Carpenter and Rep. Gerald Watkins have a solution:  Give individuals with a protective order permission to carry a concealed weapon with no training and no permit. 

Essentially, let’s deny protection to the dating violence victims who so desperately need it, but arm those who are already able to obtain a protective order.  Seriously?

Let’s think this through.  We know protective orders are effective at stopping or reducing domestic violence.  A recent study by UK professor Dr. T. K. Logan found that protective orders stopped or significantly reduced violence in approximately 90% of all cases in a six month follow up.  We also know that presence of firearms, regardless of who owns them, significantly increases the risk of a domestic violence victim being killed.  A California study revealed that 20% of all women murdered were killed with a gun by an intimate partner.  When the woman owned a gun, that number increased to 45%, more than double.  More guns does not mean more protection; they mean more deaths.  Finally, women who kill their batterers (which would seem to be the point of these legislative proposals) serve an average of 15 years in prison, compared with the average two to six year sentence for men who kill their intimate partners.  This is true despite the fact that most women kill in self-defense.

All of this leads one to wonder:  What are Rep. Watkins and Sen. Carpenter trying to accomplish?  Neither has spoken in favor of HB 8 or SB 68, both of which would extend protection to dating violence victims, so it’s probably safe to assume that they are not looking to actually protect more women.  Do they want more women killed?  That’s what more guns in domestic violence situations will mean.  Do they want more women incarcerated for longer periods of time?  Because that’s what happens when women kill their violent partners, even in self-defense

What is it going to take to get our legislators to realize that being victimized by an intimate partner does not depend on your address but on the nature of your relationship?  Advocates and thinking people throughout the Commonwealth have been wondering this for years.  So instead of expanding protection to those who need it, we’re going to arm those who already have protection and expect them to take matters into their own hands?  This is inane. 

This is the NRA’s bill, so those in other states should prepare themselves for the same fight that we are now having in Kentucky.

Here’s the real question:   Is this legislative effort really an expression of concern for battered women or an expression of concern for the continued support of the NRA?

You decide.

 

 

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Domestic Violence Fatality Reviews: What They Do, and How to Improve Them

Each year, approximately 1,500 women are killed by their current or former intimate partners. That number is staggering – but it is only the lower limit of the number of fatalities domestic violence creates every year. Some victims kill themselves rather than having to endure ongoing abuse, while others kill their abusers. Abusers commit murder-suicides at an alarming rate. And still more victims die as a product of homelessness or other consequences of the violence. It is truly sobering to realize the immense toll that domestic violence takes each year in sheer human lives, on top of the pain and suffering it causes to its victims.

There’s no way to put a positive spin on these tragedies, but there are ways to make sure that domestic violence-related deaths do not occur in a vacuum. Ultimately, every domestic violence-related fatality is preventable at some step; sometimes police should have arrested the murderer on a previous DV call, sometimes advocates should have tried harder to get the victim to stay in counseling, sometimes one part of the court system was unaware of a piece of information that had come out in another courtroom. Consequently, each fatality provides a learning opportunity for organizations in the field – by recognizing what went wrong and what didn’t work, experts can try to stop future deaths from occurring. This is where the “domestic violence fatality review” comes in.

The Big Picture

The basic concept behind a DV fatality review is extraordinarily simple. Domestic violence is a complex problem, and preventing it requires the efforts of many different actors: law enforcement officials; the court system; victim advocates; health care service providers. Too often, these actors and agencies do not work in concert with one another – instead, they consciously or unconsciously undermine the efforts of other organizations or let victims ‘slip through the cracks’ between agencies. While each organization should want to conduct internal scrutiny of its own practices when a fatality occurs, internal reviews alone will never account for inter-agency gaps or failures in communication.

In addition to investigating agencies’ interactions, fatality reviews create valuable opportunities for participating organizations to benefit from one another’s expertise. Domestic violence advocates will typically have more nuanced interpretations of the reasons an abuser was still able to access his victim after she left, for example, while police officers will have firsthand experience attempting to assess the immediate danger an abuser poses. The specific knowledge experts can bring to the table helps everyone develop more effective policies, and having a fresh set of eyes evaluating agency responses and policies can help identify points of improvement as well.

Some may be confused by the single focus on DV fatalities, as opposed to preventing domestic violence as a whole. Many jurisdictions do have domestic violence prevention committees, where representatives from relevant agencies meet to discuss general strategies toward combating the issue. But fatality review has the benefit – loosely speaking, of course – of focusing on some of the worst cases of domestic violence, and cases in which the system spectacularly failed those it was meant to help. By probing these cases in-depth, it is possible to identify factors which, if changed, would also help victims of less severe violence.

What Fatality Reviews Do

There are currently about 175 domestic violence fatality review teams in operation, many of which are mandated by state statutes or executive orders, and several which receive funding from government sources like the Office for Violence against Women. Some reviews happen at the statewide level; others occur at a more local level before feeding into a statewide fatality review meeting. The National Domestic Violence Fatality Review Initiative (NDVFRI) serves as a clearinghouse for fatality review reports and recommendations, and provides technical assistance and sample data collection tools to individual review teams.

To be clear, individual teams greatly differ in how they approach the actual task of fatality review. Some cover only ‘closed’ cases – that is, cases which involve a murder-suicide or for some other reason don’t have a pending court trial. Others deal with ‘open’ cases, but make sure to adopt stringent confidentiality standards to protect the privacy of families and suspects. Some teams conduct interviews with the family members of the victims and their killers; others limit themselves to information gained from official records. Some are more open about who they include in the discussions, accepting input from religious leaders or school administrators as well as DV specialists; others have smaller meetings with less ‘outside’ input. For a particularly good example of a fatality review team doing things the right way, I recommend watching this brief video about the Montana Fatality Review Commission.

Output also varies between review committees. The FAQ section of the NDVFRI website lists several ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ products of fatality review. The informal products include better-educated and better-trained team members; greater awareness about other members’ jobs; and greater collaboration on other issues in the future. It certainly seems useful to unite representatives from various agencies (especially ones which often seem to be somewhat at-odds with one another) and give them a common goal and forum for discussion; I have no doubt that on teams like the Montana one, such discussion is frequent and very informative, but I will shortly discuss settings in which these informal products are less apparent.

The formal products, likewise, can include a variety of tangible resources: from case-specific reports that delve into the history of a particular abusive relationship to state-wide data collection that can greatly assist systemic changes in the future. The 2012 Georgia Report, which we’ve been touting as a model for future fatality review reports and data collection, offers a good mix of statewide statistics and focus on individual cases. It even has interviews with survivors of near-fatal experiences, providing an additional perspective that many review teams don’t seek out. The quality of reports and data collection, especially statewide data collection, vary immensely – but people from all over the country can look to the Georgia report and others for enlightening data and sound recommendations.

The NDVFRI website also publishes newsletters on a somewhat regular basis which detail ‘best practice’ approaches that have developed as a result of individual fatality review initiatives. In 2011, for example, Arizona started a six-month pilot program to increase strangulation convictions by improving forensic exams of strangulation victims – after fatality review reports from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Maine focused on the extreme lethality risk of strangulation. In general, nationwide data about the factors surrounding domestic violence fatalities can give advocates and policymakers increased ammunition to push for stronger victim services and protections.

As a whole, there seem to be several good reasons to adopt (in those states that don’t already mandate it) fatality reviews, as well as good reasons for existing teams to communicate with others and swap ideas across state lines. Unfortunately, it seems that any good idea in the world of domestic violence must overcome substantial roadblocks before it is effectively implemented across the board.

Improving the System

The most immediately apparent obstacle to conducting fruitful fatality review meetings is the lack of involvement many victims have with the system. Estimates hold that only a small percentage of domestic violence fatality victims had some form of contact with victim services before their deaths; the Georgia report, for example, puts the statewide number at 16%. The police were not previously involved in a significant number of cases, as well.  The Georgia team found that only 77% of victims had any contact with law enforcement before their deaths – and the Florida team concluded that only 35% of the decedents had previously reported domestic violence to the police. This might be expected, since the most severe cases are often those where the victim has the least opportunity to make contact with outside resources. But just because a victim didn’t have contact with the system before her death, this does not preclude a critical discussion of how future victims might be proactively involved in victim services or criminal justice. To put it another way, in the realm of fatality review, any data is useful data.

That being said, there are certain serious administrative issues that do hinder effective fatality review. As I mentioned earlier, the confidentiality of victims and abusers is of serious importance in a legal and ethical sense. Teams must be careful to either focus on closed cases, or to sign and honor confidentiality agreements suppressing any information that might identify an individual person rather than an aggregate. Some states have legislation specifically allowing fatality review teams to discuss otherwise confidential information. Confidentiality is not a critical roadblock to any fatality review team, but it is occasionally a sticking point nonetheless. Similarly, team members are frequently concerned about the confidentiality of their own statements within the fatality review proceedings, for fear that an admission that their organization made a mistake would then be used against them in a lawsuit. Certain states also have legislation exempting team members from legal liability for their statements while in fatality review.

One other administrative issue involves the simple problem of data collection. While individual reports and qualitative descriptions can prove very important and influential, there is still a clear value to broad-based data describing general trends: how DV homicides are committed, what services victims utilized the most, whether children were involved, and so on. A lack of standardized data collection procedures within a state can seriously impair the accumulation of useful data that can truly advance policymaking.

On top of all of this, unfortunately, the biggest impairment to conducting a successful fatality review is usually inter-agency tensions and a desire to defer blame. Even when all of the member organizations want to avoid future fatalities, and even when they recognize that some gap somewhere was usually responsible for the fatalities they review, tempers can flare when a representative from one organization points out that a different agency could have done something differently. For this reason, the NDVFRI emphasizes the need for a “no blame and shame” ethos – the notion that everyone should go into the room accepting that they or their organization may face questions and concerns about current practices, but that these concerns are motivated not by a desire to blame others for the fatalities at hand, but rather by a desire to prevent future deaths – but the site also emphasizes the need for organizational accountability. Not only must organizations be held accountable for their current policies, but they must also be accountable for future changes that will prevent similar tragedies from occurring. Unfortunately, interagency concerns about disrespect or public embarrassment also impede this future accountability.

As fatality review becomes more of an ingrained institution, these tensions may diffuse. As it is, though, meetings and Q&A reports are occasionally fraught with defensive retorts and attempts to deflect criticism, as opposed to a single-minded focus on the actual task of fixing a system that lets people die before they get sufficient help. This is unfortunate, since input from other agencies may provide the fresh pair of eyes needed to fix the flaws with an imperfect system. (As a side note, the “no blame and shame” ethos does not necessarily apply to the victims – sometimes, in an attempt to deflect scrutiny from their organizations, team members will turn to the victim’s proximity to her abuser at the time of the murder or other actions as an explanation for why the death occurred. This undermines the entire point of the session, which is to create a space where experts can talk about how they help victims leave potentially life-threatening relationships, and diminishes accountability in a particularly pernicious way. The presence of victim advocates who are willing to speak out against this sort of victim-blaming is instrumental in preventing the deflection of responsibility.)

What’s Next?

At the end of the day, the case for fatality reviews seems simple, and despite the problems, it certainly is the case that fatality review teams have prompted real and positive changes in domestic violence policies across the country. It’s also true that unlike many of the things we write about on this blog, the fatality review is an institution many lawmakers already see as important and have legally mandated. While the NDVFRI is the first to admit that it’s not possible “to prove in any scientific manner that fatality reviews reduce domestic violence or the number of domestic violence related homicides,” the benefits of these reviews in terms of improved legislation, improved policies, and improved interagency communication are clear.

I can’t help wondering, though, whether the fatality review is only a prelude to increased cooperation in other aspects. Last week, I wrote about the Jefferson County Domestic Violence Intake Center, which unites advocates and the court system to give victims the best possible legal advice. There are certainly other avenues for cooperation out there. A once-a-month meeting among people who care about domestic violence is great, but it’s by no means a substitute for more sustained partnerships. Hopefully more and more jurisdictions are wising up to this. As always, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts – are you aware of any advancements that have come about in your jurisdiction as a product of fatality review?

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Why doesn’t the Kentucky Senate care about dating violence?

Kentucky House Bill 98 would have introduced a series of educational and policy requirements regarding teen dating violence for school districts and high school educational staff. It failed in the Senate – and this was even after a committee amendment gutted both the requirement that every school board adopt a policy related to teen dating violence and the statewide data collection system to compile reports of teen dating violence.

But what’s even worse is that Kentucky House Bill 9, a bill which would allow victims of dating abuse to seek civil protection from their abusers, didn’t even get to the point where it could be voted on in the anti-dating-protections Kentucky Senate. Kentucky currently provides protections to people who aren’t married to their abusers only if they lived with them or had a child with them, but this excludes a wide swath of dating relationships from consideration in a civil case. After passing the House and clearing the Senate Judiciary Committee for the first time, this bill couldn’t even garner enough support to come to a vote in the Senate; it was adjourned ‘sine die’ (for an indefinite period), which is essentially equivalent to letting a bill die.

So the Kentucky State Senate doesn’t want to educate teenagers about healthy dating practices – and when those teenagers and young adults end up in actual abusive relationships, the Senate certainly doesn’t want to help them get the protection they need. The bizarre and myopic refusal to support these kinds of protections puts actual lives in danger. And it’s not like this was the first time the bill was introduced in the House, and therefore the first time the Kentucky Senate got to consider it. The bill was approved by a House committee five times in the past five years, giving legislators plenty of time to educate themselves on this legislation and its implications.

So far, I’ve just been ranting, and that’s because I honestly don’t understand any kind of reasonable argument as to why this bill shouldn’t clear any competent legislative body. But the Kentucky Senate clearly thinks there’s some kind of possible reason – so let’s consider a few of them.

“Dating violence isn’t a big deal.”

No. This just isn’t true. According to The National Conference of State Legislatures, “one in 10 adolescents reports being a victim of physical dating violence.” About a quarter of adolescents report any form of abuse – verbal, physical, emotional, or sexual – each year. And ‘dating’ isn’t something only teen heathens do. About 72% of eighth and ninth graders report ‘dating’ in some form; the numbers only go up as people get older. A national poll found that 43% of college women have experienced violent and abusive dating behaviors, and 15% of all college students have been the victim of physical abuse, sexual abuse, or threats of physical violence. Older dating couples who are not cohabitating also experience abuse to a surprising degree.

And these are the nationwide statistics – Kentucky is even worse. Kentucky high schoolers report being hit, slapped, or otherwise physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend at some point in the previous year at a rate of upwards of 14.1%. It’s one of only five states in the nation to have such a high rate of high school dating violence, joining Wyoming, Arkansas, Maryland, and Georgia.

“Dating abuse isn’t dangerous enough to justify protection.”

Tell that to the family of Darnisha Peoples, a seventeen-year-old high school junior whose ex-boyfriend allegedly stabbed her to death last September in front of his two younger siblings. She’s just one of too many teenagers who are killed by current or former partners before they even leave high school – certainly before many of them consider living with their partners or having children with them. As tragic as it may be, teenagers are not exempt from abusing, seriously harming, or even murdering their partners.

It might be that long, long ago (maybe 1850?) dating relationships were never close enough to develop the kind of intimacy that would allow an abuser to generate and sustain a cycle of abuse. Maybe the reason why couples that cohabitated at some point are eligible for civil protections while couples that live separately are not is because legislators felt that cohabitating dating relationships were ‘serious’ and therefore potentially dangerous, while ones in which the parties lived separately were not.

Given recent research into the prevalence of high school dating violence, though, it should be clear that abuse can rear its ugly head anywhere. Moreover, there may be any number of reasons why someone might pursue a ‘serious’ relationship and still choose to live separately from their partner – kids from another marriage or relationship, convenience relative to their job, financial issues. So even if legislators wanted to adopt the ‘serious relationship’ criterion for deciding when to grant protective orders (ignoring the fact that courts can do this as well, in a more nuanced way), they still don’t have much justification.

Food for thought: according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, even though overall intimate partner homicide rates are on the decline, the rate of homicides of dating partners is increasing. Dating violence is serious, and a civil protection policy shouldn’t just ignore it.

“These are just kids – they can’t make appropriate decisions.”

Fortunately, the judge is sitting on the bench for the exact purpose of making those appropriate decisions.

“This will put too large a financial strain on the family court system.”

First of all, there are just some points at which we simply shouldn’t care about financial strains or burdens, and should accept them as part of the cost of keeping people safe, healthy, and alive. We accept the extra cost of paying for public schooling, the extra cost of paying for prisons to lock criminals up, the extra cost of social security so our aging relatives don’t suffer. The – significantly smaller – extra costs potentially associated with expanding these civil protections can help save people who otherwise would have to live lives of insecurity, dread, or downright terror.

This kind of argument is a tough sell for some people, the kinds who are only concerned about cost savings. But even though arguments on the grounds of financial strain initially sound reasonable, these claims aren’t true. University of Louisville researcher TK Logan has done a considerable amount of research on the cost increases or savings associated with civil protective orders, and has found that while there are typically high costs associated with intimate partner violence before and after civil protection is implemented, issuing domestic violence orders typically results in cost savings. The actual cost of the court time and resources is less than the large decrease in quality-of-life costs, health service costs, police and justice system costs, and costs from property loss. It’s certainly less than the cost of a criminal prosecution for a misdemeanor or felony, which is the route to which victims of dating violence must turn when they can’t obtain personal protection via the civil system. Intimate partner violence is a huge burden on our criminal justice and healthcare systems, as well as the overall safety and productivity of society. Steps to reduce it are worth some short-term cost.

Kentucky Stands Alone

Maybe common sense, reason, or compassion won’t work. Sometimes people respond better to shaming and humiliation. They should consider this: Kentucky is literally the only state in the union without any kind of civil protection for victims of dating violence. Seriously. Forty-three states explicitly extend their protective orders to members of a current or former ‘dating relationship’ or ‘intimate relationship,’ while the other six (Georgia, Maryland, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Virginia) allow victims to file for civil protection under other sorts of protective orders. Please share the map below to let others know exactly how behind Kentucky is when it comes to these protections.

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Fixing the Protective Order Process: A Difficult Journey

As a summer intern at the Mary Byron Project, I’ve been a relative newcomer to the field of domestic violence. This is both a blessing and a curse. In many ways it holds me back, because I frequently have to play catch-up by doing research on historical legal options or attitudes before I can make sense of present-day policies or events. But, occasionally, I think being new to a field helps a person to see things that more seasoned veterans do not, or at least to think about them differently.

This past week, I had the opportunity to observe two highly connected facets of the Jefferson County legal system: the Domestic Violence Intake Center (DVIC), where victims can file for Emergency Protective Orders (EPOs) as well as criminal charges against their abusers, and the family court DV docket, where judges decide whether to grant long-term civil Domestic Violence Orders (DVOs). To paint a picture in broad strokes, what I saw was a system that seemed (to my uneducated eye) to work well enough in most cases, but which also had some critical flaws. These flaws particularly resonated with me, I think, because I have been told that the Jefferson County domestic violence resources are the best in Kentucky and even among the best in the nation. (I can’t help but wonder: if this is what the premiere DV legal resources are like, how terrible must the resources be for victims in other jurisdictions?)

Now, I am very much an outsider to the field of domestic violence. I’ve done as much reading and research as possible over the past few months, and I certainly feel much better-informed than I once was, but I recognize that there is still plenty for me to learn. I am also no lawyer and no local government administrator, and there may be perfectly valid legal or financial considerations explaining why things work the way they do. But I also think that it’s important for outsiders to any system to voice their opinions on what they see as working and not working. Sometimes, a system remains unchanged just because the people operating it have been involved in it for so long that they can see no alternative. So, I’m just putting my own observations and opinions out there, as someone who legitimately has felt baffled by some aspects of the protective order filing process. And, of course, I’m interested in hearing your opinions too – is there anything you’d like to see changed in your local domestic violence legal processes? Let me know in the comments section.

A Bit of Background

Every jurisdiction does things differently, so I think it’s worth explaining how the Jefferson County system functions. When someone experiences an act of domestic violence, they typically come into contact with the DVIC in one of three ways: they look it up themselves; they are informed about it by a police officer when they make a domestic violence call; or they are sent there by the Center for Women and Families, the Louisville shelter for victims and their children. The DVIC is located near the all-purpose Intake Center, where victims of all other crimes can go to file criminal or civil complaints (I am informed that they used to be merged, up until the center realized that about half of the cases they were receiving were domestic violence-related). It is open 24/7; this is a vast improvement over other counties in Kentucky, where a victim who happens to be attacked after-hours may be forced to wait for the clerk’s office to reopen or must make the long trek to a State Police post. The entire DVIC is bulletproofed around its perimeter.

When a victim arrives at the Intake Center, she fills out a bit of paperwork and then waits to meet with an advocate. The advocate reads the paperwork she has provided, asks her to explain the situation firsthand, and discusses her legal options – filing for an EPO, going to a hearing to obtain a long-term DVO, and possibly filing criminal charges to boot. If the issue arises, the advocate can explain that there are multiple DVO options available to the petitioner – “no contact” DVOs and “no unlawful contact” DVOs. A “no unlawful contact” DVO merely prohibits the respondent from committing future acts of abuse, but the petitioner and respondent can carry on their relationship. A “no contact” DVO can take a variety of forms, but the gist of it is that the respondent can’t have any contact with the petitioner, and this sometimes extends to also banning the respondent from having contact with the petitioner’s family or children. The respondent also cannot own or purchase any firearms during the time period for which the DVO is in effect, and may be ordered to attend a Batterers’ Intervention program. Failure to comply with any of these requirements can result in penalties for being declared in contempt of court.

If the victim decides to file a petition (and the advocate I observed was very adamant that most of the people who came into her office should), then she goes back to the waiting room and waits for a clerk. The clerk helps her to write her petition in the somewhat standardized language of the court (e.g. “I want no further contact with him”) and then electronically sends it to a judge for review. The judge can choose to issue the EPO, which constitutes a recognition that the petitioner is in immediate danger from the respondent; as soon as the EPO is served to the respondent, it goes into effect. Regardless of whether the judge approves or denies the EPO request, though, the petitioner is entitled to a court hearing where a family court judge can decide whether the petitioner is entitled to a long-term DVO.

A family court DVO hearing is held once the respondent is successfully served with a summons, which – at least in my observations – can take a significant amount of time in some cases. During this hearing, the petitioner explains her reason for wanting a DVO, and the respondent is allowed to deny the alleged abuse. The judge then must make a finding that two things are true: that an act of domestic violence occurred, and that it is likely to occur again. The family court setting does not require attorneys or evidence; I saw many hearings where it was simply the petitioner and the respondent, with the judge asking each questions in turn. That being said, they are allowed to bring counsel with them, so I also saw hearings where lawyers did the majority of the questioning. Evidence and witnesses are also not strictly necessary, and I saw quite a few hearings where the judge granted an order based on the sworn testimony of the petitioner alone, as well as a number of hearings where the petitioner brought photographs of her injuries or print-outs of threatening text messages. The general set-up was usually much less confrontational than the criminal trials one sees on TV (with a few exceptions that I’ll talk about later).

Credit Where Credit is Due

To be clear, I do think that the Jefferson County system is impressive in many ways. The mere existence of the separate Domestic Violence Intake Center means that victims don’t have to wait as long to get the help they urgently need. The fact that the center also has advocates on hand to inform victims of their legal options represents a big step forward from counties that expect victims to just go up to a clerk and request a protective order. I’ve already mentioned that the center is open at all hours, which recognizes the fact that domestic violence stops for no one and ensures that victims get the help they need. And the DVIC has translation services in a wide variety of languages; in my short time at the center, I saw two victims come in who didn’t speak enough English to file a petition without these services, so I can only imagine how many people this feature has helped.

Similarly, the family court system has many positive features. Petitioners and respondents are placed as far apart as possible, often with a sheriff between them, so that the respondent can’t intimidate the petitioner. Judges, for the most part, were very respectful of victims and the fact that they may not be perfectly eloquent or concise as a result of their incredibly stressful situations. For elderly victims of domestic violence, a judge can conduct a hearing even when the petitioner is not physically present; ElderServe sends an advocate to the petitioner’s residence and another advocate to the hearing, allowing the victim to avoid the huge hassle of going to the courthouse. These small features are instrumental in making victims more comfortable and confident in telling their stories, and I by no means intend to dismiss them as doing nothing. I do think, however, that there are certain aspects of the system which are worth noting as places to improve. I’ll talk about those now.

Educating Victims

I like to think that I came into this internship with a decent working knowledge of the legal system, but I still found the DVO process completely foreign and incomprehensible at times. The biggest issue, for me, was that victim advocates who had been involved in the system for years oftentimes left out parts of the explanation because to them, these parts were self-evident. For example, one of my biggest points of confusion involved the “no unlawful contact” variety of DVO – I just couldn’t understand how a piece of paper ordering a respondent not to do something that was already illegal had any impact whatsoever. I wondered whether this type of order simply existed to create a psychological deterrence effect via a judge’s order that the respondent had actually done something wrong; if that was the case, it seemed like a large hassle to go through for a tenuous benefit. Eventually, I was told that it mandated arrests (which would have meant nothing to me unless I had also learned that police have quite a large discretion over arrests in typical cases), and that the respondent can get charged with the more serious contempt of court violation if he did not abide by the order. And only a few days ago did I learn that one of the main benefits of the “no unlawful contact” DVO is just that it makes the “no contact” DVO easier to obtain – the petitioner can simply file a motion to amend a preexisting DVO, as opposed to having to present a new act of domestic violence that warrants her request for an entirely new one. This alone seems like a good reason for a victim to want to obtain a “no unlawful contact” DVO, but in hours of observations and conversations with people in the field, this never came up.

If I was still confused after two months spent studying and discussing the legal institutions surrounding domestic violence, someone who is completely new to the system would probably be confused as well. I haven’t done any research on the subject, but I suspect that this is one of the reasons why I observed petitioners as being so reluctant to ask for “no unlawful contact” DVOs instead of dropping their petitions entirely. When you think that you’re making your partner angry over a mere piece of judicial paper, it is much more tempting to skip past the entire process. And this is just one example of ways in which the system may seem totally clear to people who work within it, but is distinctly less clear to those on the outside. It’s important that advocates try as hard as possible to explain every step of the process thoroughly, making no assumptions about what victims do and do not know.

One possibility would be to thoroughly explain the process to petitioners as they wait to meet with an advocate. These waits can take hours, providing an excellent window of opportunity to at least start clarifying the world of domestic violence protective orders. As of now, the only domestic-violence-related reading material in the waiting room that I could see were small pamphlets explaining the general signs and effects of domestic violence. If a victim has a smartphone, she might stumble across this Domestic Violence Handbook from the Legal Aid Society – but it might be helpful to distribute this kind of resource in print as well. Or, the DVIC could invest in creating a video that explains the process, and show it on a loop in the waiting room; I’m told that they used to do this, but stopped when the system was sufficiently altered to render the video they were using obsolete. Without these resources, the advocate has a very limited time to concisely explain what the victim’s options are, and the victim doesn’t have time to start thinking of questions she might want to ask the advocate.

Making sure victims gain a thorough understanding of the process helps everyone. It informs victims of all of their options, prepares them for what to expect when they go before a judge, and consequently makes them more confident through the entire process. It reduces the likelihood that they will withdraw their petition to avoid the hassle it creates, and increases the likelihood that they will stand their ground against their abuser’s attorney. It also helps advocates as they attempt to determine the most appropriate courses of action for victims to take, and it helps the efficiency of the overall process when those within it have a better idea of how it works. With all due respect to the advocacy programs that already exist, I see no reason not to increase the avenues by which victims can educate themselves, and the DVIC seems like an ideal place to start.

Increasing Accuracy

Another improvement that could begin at the DVIC involves the petition-writing process. In most of the courts I observed – with the exception of one – the judge would read the petitioner’s petition out loud and then ask her to confirm that all of the things she stated were true. I noticed two things: first, that oftentimes petitioners had things to add to their petitions that the clerk had not written down, and second, that petitioners sometimes identified certain statements as flat-out untrue. Now, I don’t doubt that in cases where a petitioner is trying not to anger her abuser, she might want to tone down her testimony. But I also observed several instances where the petitioner was merely trying to make the report more accurate – where the petition said that the victim fell down and then the abuser kicked her, for example, she might explain that the abuser shoved her to the floor and then started kicking her.

Judges and attorneys should recognize that a petition may not be completely accurate, and that this doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly upon the petitioner. When someone is talking to a clerk – a complete stranger – after a moment of crisis, they might not have a complete grasp on the scenario and may later remember other things that had occurred. And just because petitioners are asked to sign their petitions to affirm that they’re true, they may be reluctant to contradict the official clerk or may want to end the process as quickly as possible (and reading a stranger’s handwriting is occasionally a struggle in and of itself). Judges especially should recognize that when a petitioner seeks to revise a part of her petition, it is not necessarily because she was maliciously trying to deceive the system when she filed it, and it is not because she is trying to deceive the system at the time of her hearing. Yet I saw multiple judges express confusion over why the story had changed slightly between the time of the petition and the time of the hearing.

This, too, seems like it may have a relatively simple fix. Audio-recording or videotaping petitioners’ meetings with the clerks would allow judges to determine whether petitioners said additional things that the clerks didn’t take down, as well as whether they are drastically changing their stories at the hearings in order to ‘tone down’ the magnitude of the abuse they experienced. If these meetings were aired at DVO hearings, they might have the additional benefit of reminding victims of how scared they were closer to the moment of abuse, preventing them from trying to diminish or completely forgo their petitions. And it would also serve as a reminder that getting down a concise petition with all of the requisite pieces can be difficult, especially when a victim has just experienced the trauma of violence. This wouldn’t serve as a fix-all for debates over the accuracy of petitions, but it might cut the teeth of attorneys and judges who doubt victims’ testimony.

Reducing Confrontation

When it came to the actual hearings, I was startled by how aggressive some lawyers could be. As I mentioned before, I observed many DVO hearings where lawyers were not present, and I also saw many DVO hearings where one or both parties had counsel. Across the hearings I got a chance to observe, a few broad trends emerged. The hearings with attorneys present were almost universally more confrontational and tense than the hearings without attorneys. Lawyers often cut off the parties involved as they tried to answer their questions, and I even observed one lawyer keep asking a petitioner the same question over and over because she wasn’t satisfied with her answer. Respondents’ attorneys would also frequently use the fact that a petitioner hadn’t previously filed for protection or called the police as proof that abuse didn’t actually occur. After one petitioner claimed that her husband had raped her many times in the past, his counsel asked her why she didn’t call the police – as if this was somehow proof that she was lying – only to be met by a blunt “I didn’t know that was illegal.”

The presence of counsel actually seemed to detract from the judge’s ability to determine whether an act of domestic violence had actually occurred. Several of the attorneys I saw – on both sides — were so focused on tripping the person they were questioning up with questions about times, locations, and the like that it was almost impossible to glean the bigger picture of what that person’s version of events actually was. At some points, it was almost like a parody of a courtroom drama, with an attorney trying to catch a witness in a lie while flubbing the facts on dates and times herself. This kind of environment seemed significantly more confusing for, and hostile to, victims as they tried to explain why exactly they wanted the protections that only the judge could give them.

Now, I understand that the right to counsel is incredibly cherished in our justice system. Apparently this kind of attorney-heavy family court system evolved over time: it started out as an attempt to create a non-adversarial, welcoming environment for victims to tell their stories; men who were accused of abuse started hiring or demanding attorneys; and then the victim advocates were forced to create similar legal tools for petitioners to combat the influx of attorneys on the abusers’ side. I don’t know how to reverse such a system, or how to make it so that attorneys are more restrained. I don’t even know if such a reversal is possible. But I do know that if I were a victim being grilled by my abuser’s attorney, I might feel like I was on trial instead – and that’s a problem.

‘Systemic reform’: What does it mean?

When my boss discusses systemic change, she likes to use the example of the public school system. If we, knowing what we knew now about child psychology and learning styles, had the chance to completely redesign schools from scratch, we would almost certainly make a lot of changes. We might get rid of the row-by-row seating system, or the strict delineation between subjects at higher age level, or the rigid single-teacher model for younger students. Given the actual constraints of existing school buildings, teachers and resources, though, such changes are incredibly improbable on a large scale. Any system, she says, is like this: when it has built on itself for tens or hundreds of years, any kind of far-reaching overhaul is almost impossible.

That’s why I worry that the possible solutions I’ve identified to some of the problems I observed are only band-aid fixes for larger problems. Maybe the issue isn’t under-educating victims about the system, but rather creating a legal system that requires so much explanation to begin with. Maybe, improving the accuracy of petitions is only a shoddy substitute for completely overhauling the petition system. I’ve tried to propose solutions that I think are actually feasible and that could reasonably be implemented in the status quo, with the justice system’s current financial and legal limitations. It seems clear, though, that as long as the system is built on an incredibly complex legal framework, we will continue to isolate and identify new problems. What do you think?

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