The Verdict Is In: Mandate Domestic Violence Training for Judges

Mandatory Domestic Violence Training for Judges

Law enforcement officers, social workers, health care professionals, teachers, and other state employees have been pushed to learn about the dynamics of domestic violence, but one crucial group of people is sometimes overlooked—our judges.

It is not uncommon for a victim to change his or her story or to feel uncertain while in court. It is the judge’s role and responsibility to not only rule fairly but also to understand the position of the victim—a position often driven by fear and confusion.Continue reading

Guns, Knives, and Social Media: The New Frontier for Abuse, Harassment, and Victim Blaming

Written by The Mary Byron Project Intern

If you were walking down a public street and suddenly noticed a man beating a woman to the ground, violently hitting her, you would know that you were witnessing abuse. You would not only label it as wrong but also hopefully take action—calling the police or intervening yourself.

If you were in a store at the mall, and you heard a woman screaming threats of violence and death at her partner you would again label this as wrong and know action should be taken, whether that is bystander intervention or contacting law enforcement.

So then why is social media any different? Instinctively our gut tells us it is wrong when we see someone being physically abused or threatened in public. We must realize that our lives our now online and online abuse via social media must be viewed with the same gut-wrenching disgust.Continue reading

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

Doctors Need to Screen for Domestic Violence

It should come as no surprise that domestic violence is an enormous public health issue. 22% to 39% of women are estimated to experience intimate partner violence at some point in their lives. IPV affects 1.3 to 5.3 million women each year, generating $2 to $7 billion of health care costs annually in the form of treating injuries, infections, unintended pregnancy, neurological disorders, PTSD, and substance abuse – among other effects. IPV is especially devastating for pregnant women – 325,000 of whom are battered by their partners yearly before having a baby – and the children they carry. Given these numbers, it seems like domestic violence is not only a public health issue, but one of the biggest public health issues. So why aren’t hospitals and doctors doing more about it?

The Problems of Identification

One of the biggest challenges to helping victims of domestic violence is figuring out who to help. For any number of reasons, a victim may fail to report intimate partner violence to law enforcement – fear of retaliation, fear of losing economic security if her abuser goes to jail, a distrust of the system after past failures to gain the help of the law. She may avoid victims’ services because she doesn’t see herself as the kind of person who would become a “victim,” or because her abuser has convinced her that the repeated violence is her own fault. In last week’s blog post on domestic violence in the workplace, I pointed out the obvious reasons why a victim would rarely want to disclose IPV to an employer in a state that doesn’t prohibit discrimination against victims. And even when it comes to ‘informal’ methods of disclosing the violence, victims are frequently isolated and cut-off from friends and family they may previously have chosen to confide in. This perfect storm of factors makes domestic violence a dangerously underreported phenomenon.

Fortunately, there is one place where it is consistently possible to safely access, identify, and assist IPV victims. While IPV victims are frequently cut-off and isolated from their communities in other ways, they still interact with the health care system. Roughly three-quarters of reproductive-aged women in the US received reproductive health care in 2005, and pregnant women frequently seek prenatal or pediatric care even if they do not typically seek health care for themselves. In fact, 10-30% of abused women still interact with community clinics or pediatric services, a significantly higher percentage than those accessing shelters or counseling services. The health care system is clearly an invaluable mechanism for reaching out to victims who may not get help in any other way.  

And not only are IPV victims still part of the health care system; they are also more comfortable disclosing domestic abuse to a health care provider. One study found that 95% of women would want to speak to a health care provider about IPV, compared to 90% wanting to speak with a mother and 89% wanting to speak with a counselor. While some IPV victims may still be unwilling to disclose current or past abuse to anyone, medical professionals included, others may still be more likely to disclose to doctors than to any other source.

The solution is for medical service providers to implement universal screening of their patients, or at least of those female patients at the ages most at-risk for intimate partner violence. “Screening” can sound scary, like a blood test or a TSA scan at the airport, but in actuality it’s very simple. A medical professional just needs to ask the patient a few questions, questions like “Has your partner ever hit, slapped, or physically hurt you in the past year?” or “Has your partner forced you to have sex when you didn’t want to?” They can even treat it like a conversation about intimate partner violence in the abstract, asking the patient her general thoughts about abuse and seeing if she discloses anything. And if they’re worried about opening a “Pandora’s box” by asking the victim about important details in her life (seriously, this is a concern some doctors have), they don’t even have to conduct the screening in person. Both victims and doctors prefer automated screening over a computer or with an audio track, seeing it as more private and less personal. For anyone still concerned about whether screening works, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force just updated its inconclusive 2004 review of IPV screening with a new report, which concludes that several screening instruments are accurate at identifying IPV and have minimal adverse effects.

How Health Service Providers Fail Victims

It seems self-evident that doctors and other medical professionals not only have the incentive to address this major public health concern, but also are in a uniquely capable position to help victims. But unfortunately, too few doctors actually screen their patients for intimate partner violence, and victims consequently fall through the cracks. Only about 10% of primary-care physicians routinely screen for IPV during new-patient visits, while only about 9% screen on a periodic basis. Even though victims are even more likely to go to a medical professional when pregnant, physicians providing prenatal care only routinely screen about 11% of patients. Even when doctors do successfully screen for and identify domestic violence, they inadequately manage these cases 60%-90% of the time, resulting in further lack of faith in the system from victims who disclose and then receive insufficient support.

Why are medical providers so reluctant to screen for IPV? Some may have certain, somewhat legitimate concerns about victim safety or an inability to help victims adequately when they do disclose – all of which could be addressed by partnering with a local victims’ service provider to help victims get the help they need as soon as they disclose. Others may have concern about the time that the screening would take up and how it may detract from other important medical services (though that doesn’t explain why doctors screen for domestic violence less frequently than less-common diseases like diabetes in pregnancy or preeclampsia). Health care providers with questions about how screening will affect the health or well-being of their patients should try to resolve these problems by referring to demonstrably successful programs like the Planned Parenthood of NYC model.

But, unfortunately, it seems that many health care providers don’t provide screening simply because they don’t think it matters. This study from the University of Washington’s Department of Medicine found some truly unsettling results: 50% of clinicians and 70% of nurses and assistants surveyed believed that IPV was rare (affecting 1% of the population) or very rare (affecting 0.1% of the population) at their practice site. Only 12% of clinicians and 1% of nurses and assistants believed that it affected more than 10% of the population at their practice site. This points to an astounding lack of knowledge about IPV among medical professionals, which undoubtedly contributes to an overall reluctance to screen patients for a problem which affects ‘so few’ members of society. But that’s not all – 15% of the professionals surveyed went so far as to say that they had patients whose personalities caused them to be abused, and 25% said that victims’ ‘passive-dependent personalities’ led to their abuse. Doctors, it would seem, are not immune to the outdated and misogynistic attitudes about domestic violence which stop victims from getting help from so many other sources.

Medical professionals are frequently the best line of defense against domestic violence – but as long as they continue to believe that it is not a serious problem which warrants a serious response, this incredible resource in the fight against violence is underutilized. This is not to say that no medical professionals currently screen for IPV. As mentioned before, there are certainly effective screening programs out there. But it is clear that more need to be educated about the huge public health harm that IPV creates, and about the ways in which they – and they alone – can stop it.



Domestic Violence and “Crimes of Passion”

Let’s talk pop culture. I admit it, I read the Twilight books. And I also didn’t realize – because I was 13, lovestruck, and confused – that Edward’s creepy, obsessive behavior was not okay. When he watches Bella from her bedroom window, stops her from interacting with one of her best friends, or even presents the threat of a forced abortion later in the book series, he’s being abusive. But I, like every other one of Stephenie Meyer’s teenage fans, thought it was so romantic that Edward loved Bella so much that he just couldn’t bear to part with her, or deal with any real or perceived threat to their relationship in a healthy and emotionally mature way. There have been lots of rants on this subject, so I will say no more.

Many – including the media, judges and lawyers, and people on the street – have a tendency to paint episodes of domestic violence as “crimes of passion” conducted in the “heat of the moment.” Maybe this is because it’s more comforting to think of abusers as brash and emotional, rather than calculatingly binding their victims in ever-tightening nets of control. Or maybe, it’s because current culture and even the oldest texts of the Western Canon glorify abuse perpetrated in the name of love.  Regardless of the roots of this misconception, one thing is certain. Framing abuse as the ultimate expression of passion does no one any favors – except maybe the abusers themselves.

The Tari Ramirez Trial

On a real and very serious note, take a look at the case of Claire Tempongko, a 28-year-old who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend Tari Ramirez. Tempongko had been a victim of abuse for over a year and a half, repeatedly calling the police, filing and receiving protective orders, and seeing her abusive ex “successfully” complete batterer’s intervention training. In 2000, shortly before her death, Tempongko filed two police reports, saying that Ramirez had strangled her and given her death threats over the phone. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “a judge issued a stay-away order after the first report, but police officers did not try to serve it on Ramirez and instead said they had referred it to probation officials, who said they never received it. Police did not classify the second report as domestic violence.” Ramirez finally stabbed Tempongko in her apartment, in the vicinity of her children, to the point where she could barely breathe and died before making it to the hospital.

This seems to be a textbook case of sustained abuse, one which is unfortunately all-too-common.  If the first signs of abuse could be regarded as a man’s passion getting out-of-control (and even this is doubtful), a prolonged pattern of abuse certainly cannot be brushed aside in the same way. A jury seemed to agree – Ramirez was convicted of second-degree murder, with a sentence of 16 years to life in prison. His defense had been that he had ‘flown into a rage’ after Tempongko told him that she had aborted his child, leading him to kill her. If the defense had succeeded, he would only have been convicted of voluntary manslaughter, a significantly less serious charge.

But the California court which heard his appeal in 2011 ruled, on a 2-1 decision, that Ramirez was entitled to a new trial due to the trial judge “misleading” jurors about the option of a manslaughter verdict.  The question came down to what the legal standard for voluntary manslaughter is – the judge in Ramirez’s original trial had instructed jurors to measure his actions against how an average person would have reacted in the same circumstances, while this appellate court viewed the standard for manslaughter as the more lenient determination that the circumstances would cause the average person to act ‘rashly.’ This court reinforced and legitimized the idea that we can and should totally disregard a record of sustained domestic abuse, focusing only on actions committed ‘in the heat of the moment.’ An abusive relationship is ‘tense,’ ‘in need of work,’ or ‘stormy’ – an actual term used by the state attorney and then denied in the California Supreme Court’s consideration of the case – and murder committed as the conclusion of that abuse is similarly mitigated.

There’s good news in this particular case: on June 3rd, the California Supreme Court reinstated Ramirez’s conviction of second-degree murder in a 7-0 ruling, reaffirming that Ramirez’s evidence of provocation was too weak to constitute a sufficient defense. The original trial judge’s definition of manslaughter was found to be sufficiently broad, and the court ruled that the jury was correct in its original determination that provocation did not apply under this standard. Ramirez will face the full extent of justice that he was originally found to deserve.

But the fact remains that two judges on a significant state court saw otherwise, and the actual Supreme Court finding was based more on an interpretation of the legalese surrounding ‘provocation’ than a nuanced interpretation of the issues surrounding domestic violence. Maybe in this case, the lawyer who referred to Tempongko and Ramirez’s relationship as “stormy” received a rebuke by the Supreme Court justices. And maybe in this case, seven judges recognized that one instance in a long string of abusive encounters doesn’t qualify as having been “provoked” to any significant degree. But the fact remains that the same kinds of defenses spring up across the country and are frequently disturbingly successful.

Letting Men Off the Hook

Of course, the American criminal justice system is set up to protect people from the state – and this means implementing exacting standards of evidence at trials, as well as a number of other mechanisms designed to protect the defendant. I agree as much as anyone else that there can be bias in a court setting against the defendant, and that it’s probably better to err on the side of letting a guilty person go free than forcing an innocent person to languish in prison. And it seems clear that certain protections – limitations on the sorts of evidence that may be admitted in trial, for instance – are occasionally instrumental in protecting innocent defendants from these sorts of biases. Part of the uphill struggle advocates against domestic violence must face is working against the system – trying to prove an incredibly private violation in a system that intentionally excludes unverifiable evidence from trial. Maybe, one might think, the appellate court that initially overturned Ramirez’s murder conviction was just playing by these rules and protecting the defendant in a murky situation (putting aside, of course, the fact that twelve jurors and later seven Supreme Court judges saw no murkiness whatsoever). In the best case scenario, abusers consistently get let off easy because this is a necessary price to pay for a system that protects the defendant. Maybe.

But such a conclusion seems dramatically at-odds with the stark reality that when women kill their intimate partners, they are frequently charged with a degree of homicide greater than the facts allow, prevented from offering their long history of abuse as a defense, and assigned longer sentences than men convicted of similar degrees of homicide. Tari Ramirez could claim that the news that his ex-girlfriend, who he had been abusing for years, aborted his child was suitable grounds for killing her – but a woman who has been abused for years by her partner frequently cannot successfully claim the same level of mitigation, and goes to prison for years on end.

Of course, this is undoubtedly the product of a gender bias which pervades the justice system at every level, as well as the tendency to downplay the suffering victims of domestic violence experience.  More specifically, though, there’s a disconnect between the ability of a man to paint his crime as an act of passion and the ability of a woman to do the same. Some of this is due to the mere facts of physical difference between men and women. When a man finds out – or imagines – that his girlfriend has been cheating on him, he can strangle, stab, or shoot her then and there. When a woman realizes that her only way out of an abusive situation is to kill her partner, she must wait for a time when she can do so at minimal risk to herself. This leads to the misconception that women murder out of cold calculation while men kill due to the heat of passion – but just as a woman killing her partner could hardly be accurately referred to as a murder in cold blood, Tari Ramirez stabbing his ex-girlfriend was not an isolated act of anguish and rage he would never have been capable of in an “unprovoked” state.

The system needs to recognize this – to recognize that even though mitigation or lower levels of offenses are necessary in any functional criminal justice system, the way they are being applied to intimate partner murders is too often a perversion of justice. In this sham, those who are truly guilty of murder receive lesser treatment, while those who were merely defending themselves are flogged with the full force of the law. This is not to say that the system never works – it did in California, just this week. But it’s not enough to rely upon a state supreme court to return reason to a legal decision gone haywire. There need to be more checks, and there must be a greater understanding of the issues involved, from the initial arrest to the ultimate trial.

Practical oversight of the legal system is certainly important in combating the sort of abuse-as-passion bias I talked about earlier. But this is something society as a whole is guilty of in spades. Until the misconception is rectified at the societal level – until Twilight doesn’t provide the template for a romantic relationship that the jurors in an intimate partner murder trial may very well buy in to — no number of handed-down judicial decisions can compensate.