Domestic Violence Response Not in Line with Science on DV

July 25, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

Here’s an excellent article by the estimable Phil Cook who knows as much about domestic violence as any lay person (The Daily Beast, 7/22/13). Cook, as usual, is right on his figures and presents a sensible, balanced view of domestic violence, its depiction in popular culture and the radically sexist way it’s dealt with by policy makers. Everyone should read this article, but especially elected officials, family court judges and Vice President Joe Biden. It contains much valuable information that they obviously have never seen or heard before, although how they’ve managed to avoid it is anyone’s guess.

Of course, domestic violence and false claims thereof are hugely important in child custody cases. The child custody laws of every state in the U.S. and every country in the English-speaking world contain exceptions to parental custody if a parent engages in domestic violence. Except in the rarest of cases, a parent may not have primary custody of a child if he/she has engaged in domestic violence. In an era in which fathers are bending heaven and earth to increase their access to- and time with- their children, claims of domestic violence have become the default position of countless mothers seeking to deny a father to their children.

For at least 20 years now, family lawyers across the country have been bemoaning the use of false claims of domestic violence in custody cases. Put simply, those claims have become a routine part of child custody matters. The overwhelming majority of them are filed by mothers against fathers. In some 85% of those cases, there is no domestic violence found by the judge, but by then, the damage has been done. Faced with a mother claiming domestic violence against a father, judges usually hand custody to the mother at least during the pendency of the divorce case.

Perhaps worse, once the allegation is found to be unsubstantiated, family judges punish the mother’s wrongful act in no way. That’s despite the fact that a false claim of abuse is a clear example of an attempt to alienate a child from its father. It’s also a clear example of attempting to thwart a child’s relationship with its father. And that’s important given the fact that many states require judges to consider the willingness of each parent to promote the relationship of the child to the other parent in deciding custody. Despite the plain requirements of those statutes and despite the mother’s clear intention to come between the child and its father, judges rarely see those false allegations for what they are – a good reason to give primary custody to the dad.

In family courts, claims of domestic violence are the primary way in which judges contravene the purpose of legislatures intent on evening out parenting time between fathers and mothers. Back in 1997 when the Oregon Legislature amended the state’s custody statute with the explicit intention of decreasing sole custody on the part of mothers, lawmakers of course included a clause in the new law that kept abusers from getting custody. The result was a sharp spike in abuse claims by mothers that resulted in little or no improvement in the custodial status quo. The legislature wanted more equal parenting between fathers and mothers, but the domestic violence ‘out’ prevented it.

Interestingly, when researchers Margaret Brinig and Douglas Allen studied the new law and its effects, they discovered that fathers too sought to avail themselves of the domestic violence clause to gain greater parenting time. But for them it didn’t work. The judges seem to have simply applied more rigorous evidentiary standards to claims by fathers than to those made by mothers.

Its enormous impact on child custody cases is one of the most important reasons why everyone, but most urgently state legislators and family court judges, needs to know the truth about domestic violence. They should read Phil Cook’s article.

There is great similarity between female and male victims and their abusers. The biggest difference is that male victims find themselves in the same position women were 30 years ago. Their problem is viewed as of little consequence, or they are to blame, and their are few available resources for male victims. Three-quarters of the men who contact an abuse shelter or hotline report that the agency would provide services only to women, and nearly two-thirds were treated as the abuser rather than the victim.

University of New Hampshire researcher Murray Straus calls it “selective inattention” because of the total emphasis on female victims, despite what research has shown since 1977. Straus and his colleagues found that in minor violence, the incident rates were equal for men and women. In cases of severe violence, more men were victimized than women, with 1.8 million women victims of severe violence and 2 million male victims of severe violence a year. Women suffer a greater amount of total injuries ranging from mild to serious, but when it comes to serious injuries where weapons and object use come into play, the injury rate may be about the same.

Hundreds of scientific studies support what every experienced law-enforcement officer knows: half the time, it is a case of mutual combat; a quarter of the time only the woman is violent; a quarter of the time only the man is. Women strike first in some manner half the time, which of course, greatly increases her chances of being hurt in return.

In May 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published its latest study with about half of violent couples reporting mutual combat, but “in nonreciprocally violent relationships, women were the perpetrators in more than 70 percent of the cases,” and men incurred significant injuries. The CDC reported that about one in four women and one in seven men have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner.

We need to be realistic about how to deal with intimate-partner violence, based on research and best practices—but that is far from the case.

The only quibble I have with what Cook says is his statement that men are now in the position women found themselves in 30 years ago. I know what he means; back then, female victims were largely ignored and now male victims are. But there’s a difference. Then as now, this society treats female victims of anything with more attention and care than it does male victims. Certainly the domestic violence situation is an obvious case of that, but the fact that female military service personnel have, until recently, not been required to serve in combat is another example of our willingness to protect women more than men. Our refusal to treat female criminals as harshly as we do males is another example. There are a great many more examples of the phenomenon.

So, although society picked up the domestic violence ball quickly when women raised the issue back in the 1970s, I don’t expect us to do the same for male victims. Indeed, we’ve known for decades that women commit domestic violence at least as often as do men and that some 35% of those injured in a DV incident are men, but still there are essentially no services for men, the police are trained to view men as perpetrators and women as victims, and prosecutors and judges follow suit. If we were going to be as responsive to male victims as we were to female ones, things would already be far different from what they are now.

Astonishingly, the domestic violence system itself has been the prime mover in ensuring that domestic violence rates don’t come down.

In Gender Inclusive Treatment of Intimate Partner Abuse, researcher John Hamel says, “Individuals who have been identified as perpetrators by the criminal justice system are typically mandated to batterer intervention programs, also known as BIPs. Forty-five states have established legal standards to regulate BIPs. Treatments based on psychodynamic theory, impulse control disorders, family systems or mental health models are prohibited. More than two-thirds (68 percent) forbid participants in BIPs from seeking couples or family counseling. … Less than one in six states require BIP group facilitators to hold a professional mental health license.”

Mental health professionals know a good bit about who domestic violence perpetrators are and how to treat them. So what does the DV industry do but convince state legislatures to actually prohibit those interventions proven to work! The DV industry began as a political ideology that claimed that DV was how men kept women subservient. Of course, being political ideology and not science, that proved in short order to be flat wrong. But the DV industry has its story and it’s stickin’ to it, which means that only BIPs that assume that men commit violence out of the single desire for “power and control” are allowed to be used. Unsurprisingly, those programs have no proven effect on abusive behavior, as numerous social scientists have pointed out.

By now, it’s hard not to conclude that the domestic violence industry isn’t more interested in continuing its funding than it is combatting domestic violence. Fortunately, the forces of good sense and fairness have Phil Cook on our side.

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