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.Continue reading

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.Continue reading

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?

Why Is Domestic Violence ‘Invisible’?

So far this summer, I’ve blogged about doctors who don’t want to screen their patients for intimate partner violence, even when it will take a minimum of time out of their exam schedules. I’ve written about employers who would rather fire victims than develop effective domestic violence policies. I’ve quoted numerous journalists making misinformed or outright obnoxious statements about victims. Besides the obvious link in subject matter, there’s another common trend. These are all people who should know better, but they continue to ignore or trivialize a problem which exists right under their noses.

One the biggest challenges for domestic violence advocates is getting the issue to a level of national recognition that will provoke policy change, increased education, and widespread awareness of how to end the problem for good. People care about domestic violence – but it’s just not the kind of issue that consistently riles people up, gets them to donate money and time, and that they regard as a widespread issue. It’s more prevalent among women than diabetes, breast cancer and cervical cancer, but whereas we all hear about the screenings and vaccines we should get if we want to stay healthy, the same level of education and care does not exist for women at risk of domestic violence. There will always be misogynists who think that domestic violence is prima facie acceptable. But there are far too many people who agree that intimate partner violence is never justified, and yet treat it as a less important issue than any number of other social problems.

My question is: why is it so difficult to get people to rally against such a widespread, common, and devastating phenomenon? I have a few ideas, which I’ll voice below, but I’m interested in hearing your answers in the comments section.

Theory #1: People think it will never affect them.

Despite an ever-growing list of counterexamples, from Halle Berry to Madonna, people draw upon their own stereotypes to conclude that such cases are exceptions. Too many assume that domestic violence only occurs in poverty-stricken households with substance problems, where the victims are too economically downtrodden and uneducated to leave. They think that they don’t need to worry about their neighbors, friends, or children being victims – and, they certainly don’t think that they would ever be ‘foolish’ enough to enter into an abusive relationship themselves.

The doctors, lawyers, and politicians who can start to implement real-world policies that effectively combat domestic violence don’t have the same gut-wrenching personal incentive to fight DV that they do to, say, combat drunk driving. Anyone can get hit by a drunk driver on the highway, but if domestic violence is almost exclusively the domain of the uneducated poor, then those in charge of addressing social issues at a policymaking level have no chance of being affected. This, of course, is the result of an enormous cultural misconception about domestic violence; the reality is that domestic violence cross-cuts all socioeconomic backgrounds, and manages to influence those it does not directly affect in the form of rising insurance premiums and taxes.

Of course, I’m being a bit unfair to humanity here. People are certainly able to feel huge amounts of sympathy for the victims of, and even take action in response to, large-scale tragedies that will never affect them. They do it all the time. Plenty of Americans rail against foreign genocides or corruption; many, many people donate to aid organizations like the Red Cross in the wake of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or a spate of earthquakes. The issue is not that people are never capable of focusing on issues that will not directly affect them – it’s that, for some reason, domestic violence is not the sort of issue that raises people’s sympathies to the point that they actually take action.

Theory #2: People think it’s the victim’s fault.

Unfortunately, domestic violence may fall by the wayside simply because society still can’t shake some degree of victim-blaming. We’re thankfully light-years past the time when most people would just assume that a battered woman had done something to antagonize her husband and think nothing more of it. Now, the victim-blaming is more insidious. Some wonder whether there is some commonality among DV victims that makes them seek out abusive partners. Others – many, many others – are confident that any strong woman would be out the door the first time a partner hit her. The “why doesn’t she just leave?” mentality seems, on-face, to be the natural product of a belief in female independence. Women are no longer expected to be tied to a man, so that means victims are liberated in a way they never would have been previously, right?

Unfortunately, the assumption that leaving an abuser is a crystal-clear option fails to account for the myriad of complexities that might stop a victim from leaving. The abuser might have sole access to the bank accounts. He might be able to petition for sole custody of the children or the pets. And, of course, victims are typically placed in increased danger after leaving or making plans to leave. The narrative that all it takes to end domestic violence is for a woman to be ‘strong’ and leave an abusive relationship is oftentimes just as damaging to victims as the narrative that they should stay with an abusive husband  for the good of their family.

This is what sets domestic violence victims apart from the ‘innocent’ victims of natural disasters, random gun violence, or our other societal woes. The attitude is not that victims deserve the violence – it’s that, given that they don’t leave when it’s clearly so simple, they don’t deserve to be helped.

Theory #3: People think it’s a private matter.

These misconceptions could be addressed by increased communication and discussion about domestic violence and its true effects. Yet it still seems that a truly far-reaching and candid discussion about domestic violence is far on the horizon. We are far from the days when domestic violence was considered a perfectly acceptable form of wife-discipline, and we’ve even made great strides from the default legal assumption that most abuse is a private relationship issue, but domestic violence is still treated with a large degree of stigma.

There are, of course, still the backwards sorts out there who honestly do believe that a man has the right to do whatever he wants to his own wife in the name of ‘discipline’ or ‘keeping the house’ or whatever other twisted excuses he can concoct. To add insult to injury, however, there are also those who think that it’s bad for society to discuss violence against women for the victims’ own good. These so-called feminists think that calling the act of domestic violence is wrong because it automatically means that people treat the recipient of that violence like a fragile victim, ignoring her autonomy and personal strength. They reject a discussion of domestic violence because of the preexisting societal stereotypes of victims as weak, ineffectual, and submissive – and while doing so, completely disregard the fact that those stereotypes are the things that need to change. Carol Sarler’s explanation of why calling Nigella Lawson a victim of domestic violence is degrading to Lawson and to feminism is a prime example of the latter stance. It may be true that social attitudes toward victims are misinformed at best and counterproductive at worst. But this doesn’t mean that we should pretend that instances of violence do not occur, simply because labeling them as ‘domestic violence’ allows people to exercise those attitudes. Instead, we should work on changing attitudes about victims at the same time that we address domestic violence in a broader context.

What does this mean for a broader societal discussion of domestic violence? No one wants to talk about it: not the people who think it’s not a big deal or victims are ‘making it up’; not the people who think the home is inherently private; and not even the people who care the most about women’s rights, since they are worried that to harp on the ‘victimhood’ of the women involved erodes their independence. It also means that victims are not likely to step forward and share their stories, because to admit to a history of abuse is to invite criticism on the ground of their seeming ‘weak’ or ‘passive’ (two other accusations leveled at Nigella Lawson).

When people don’t talk about a problem, they can’t understand it. No one can truly appreciate the devastating consequences of domestic violence without hearing about those consequences, either from advocates or from survivors themselves. And in a world where the conversation is muted as it is now, it’s all-too-easy for people to assume that domestic violence is ‘just’ a man hitting his wife around a bit when he’s drunk – not the cycle of violence and manipulation it actually becomes.

Theory #4: People don’t think they can do anything about it.

A final obstacle to getting society to confront domestic violence is the fact that even when people realize that DV is a problem of shocking magnitude, they don’t think that domestic-violence-specific legislation or support is an effective way to address it. As with all of the other roadblocks, this mainly stems from misunderstandings surrounding domestic violence itself.

If you believe that domestic violence is the natural product of poverty, substance abuse, poor anger management skills, and disregard for the law, as many people are wont to do, then it’s natural to also believe that tackling all of these ‘root causes’ will conveniently solve the problem of domestic abuse. If you believe that women would flee their abusers in droves if only they had a little bit of financial support, it’s natural to support better social welfare in general over specific domestic violence programs. These attitudes ignore the fact that domestic violence can rear its ugly head in relationships of all stripes, from high school couples to a wealthy, middle-aged couple – and they seek to apply a generic solution to a highly complex and specialized problem. Of course we need to devote more resources and energy toward helping people to economic independence and better education. But we can’t do this at the expense of addressing the specific causes of violence toward women, and the specific solutions which can help women of all backgrounds leave their abusive relationships.

Looking Forward

The Mary Byron Project looks for solutions to the individual problems surrounding the very complex issue of domestic violence, and often finds them. Changing entrenched attitudes and perceptions, however, can be much more difficult. That’s why I’m interested in hearing what you have to say on the issue. What makes domestic violence such an ‘invisible problem’? And, most importantly, what can we do to change this?

Thoughts on Charles Saatchi’s ‘Playful Tiff’

Many are already aware of the whirlwind of speculations and discussion surrounding Charles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson over the past few weeks. The glamorous couple – Saatchi is an advertising magnate and art collector and Lawson is an internationally famous TV chef and author – were dining at their favorite London restaurant when they entered into a heated argument. Over the course of the half-hour conflict, Saatchi grasped Lawson around the neck four times, sometimes with both hands, tweaking her nose and pushing his hands into her face. He then stormed off, leaving Lawson visibly shaken and in tears – but not before passersby and other diners at the restaurant snapped crystal-clear photographs of the incident.

The attack was public and Saatchi was clearly identifiable, and after about a week of public speculation about his behavior he accepted a ‘caution’ from the London Metropolitan Police. Cautions are given to people who admit to minor crimes in lieu of an arrest; in order to receive the caution, Saatchi would have had to legally admit the offense, and the caution could count against his character in future trials. Oddly enough, after accepting this official caution, Saatchi continued to deny the attacks in the press. He referred to his grip on Lawson’s throat as part of a ‘playful tiff,’ shrugging off the fact that she looked upset as the result of her hatred of arguing. And, in a tabloid interview a few weeks later, Saatchi purportedly broke the news to Saatchi that he would be divorcing her for her failure to publicly defend his reputation.

Now, it’s true that many questions about the situation may go unanswered for a while. We don’t know whether Saatchi had a prior history of physically abusing Lawson or his past wife. We don’t know what Lawson is currently thinking or plans to do in the future, and it would certainly be inappropriate to make assumptions about the course of action she intends to take. But what is eminently certain is that Saatchi and Lawson were arguing in a restaurant, and Saatchi apparently felt that it was acceptable – both as a matter of private morals and public conduct – to grip his wife’s throat multiple times to make a point. And this fact, and its subsequent publication in major media venues across the world, helped focus and direct public attention to the problem of domestic violence once more. Unpacking the response to this public demonstration of violence can go in many directions at once, and author Leslie Morgan Steiner already has a great piece at ModernMom analyzing the conflict from her perspective as a DV survivor. I’d like to add a few of my thoughts.

 

1. Right off the bat, everyone needs to understand that strangling is serious. Saatchi can dismiss his actions as ‘playful’ however much he wants, but anyone looking at the photographs can see that the fight was anything but lighthearted. In her piece, Steiner points out that strangulation is a particularly ‘animalistic’ act – and a particularly lethal one, given that it only takes a few seconds to kill someone by strangling them. In fact, as Steiner also notes, researchers at Johns Hopkins University who have assessed the biggest risk factors for intimate partner homicide place a history of strangulation on par with gun ownership in terms of the red flags it presents. What’s more, in this particular situation Saatchi not only ‘choked’ Lawson, but did so in a public place, in view of any number of restaurant patrons and passersby. Physical force intended to frighten someone or make a point is never OK – and that’s something Saatchi doesn’t seem to understand – but on top of that, the specific nature of strangling and the public nature of his attack mark the assault as much more than a ‘tiff’ that he can just shrug off. Maybe Saatchi never laid a hand on Lawson previously, and this physical violence just happened to emerge in public first. Or maybe there is a history of abuse that no one wants to reveal. Either way, no one should take Saatchi’s declarations that the assault wasn’t a big deal and that he abhors violence against women as a sign that we should ignore this particular action of abuse.

 

2.   Nigella Lawson is not an anomaly. It is all-too-easy for people to shrug off domestic violence as a problem that only affects invisible people, the poor and uneducated who ‘don’t know better’ or can’t leave. Just a glance at the comments sections on articles about the incident reveal such gems as “Her husband should realize that he is a lucky person on this planet to have such a beautiful and talented wife” and “What IS she doing with this ugly old man??? She is still relativelly young, beautyful, smart and able to provide for her self” (sic) – as if only ugly, stupid, poor women face domestic violence.

Carol Sarler, a writer for the UK’s Daily Mail wrote a presumably well-meaning piece in which she made the following case: there is no reason to believe that Nigella Lawson is a battered wife since she is “perfectly affable, quietly ambitious and wholly able to stand on her own two feet”; Lawson is wealthy enough to leave if she wanted to; “the idea that Saatchi has somehow managed to strip her of self-esteem and independent thought is frankly laughable”; and consequently, it is anti-feminist and degrading to label Lawson a victim. It’s true that there is plenty of academic criticism out there about the use of the term ‘victim’ as opposed to other more empowering language like ‘survivor.’ And it might have been fine if Sarler had limited herself to making that point, rather than passing the sweeping judgment that only some women are cut out to be victims of domestic violence while others are strong enough to leave. To draw the conclusion that because Lawson is wealthy, educated, successful, and projects an outward appearance of absolute confidence, she can’t possibly be at risk from her partner does exactly the thing that Sarler claims society should be trying to avoid: it does a “grave disservice not just to this couple but also to the real victims of real horrors that happen daily behind closed doors.”

The truth is that domestic violence has a sweeping and indiscriminate reach, as this CNN opinion piece points out. It cuts across society on any number of axes, from race to educational attainment levels to physical attractiveness to, yes, wealth. And while it may be true that women from better socioeconomic backgrounds have certain tools in their arsenal against violence that others may not – education on intimate partner violence in school, a family support system to fall back on, the financial resources to leave – it is also true that many of the factors preventing a poor woman from leaving an abusive partner also prevent an incredibly wealthy woman from doing the same.

Let’s put aside the fact that it is incredibly hard to leave an abuser, someone who you love and who claims to love you, and start an entirely different life without the same interpersonal ties you have been accustomed to. Practically speaking, it is still difficult for a wealthy woman to separate from an abusive partner. Abusers frequently use economic coercion as a way to gain power in a relationship, forcing a victim to account for all of her expenses and placing limits on how much money she has available, and so it is entirely possible that a woman who appears very wealthy simply does not have the disposable income to start a new life elsewhere. And a rich abuser who can afford the best lawyers in the country has even more of an edge when it comes to leaving — he has the power to take the children, the pets, or the property, or at the very least to draw out divorce proceedings in a protracted and reputation-tarnishing legal battle.

None of this is meant to imply that Saatchi necessarily used these tactics to prevent Lawson from leaving, but at the very least, all of the commentators expressing their disbelief that a wealthy and successful woman could possibly stay with an abuser need a reality check as to the real nature of domestic violence. It’s not something that only lurks on the wrong side of the tracks, but is rather something that can pervade every walk of life in a unique and devastating way.

 

3. Domestic violence still isn’t taken seriously enough. It’s no secret that lots of domestic violence cases never end in a trial, simply because prosecutors don’t think they have enough evidence or are suspicious that victims will become uncooperative witnesses. The charitable interpretation of the low prosecution rate for domestic assault is that because these actions often take place behind closed doors, there just isn’t enough evidence to go ahead with legal action in a system which is already pressed for time and resources. But in this case, there was clear evidence — photographs explicitly documenting the abuse at the time that it happened – and Saatchi still got away with a police caution and nothing more. Yes, no one knows for sure what the argument was about, and no one knows for sure whether Saatchi has harmed Lawson in the past, and no one knows for sure whether his claims that strangulation is simply a common playful gesture in their relationship are true. But isn’t the point of a trial to iron out those sorts of facts, with the jury serving as fact-finder? When the police decide that the situation is too murky or personal to pursue further even in the face of clear photographic evidence that an attack happened, they send the signal that all of the private cases behind closed doors are even more permissible under the eyes of the law.

Or, imagine this. If Saatchi had been dining with a male friend and business companion and had put his hands on his friend’s neck even for a bit, causing the same kind of reaction in him that he caused in Lawson, he would be more than the subject of tabloid speculation and titillated discussion. Even if he tried to pass off the strangulation as a ‘playful gesture’ he and his business partner frequently engage in, it is still likely that he would have had to deal with more legal trouble than a police caution. And if he had done the same to a complete stranger he had been conversing with – well then, that would just have been a case of clear assault, no questions asked. Why is it that Saatchi was allowed to hurt his wife and receive little more than a slap on the wrist for his actions, but would almost certainly have at least been brought before a court for doing the same to a stranger off the street?

 

It’s true, as Leslie Morgan Steiner points out in the blog post I referenced earlier, that the public outrage over Saatchi’s actions demonstrate that society has come a long way from assuming that domestic violence is a private matter or that the victim somehow ‘deserved’ the abuse she received. But it is equally true that we have a long way to go. One can only hope that it doesn’t take a long string of high-profile celebrity domestic violence incidents in the future to create this much-needed change.