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Domestic Violence

Improving the Legal System Response to Post-Separation Abuse

Three ways to improve safety for victims.

Key points

  • Many victims feel that our legal system better serves abusers than the abused. 
  • This can create re-traumatization and re-victimization for victims of domestic abuse who ask for protection.
  • Creating changes to the way our legal system handles post-separation abuse can save lives.

"It was denied... again," Emily sighed on the other line. I could not see her face, but could feel her devastation and hopelessness. She had called me to check in, per my request, after yet another courtroom hearing for her attempt to get a protection order. Her ex-husband was retaliating against her for ending the relationship and had made good on his promise to "destroy" her. "You'll be sorry," he had said on that final day before she left. "He's just upset," she had told me while recounting the events. "He won't do anything, he's just upset."

Today, the judge had dismissed her latest attempt to get a protection order. His harassment had continued to escalate, calling mutual friends to spread false information, and even making calls to her local bank to report her for fraud. "I can't stop someone from making a complaint. I suggest you just move on," the judge had said before dismissing her pleas. While nothing came of the lies, it was the stress of the harassment that was weighing on her. "It was easier when he would just put his hands on me—then I knew what to expect."

Better yet, then the law was at least on her side.

Image by N-region from Pixabay
Image by N-region from Pixabay

Domestic abuse usually has to come to physical blows before many in our legal system recognize the urgent need for action. While we may find some support for physical violence, little exists for the psychological and emotional damage of psychological torture.

Abusers quickly learn that going to the victim's home with a weapon may get them in trouble, but taking steps to harass them in other ways is an open-ended season ticket for their harassment and abuse campaign. Because their abuser has more rights to harass without repercussion than they have to protect themselves, many victims feel less protected by the law than their abuser.

In so many cases, I hear victims repeat the same parts of this story: how those with power, most particularly the police, courts, and judges, had little, if any, knowledge about intimate partner violence and the ways that it can manifest, yet their only chance at protection is in their hands.

Meanwhile, the victims are seemingly punished by the law the more they try to fight for their safety, from being told to "just move on, this is normal breakup stuff," being forced to watch judges give perpetrators "another chance," or being referred to as "high conflict" when they are just trying to move on, to fighting against all the technicalities in the law that support perpetrators. It can feel like punishment: you wanted this order, now you come in and fight for it.

The greatest tragedy of the current state of domestic abuse and how we manage it as a society is that so many domestic abuse survivors are forced to choose between extending their suffering or giving up on the concept of justice altogether. We have no other choice but to improve.

People in positions of power such as law enforcement and judges need to be open to learning and unlearning bad habits. They need to see that their failure to act often contributes to the further abuse of a victim.

If you are in a position to make changes or encourage activism toward restructuring our law enforcement system to protect victims of domestic abuse better, here are some suggestions for consideration:

  1. We must have a better way of issuing protection orders. Perpetrators easily skirt the system by ducking service. If they are not served, the protection order is not active. So, all they have to do is avoid answering the door for a couple of days, and they are free to continue the harassment without fear of repercussions. Temporary protection orders should be active automatically after the attempts are made, if not the moment a judge signs them. Meanwhile, the victim never knows that their protection order is not active until it is too late.
  2. Have on-site staff trained in domestic and intimate partner abuse in the precinct itself. Emily made multiple visits to seek protection from her ex, and every time, the officers on duty had varied responses about how to handle the situation. The trauma of retelling a victim’s story every time can be exacerbated further by victim blaming. Even innocent-sounding advice, like “ignore it,” can trigger more trauma. The police may not be trained to identify the non-physical abusive tactics of an individual that can manipulate both victims and the legal system, and their lack of understanding can create documentation that actually hurts the victim's case in court.
  3. Instead of waiting for the abuse to turn deadly, stop it when it starts. Countless times I counsel tearful, scared individuals who are convinced that the post-separation abuse will eventually stop on its own, that their ex-partner is only mad and just needs to let it out. Most abusive people do not stop simply because the victim is scared or begging them to stop. They need to be stopped. But instead of recognizing this, our judicial system can seem to create a mentality amongst criminal perpetrators of “don’t stop doing it, just stop getting caught.” Instead of changing, perpetrators may get better at evading the law, with slicker ways to toe the line and cause undue stress on the victim while avoiding repercussions.

We need to expect more from our legal system and demand change so that if our children or grandchildren ever confront domestic violence, they can feel safe enough to escape it. Through greater awareness, and continued conversations and education, new generations can rebuild a broken system upon a foundation of understanding. If the conversation makes people uncomfortable, that is because it needs to happen.

Excerpted, in part, from my book: Invisible Bruises: How a Better Understanding of the Patterns of Domestic Violence Can Help Survivors Navigate the Legal System.

If you are dealing with post-separation abuse or any kind of domestic violence, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1 (800) 799–7233.

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