Coordinated Community Responses to Domestic Violence in Six Communities: Beyond the Justice System. Removing the Burden From Battered Women

10/01/1996

The shift in laws and policies has reduced the burden on battered women for the legal response to domestic violence. As a result, the legal system moves forward on a case even when the victim is reluctant or unwilling to participate in the process. This has played a major role in changing the community response to domestic violence.

Many people agree that the responsibility for punishing a perpetrator of domestic violence should not rest with the victim. In fact, women in abusive relationships may be unable to take action against the batterer in some cases because of the dynamics of the relationship or the fear of further violence. However, in reality, there seems to be a fine line between removing the burden from a battered woman and taking away her control over the situation. Communities and individuals within those communities draw this line in different places.

In general, there was widespread agreement about the importance of mandatory arrest laws. Most people interviewed for this study felt that the victim should not be required to decide whether the perpetrator will be arrested. Many respondents also agreed on the appropriateness of arresting and prosecuting without the victim's consent. In general, this was viewed as removing the burden from the victim, but not necessarily taking away her control.

Automatic issuance of stay away orders during criminal prosecution seems to be slightly more controversial. The use of protection orders during criminal prosecution is handled differently by prosecutors, even in two communities within the same state, as we saw in California. In San Francisco, one prosecutor routinely requests protection orders in serious felony domestic violence cases, even if the victim has not herself requested an order. In San Diego, however, prosecutors ask for a stay away order only if the victim agrees to it. The felt that issuing a protection order against the victim's wishes could put her in more danger, since victims may be at greater risk for further and potentially more violent abuse when they are trying to leave the abuser. Taking away a victim's control over the decision about whether to have contact with the offender could place her at increased risk.

Mandatory reporting of suspected domestic violence to police by medical personnel is another issue that was somewhat controversial among the individuals we spoke with. This takes away a woman's control over her situation and may make some women less likely to seek medical care. Battered women are sometimes forced to seek medical attention for their injuries before they are ready to address the domestic violence in their lives. Women using emergency rooms are likely to be in quite different circumstances than those seeking help from domestic violence service providers with respect to their understanding of the violence in their lives and their determination to do something about it. Any policy or program that does not carefully consider the implications of these differences is likely to run into trouble.