Seeking Justice for Victims in Court

Written by: Mary Byron Project Intern

DISCLAIMER: While this article’s focus is on victims of domestic and dating violence, I think it is important to note a serious issue in the discussion of this topic. Too often we lose sight of the problem at hand as we often times ask questions that aren’t truly relevant in combatting the issue of violence against women. Yes, it is important to hear the voices of victims and understand their situations so we can better help them, but often times this can lead to a sense of victim blaming. We tend to ask questions or focus on topics that either directly or indirectly assign blame to the victim. In order to put an end to these crimes, we must assign full responsibility to the perpetrator. While this blog is about understanding a victim’s mentality, the Mary Byron Project’s focus is putting an end to these crimes, and we recognize that this goal revolves around a focus on the perpetrator.

Too many times, there have been cases in which if a protection order had been kept in place, a life could have been saved. This situation is illustrated in the case of Anne Johnson. According to a Huffington Post article, Anne was a victim of domestic violence who had filed for an order of protection against her ex-husband. In the petition, she stated, “I am afraid that without this protective order, Shaun Philip Hardy will continue to hurt me or even kill me in the future.” However, the order was later requested to be dismissed and Johnson reunited with Hardy for the sake of their special needs son. Johnson was later murdered by Hardy, her body found wrapped in dark plastic in their garage.

In my time as a self-proclaimed advocate for issues of domestic violence/dating violence and as an intern this summer with the Mary Byron Project, I have come across a surplus of research on why victims may choose to stay with, have difficulty leaving, or return to their abuser. These readings serve a purpose to help educate outsiders on the barriers which accompany a victim trying to leave an abusive relationship and also may help the victim understand her/his own feelings. While abundant research has been done on why victims return to their abusers, I have seen little attention on cases in which victims fail to follow through in orders of protection and how the courts and others can better serve these victims.

Recently, I had the opportunity to observe a Domestic Violence Order (DVO) and Interpersonal Protective Order (IPO) case docket at the Louisville Judicial Center and Hall of Justice. It was an eye opening experience to witness the testimony of victims of abuse first hand and observe the proceedings they go through in order to obtain protection. One aspect which particularly shocked me was the amount of victims who decided not to seek an order of protection. What I found even more shocking was the ease with which these cases were dismissed, no questions asked.

If a victim was in such fear for her/his safety that they felt the need to file for an Emergency Protective Order (EPO) or Temporary Interpersonal Protective Order (TIPO), why would they ask a judge to dismiss their case only days later? Many people may assume that this is due to an initial overreaction to a situation or false reporting, but in reality, studies find that in cases of domestic violence, less than 2% of abused mothers were found to falsely report a domestic violence incident and victims of DV in general are far more likely to minimize or deny abuse than exaggerate it ( Only a small amount of cases happen to truly be “trivial” or falsely reported. So why are victims asking that these cases be dismissed?

Studies have shown that on average, it will take up to 5 attempts before a woman successfully leaves an abusive relationship. This can be attributed to the abuser’s utilization of power and control over the victim. What often lures victims back into these relationships are promises of change and the infamous quote, “It won’t happen again.” There is good reason why it’s called the cycle of domestic/dating violence, as despite these promises, an act of abuse is highly likely to occur again. I believe the victim’s hope that their abuser will change is a strong motivator in dismissals of protection orders. An article written by Adam Dodge, a legal director at Laura’s House, a domestic abuse treatment center, claimed that a major reason his clients withdrew their orders of protection was due to victim blaming perpetrated by the abuser. Statements such as “You’re tearing this family a part” or “Because of you, I have nowhere to go” persuaded victims to drop their orders out of undeserved guilt and blame. Other reasons, as stated by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, include a fear of homelessness or other financial stressors, child custody, or threats from the abuser. In a study entitled, Why Victims of Intimate Partner Violence Withdraw Protective Orders, it was found that when the life of a victim was threatened, they were still likely to go forward with the order; however, if the lives of the children were threatened, the victim was more likely to drop the order to prevent any retaliation. It was also noted that the more severe the abuse, the less likely the victim was to follow through with the order. Again, this can be attributed to the manipulation and power abusers hold over their victims.

I spoke with a former case worker and victim’s advocate who expressed that often times, victims she spoke with stated that they dismissed the DVO in order to pacify their perpetrator. She claimed that many are also not aware of all their options such as the No Unlawful Contact Order which would allow them to be in contact with their partner, but prohibit any violence, and stated that many would have amended to that order instead of dropping the protection order as a whole. As opposed to immediately beginning a DVO or IPO hearing, she stated that many judges will ask the victim if they would like to go forward with the order before even reading the petition. She claimed that by asking victims if they would like to go forward, the victims are led to second guess their decision, ultimately leading many to dismiss their order.

Judges play a critical role in DVO and IPO cases, but, like the rest of us, they do not have a crystal ball which can determine the future. What they do have, however, are tools that can aid in understanding cases of DV. One of these tools is the Lethality Risk Assessment developed by Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell. This evidence based tool is useful in assessing the likelihood of lethality or near lethality in cases of DV. It has been used in court and has been proven effective in assessing victim safety. If employed, this tool, among many other resources, can help the courts better assist victims in matters such as these.

In my time at the Judicial Center, there was one judge with whom I was extremely impressed. As opposed to immediately asking victims if they would like to go forward with the hearing, she would read their petition out loud, reminding them of their reasons for filing in the first place. If they chose to dismiss she would ask them what had changed in the relationship, why they now felt safe, and would suggest a No Unlawful Contact Order instead. The court sheriff also did a great job of making sure the respondent did not try to intimidate the victim, whether through eye contact, gestures, or verbal comments. While these steps won’t always persuade a victim to keep their order, I believe it can tremendously help some in rethinking their decision.

Although the effort of some judges, as mentioned above, in assisting victims is powerful, it is not enough. States as a whole should be implementing protocols to assist judges in handling cases of domestic violence and a prime example of this can be found in the state of New Hampshire. New Hampshire has established protocols for their courts regarding dismissals and withdrawals of protective orders. Protocol 8-6 states, “Where possible, the clerk should arrange for a face to face meeting where the judge should ascertain whether the request is voluntarily made” and, “When a request for dismissal is made, there is always a concern that a plaintiff is acting out of a fear of the defendant or as a result of a threat made by the defendant.” The previous statements are only a fragment of the protocols they have established for ensuring the safety of victims of domestic violence. If all courts could follow these procedures, I believe our courts would be more equipped to assess cases of domestic and dating violence and ensure the safety of victims.

In an age that seems to be more progressive than ever before, domestic and dating violence still plague our communities. While we may not be able to stop every initial incident, I believe our courts can have an effect on making sure one of these egregious crimes doesn’t happen again. By striving to understand the victim mentality and the use of power and control by the perpetrator, and by setting specified protocols, our courts can better serve those who need their assistance most.