Cover Story: Home Is Where the Hurt Is

Domestic violence has unexpected victims

Sep 5, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Woodrow J. Hinton

Home Is Where the Hurt Is

The image of a short, squat woman throwing firewood at a tall, wiry man sounds more like a comedy sketch than a case of domestic violence. But what if she regularly hits and kicks him, and everyone in the house knows it?

Another man, not quite so tall, and another woman, not as short, are in the heat of an argument about his infidelity — and she throws a lamp that hits him in the head.

Neither of these First Ladies were charged with domestic violence, even though people in the White House confirmed the incidents. In the first case, there weren't any such laws when Mary Todd Lincoln was attacking Abe. In the second case, most Americans thought Hillary Rodham Clinton was perfectly justified in aiming at Bill.

The phrase "domestic violence" usually conjures the image of a woman with a black eye, puffy lip and/or a broken arm — not a woman swinging a baseball bat at her husband, a gay man running in fear from his partner or a developmentally disabled person warding off blows from a caregiver.

All of the people on the receiving end of violence are victims. But all are not treated equally. Neither are male and female perpetrators, according to the limited data available.

During the past 30 years women's advocacy groups have succeeded in making people aware of intimate partner violence and family violence, moving it out of the arena of a "family matter." Local, state and federal laws now recognize the insidious nature of the abuse that goes on between people who have a close, personal relationship; it's different from violence perpetrated by a stranger. The violation of trust, love and commitment cuts deeper and creates wounds that extend beyond the physical.

During the same 30-year period, awareness about what a family and intimate partners look like has dramatically changed. Some say the laws haven't kept pace.

Most victims of domestic violence are women; the statistics range in identifying 75 to 95 percent of victims as female. Those numbers alone make it clear that, as a population, women deal with domestic violence most often.

Without disregarding the importance of this obvious public safety challenge, some want to expand the conversation about domestic violence to include the other 5 to 25 percent who largely go un-served by female-focused laws and groups.

"When things started 30 years ago, the emphasis should have been on women," says Philip W. Cook, author of Abused Men: The Hidden Side of Domestic Violence. "They didn't have the economic circumstances or ability to escape in many cases. They were tied to the man's paycheck. I think it was appropriate, the right thing to do to raise awareness. It changed; there's a huge infrastructure to help women now that didn't exist. But when it comes to them being abusive to their husbands, that's a 'See no evil, hear not evil, speak no evil' kind of thing."

Cook points to the irony that men today are in the same position women found themselves in not too long ago. Despite the high numbers of male victims of domestic violence — estimates range from 900,000 to 2 million — their situations are often dismissed as being of little consequence, or they brought it on themselves.

Things are slowly changing. Ten years ago, when Cook started doing research, he found one shelter in the United States that accepted battered and abused men. Now there are at least six.

"You may say that you serve men, but if your crisis line is called the Women's Crisis Line, do you really?" Cook asks. "What man's gonna call the Women's Crisis Line? If that's the only one in the area, you're stuck. The discrimination has just got to stop. We're just saying, 'Open your doors so we can help men, women and children.' "

'The worthy one'
Numbers are important in identifying the prevalence of domestic violence, and statistics are frequently quoted to support laws and funding for services. Cook takes issue with a particular statistic frequently cited in discussions of the issue.

"The statement 'Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women' is a myth," he says. "It took me two years to get the Department of Health and Human Services to remove that statement from their Web site."

Plenty of data contradict that assertion, but it's so frequently quoted that it stands in the way of the truth, according to Cook. He wants people to deal with the facts so they have a true sense of what domestic violence looks like in this country.

A survey by the Centers for Disease Control found that the leading cause of injury, to both women and men, is accidental falls, followed by car crashes. Cook also points to a U.S. Justice Department survey of emergency room visits. The findings indicate that all injuries resulting from violence are responsible for 3 percent of emergency room visits, and domestic violence is responsible for 1 percent.

In July, the General Accounting Office released a review of agencies receiving grants funded by the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This occurred because the 2005 renewal of the law identified a concern that "current crime statistics do not provide a full assessment of the problem."

"Since 2001 the amount of national research that has been conducted on the prevalence of domestic violence and sexual assault has been limited, and even less research has been conducted on dating violence and stalking," the report says. "No single, comprehensive effort currently exists that provides nationwide statistics on the prevalence of these four categories of crime among men, women, youth and children."

Complicating the picture is the fact that the U.S. government doesn't have a uniform set of terms to define types of abuse and services provided. Each of the various federal agencies administering grants use their own terminology, making it impossible to compile any consistent, reliable data about victims, services or trends.

Without sufficient data on which to base laws and public policy, it's difficult to separate facts from myth and PR spin. Sharlene Graham Lassiter, a professor of law at Northern Kentucky University's Chase Law School who teaches domestic violence courses, suggests beginning with the past.

In order to understand such a complicated social and public health issue and laws related to it, she says it's important to understand how this problem was identified. From there we can understand how it continues to evolve today.

"The notion of domestic violence, in terms of violence against a spouse, have gone through an evolution from the day when women were considered property of their families," Lassiter says. "The consideration of women as property of families allowed for the rule of thumb. The rule of thumb basically said that you could hit your property with something that did not extend ... in terms of its size, larger than the base of your thumb. Historically, women being property, the husband could use a device — a stick, a pole or something — to discipline his property and therefore his wife.

"Those kinds of laws ... allowed for that level of discipline. It did not consider it a crime for a husband to act that way toward his wife because his wife was considered his property. Even to the extent that children have been considered property, they also experience the same acceptance of the practice of discipline using a rod of some sort."

Lassiter defines abuse as an excess of power and control asserted against another human being. She says no one is immune from the temptation to do anything they deem necessary to achieve a desired outcome, including violence. As a result, there will always be abusers and victims among both males and females. But that doesn't mean they're treated equally.

"I think society considered women and children as being the most vulnerable," Lassiter says. "There is an embracing of the concept, to some extent, that they are worthy of our protection. That's a dual-edged sword because historically, and even today, you have issues in the legal system where some victims are not considered 'victim enough.' You're too strong, you're too articulate. Are you worthy of our protection? Do we think you're vulnerable enough? Which can contribute to a lot of confusion, not only when laws are created, but how they're implemented.

"The kind of inconsistencies you can see in what may purport to be a perfectly gender-neutral law of broad application for preventing abuse of some sort can be manipulated by the people who are actually being responsible for actually implementing it — being the lawyers, the judges, the police officers and others anywhere in the system — by their own notions of whether or not this person is worthy of protection."

Theresa Singleton, director of the Protection from Abuse program at the Cincinnati YWCA, says she deals with this issue in law enforcement training. She frequently serves as a domestic violence trainer for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office and sometimes for the Cincinnati Police Department.

"If you respond to a domestic violence call and you have a victim standing there and she's got a black eye and she's crying and she's afraid, you're going to want to help her, aren't you?" Singleton says. "Well, what if you have a victim who may have a black eye, who may be belligerent, who may be drinking, maybe not as pleasant and appears to need protection? You're going to help the one you perceive to be the nice one, the worthy one — and not so much the one who's belligerent. That's human nature, but they may both be victims. She's not more of a victim just because she's crying and afraid and being cooperative with you and this other woman isn't. So you really have to think about those things when you're responding to domestic violence calls."

'Always safer arresting'
After three decades, patterns have developed in the enforcement of domestic violence laws. Police will always make an arrest on a domestic violence call — and it's usually the man, regardless of the circumstances, according to Tim Smith, a Cincinnati defense attorney.

He describes a recent case in which a Northside woman attacked her husband from behind as he was walking away — scratching his face, breaking his glasses and hitting him hard enough to break three ribs. He lost his balance and fell backward, his head banging into hers, leaving a knot on her forehead and on the back of his head. By the time the police showed up, the woman was bragging about beating up her husband — but they were both arrested, because she had a mark on her face.

"When they come and decide who's the aggressor, they somehow switch it from who started the fight to who's more capable of inflicting injury," Smith says. "So the man is almost always in that category. If he doesn't go along with that, they say, 'If you don't take the rap, then we're going to arrest both of you.' The assumption of all of this is that (if) there's a fight, the man is regularly beating the woman."

Sgt. Tom Tanner of the Cincinnati Police Academy didn't return repeated calls seeking information about police training and policies on domestic violence arrests. But section 12.412 of the CPD procedures handbook says, "Make a mandatory arrest if the offender is identified, present or immediately available for arrest."

"The city of Cincinnati has a mandatory arrest policy ... but that's only if there's probable cause," Singleton says. "You have to have probable cause to make an arrest. The YWCA is one of the agencies that led the way to get a mandatory arrest policy."

She says battered women benefit from the policy because it removes a violent spouse or partner from the home.

As the lead agency in many programs serving victims of domestic violence, the YWCA believes the laws are accomplishing what they set out to do — hold batterers accountable. Pointing to data provided by the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts, Singleton says there were 1,887 convictions for domestic violence in 2006, 247 of which were felonies. That proves the laws are working, she says.

But Smith disagrees. He thinks the cops and prosecutors are simply avoiding their responsibility to use discretion and laying all the responsibility for decision-making on the courts. As a result, many innocent people wind up in jail, he says.

"They're always safer arresting even though there's no claim of injury, no claim of even really threatening injury," Smith says. "If there's a domestic violence call, as long as they arrest, they're safe from their superiors. Once they arrest, then the prosecutor's office has a policy of never dismissing any charges. It's cover your ass and pass the buck up to the judge. Then the judge and jury has to make the decision."

If conviction rates are any indication, mandatory arrest policies have been a failure.

"It's a good intention, and it's probably very effective for about 20 percent of the people seeking the protection of the police and the court," says Hamilton County Municipal Judge Nadine Allen. "But 75 to 80 percent of domestic violence charges and violations are dismissed."

The clerk of courts' statistics for domestic violence arrests in Hamilton County last year seem to indicate that 51 percent of the 3,851 charges were eventually dismissed. But compiling data on domestic violence charges is difficult. For example, the sheriff's department provided some information but says it's unable to fulfill a public-records request by CityBeat because it can't retrieve arrest records according to a specific charge, such as domestic violence.

In an attempt to get some sense of the patterns for domestic-violence cases in Hamilton County Municipal Court, CityBeat reviewed a random sample of 96 cases provided by Smith. Judge Heather S. Russell and Judge Melissa Powers handled the cases over a period of 44 days during four different months in 2006 and 2007.

Of all 96 cases:

· 60 percent of domestic violence cases ended in acquittal or dismissal of charges.

· All charges against women resulted in dismissal or acquittal.

· Although 32 percent of cases were still pending, only 7 percent of domestic violence cases had resulted in a conviction.

· 74 percent of all charges were against men; 26 percent were against women.

· 76 percent of the female suspects were released without bond, compared to 23 percent of the men.

· Bond for the women was set at $5,000 or less. Bond for the men ranged from $100 to $500,000, with $10,000 being the most frequent.

The dreaded TPO
It gets worse.

In the process of enforcing the laws, various agencies are taking shortcuts to expedite the arrest, arraignment and trial process. The result is another kind of discrimination in the enforcement of domestic violence laws.

In Hamilton County, a man arrested for domestic violence typically receives a $10,000 bond and an automatic motion for a temporary protection order (TPO). A woman arrested on the same charge typically receives an "own recognizance" bond — meaning she doesn't have to put up any money to get out of jail — with no automatic TPO.

In the case of Smith's client — the Northside man attacked by his wife — that's exactly what happened. The circumstances of the arrest weren't taken into account, and the woman who bragged about beating up her husband received a TPO ordering her husband to stay away from her and their two children.

The Cincinnati Police Department has a policy that makes it easy, almost automatic, for a TPO to be issued. But it conflicts with Ohio law, according to Judge Allen. The policy says, "The arresting officer will sign a TPO request when filing domestic violence, felonious assault or aggravated assault charges." Additionally, "Officer singing the TPO request will not appear at arraignment."

The problems with this policy are simple: Ohio law states that a victim is supposed to ask for and sign a request for a TPO. The only way an officer or anyone else may act on the victim's behalf is if the victim is incapacitated by injuries sustained during the alleged attack.

A request for a TPO requires the signer to be in court on the day of the hearing, according to Allen. But, as she points out, police procedures direct officers to break the law — telling them not to go to the hearing.

The entire TPO process is spelled out in the Ohio Revised Code, but that didn't stop Hamilton County judges from doing things their own way, according to Smith.

"When they first passed the (TPO) law they had a domestic violence docket," he says. "They'd have all the women there, and they would call cases and the women would say whether they wanted a protection order or not. And the judges decided that was too much work, so they stopped calling the women in, and they just automatically issued protection orders without a hearing.

"I had a case where (police) came to serve the subpoena on the guy's girlfriend, and they were both getting out of the shower. They arrested him for violation of the protection order because he was there at their apartment. The judge convicted him."

The appeals court ruled that a hearing must be held before a judge issues a TPO. But instead of reinstituting the hearings, Hamilton County just added a hearing waiver to the bottom of the TPO paperwork. The defendant, entitled to a hearing, frequently doesn't know this — and many lawyers don't bother to tell him.

"The public defenders handle all these cases," Smith says. "And the public defenders just say, 'Sign that.' So guys were signing them without knowing they were entitled to a hearing. Then there's always the threat, 'You gonna sign the TPO? You gonna sign the TPO? If you don't sign the TPO, we're going to set a bond you can't make.' So there's a threat of incarceration if you don't sign."

Smith isn't the only person who has noticed a pattern of sloppy arrest, prosecution and court proceedings in domestic violence cases. Allen says she's heard that some judges will set a higher bond for those who refuse to waive their right to a hearing.

"If something is voluntary, then you cannot use a bond to coerce a person to waive their right," she says. "As a judge, we are required to make sure the waiver of a right is understood. What I mean is you have to tell somebody what all the pre-check marks mean."

The TPO form has a series of boxes next to conditions for a restraining order that are supposed to be filled out for each person based on the circumstances of each situation. But the forms used in Hamilton County have computer-generated checkmarks in several of the boxes. This goes against the spirit of the law, which is to consider each case individually, Allen says. She says most of the defendants in her courtroom have no idea what they've signed.

"People don't know if they fax somebody or text (message) or send a letter and flowers — they don't know that's a violation," she says. "If the police see the two parties together holding hands, they are arresting them. We've had people locked up for sending flowers.

"The waiver process, to me, is lacking. I've been refusing to accept the waiver when I hear a defendant doesn't know what it means or they feel like they're being coerced. Sometimes a guard is handing you a document and a pen, and your lawyer is saying, 'Sign this.' That to me does not look like a voluntary waiver. I have to make sure the defendant understands that he has a right not to sign it."

Allen says she doesn't automatically issue a TPO. Sometimes she decides not to because the circumstances don't require it.

"There's no doubt that this law has been abused," she says. "There are people who are going through a divorce, and both sides abuse this process because they know you can get a temporary protection order, and the person cannot return to their home and have any contact at all. If you call and make allegations, someone can be arrested. And there are people who are being intimidated. There are people who are lying, and there are people who are telling the truth. That's why we have to follow the statute."

Smith agrees but points to political realities that affect procedure.

"Some judges are clearly biased, and some follow the law," he says. "There's no downside to locking a guy up — lock an innocent man up, even though he loses his job and it costs him. They really don't care about the family or the woman. All they care about is keeping their jobs. Judges are politicians; they use jail space for their political ends, which is to keep their judicial position. As they lock the guy up, they're not going to lose their job. But in the one out of 1,000 cases the guy gets out and kills somebody, somebody's going to get blamed for it."

Hidden victims
Non-heterosexuals are just one group reluctant to call the police to report domestic violence. Victims of same-sex, intimate partner violence are concerned about dealing with homophobia and not being believed, according to Kristin Shrimplin, director of the YWCA's Family Violence Prevention Project.

"We're having one out of three women somewhere along the gay continuum experiencing intimate partner violence," she says. "Likewise, we have about one in three gay men experiencing intimate partner violence. They have a double whammy: One, how do they report intimate partner violence from the same-sex perspective? And two, the fears of being a man and having to report this — it's not easy for men.

"I don't think the gay community is as quick to pick up the phone and call the police when this happens. I'm not too sure the police would be automatically equipped to understand that this is intimate partner violence and not violence among roommates."

On top of that, there's a lack of "culturally competent" services in both law enforcement and support providers, Shrimplin says. When friends, family, support-service providers and other advocates call on behalf of a male victim, heterosexual or homosexual, they get the same response: There are no support groups for men in Greater Cincinnati.

"All I can offer them is (to) call the Protect Hotline," she says. "In terms of a real systems-based, a real organizational response, the focus simply isn't there yet. And it's not because the domestic violence field doesn't care about men, it's just that funding is so limited the services are being designated toward the highest rate of incidence, and 85 to 90 percent it's women who are victims."

Singleton says the YWCA has received only one call from a support agency asking for services for a male victim of domestic violence. The agency was working on a safety plan and getting a hotel voucher for him — its battered women's shelter only takes women — but the man moved away before they could help him.

"Obviously, if men are battered, they need to have services," Singleton says. "When we look at family violence, imagine a big umbrella. Under family violence, you have intimate partner violence, elder abuse, same sex, bi, transgender violence. Right now we serve a lot of gay women in our shelter, but it begs the question: What if someone's transgender? What do we do? We haven't been faced with that but will be. I guarantee it."

Another under-represented population of domestic violence victims is people with disabilities.

"There's a huge assumption that people with disabilities don't have sexuality, so how could they possibly be in a relationship — and therefore how could they possibly experience intimate partner violence?" Shrimplin says. "People with disabilities also have the barriers of reporting to police. I think there's a lot of struggle among a lot of institutions with that very first step of believing the story the victim/survivor is telling them, because they're a person with disabilities or cognitive impairments or some developmental impairment. Their story might not be seen as legitimate. That's a real frustration."

Other barriers come in the form of "physical accessibility and attitudinal accessibility." When service providers say they're accessible to those with special needs, they aren't necessarily considering how a person in a wheelchair who doesn't drive will be able to get to a shelter or how someone with cognitive impairments will be able to communicate with a crisis counselor. Staff and volunteers who aren't trained to think in this way present yet another barrier for the disabled, according to Shrimplin.

She's happy to say that immigrant women who are victims of abuse have an excellent resource to which they can turn, the Alliance for Battered and Abused International Women ( site/apps/lk/content2.aspx?c=agLGKXNOE&b=274271). The organization has an impressive network of partners and service providers to assist foreign-born, female victims of domestic violence.

"They've developed safety plans in seven different languages including Farsi, Vietnamese, Arabic, French, Spanish," Shrimplin says. "They spend a lot of time focusing on making sure local service providers have training — and not just general training; you have to break it down. Just look at the Hispanic population. What's the definition of the Hispanic population? You really have to look at all of the different cultures that make that up."

But they don't offer any assistance to men.

'Embrace the horror'
The failure to assist all victims, as John Hamel sees it, is a function of biased public policy. A licensed clinical social worker who has worked with high-conflict families for 16 years and written several books about domestic violence, Hamel has worked primarily with perpetrators ordered by the California courts into anger management treatment.

"I've become equally concerned about public policy as clinical issues because the two go together," Hamel says. "The policies are geared toward protecting victims based on the premise even the most minor type of violence is predictive of long-term abuse and serious violence; and if we stop these people, everything would be better. It hasn't worked that way.

"Our policies are geared in one direction — not only unfair to male victims, more importantly, it's not very effective. We're not treating the whole problem; we're only treating part of it. Right now our policies are driven by battered-women's advocates. While they certainly should have a place at the table and their voice is important, they shouldn't be determining policy. There are mental health professionals, attorneys, people involved in family law, children's advocates and social workers who have a different take on domestic violence; and their voices are just not considered in the same way as battered-women's advocates.

"I wouldn't want battered-men's advocates to be calling the shots either. I think it should be a consortium of experts who work in the field with both victims and perpetrators. But mostly it should be informed by research. Provide sound, up-to-date research so that policy makers can make informed decisions."

Lassiter calls domestic violence an epidemic because 1 million to 3 million women a year are victimized by an intimate partner. While more women are victimized than other populations, all victims need to be considered when developing public policy. That can't happen until everyone is honest about what abuse is.

"It forces us to really dig deep into understanding what abuse is — what it looks like, how it manifests itself — and really ask some difficult questions about why people do this," Lassiter says. "But people don't want to embrace the horror of this. I really think people don't want to embrace the consequences of their own actions.

"To some extent, domestic violence is a consequence of society, which says that you have to be in complete control and be ready to handle yourself at a moment's notice, which puts people in a posture of always being ready for a fight, always strong. You cannot have a healthy relationship with that attitude.

"Worldwide we are beginning to look at domestic violence as a human rights issue,­ less a women's issue, less a children's issue, less a victim issue. Your home ought to be the one place where you are not afraid to be, regardless of who you are."

Focusing on a non-violent way of life is exactly what the YWCA is doing by engaging the community in dialogue about the impact violence has on all of us, according to Shrimplin.

"What we're trying to break now is not just the cycle of violence against women and girls; we're trying to break the cycle of violence in the general community and family violence," she says.

Singleton explains what that means in practical terms.

"A coordinated community response would make a difference, meaning that all of us who are working with this issue are on the same page — social service agencies, clergy, employers, law enforcement — that we're all working together to reduce violence," she says. "That means when victims experience violence, we offer safety, protection and viable options; and we hold abusers accountable.

"When you think about how children suffer — that children from birth to age 6 witnessing violence or being exposed to violence can actually impact their brain development — we have a lot at stake. No one deserves to be abused. If we can't get that concept, we're never going to stop violence in our community."

For a list of resources to help victims of domestic violence, visit