Fighting domestic violence

Preventing deaths requires coordinated community response.

By Rebecca Macy

[05.18.04] — While the legal system may be the first option that comes to mind when thinking about ending domestic violence, for battered women it is not always the preferred option.

In fact, research shows that many women do not seek legal protection when domestic violence occurs.

With one-quarter of all women in the U.S. experiencing violence from someone they know, care about and trust during their lifetimes, it is critical that our communities, not just the legal system, implement comprehensive and coordinated community-based programs to promote women’s safety.

Women who seek to end domestic violence are often struggling with many threats to their well-being, including physical, emotional and sexual violence from the batterer.

These women often have other economic, social and family concerns with which to contend that may deter them from seeking protection orders or filing criminal charges against a batterer.

Women, for example, who consider legal actions are often also anxious about the loss of economic stability and housing.

Taking time off work to pursue legal charges and to make court appearances may mean considerable loss of income.

In terms of social concerns, women may belong to communities and families in which divorce is strongly prohibited and thus are afraid to take steps that may mean the end of their marriages.

Women may be worried about the stigma of being identified as a victim of domestic violence.

In terms of family concerns, women are often apprehensive about how legal actions will affect their children.

In my social work practice, I have known batterers to threaten women with loss of custody or kidnapping of their children in retaliation for legal actions.

Loss of children is a truly frightening prospect for most mothers, even when there may be little substance to the batterer’s threat.

These varied concerns and potential economic, social and family costs can quickly add up to make women question the value of pursuing legal protection or an end to the relationship, no matter how violent.

How do communities intervene to successfully help women with self-protection and to end batterer’s violence?

Legal remedies and options are important. In fact, research shows that women who obtain permanent protection orders are likely to experience less violence from batterers.

However, legal options are often not the entire answer. Increasing protection for victims of domestic violence means giving battered women support and a range of options so that they can make the best possible choices given their individual circumstances.

What else do communities need to do to help women and their children become safe? We can start by providing legal services and options that are accessible to women no matter their background, ethnicity and race, and socioeconomic status. Imagine the challenges for a battered woman who has recently immigrated to this country. Language barriers alone may impede a woman from successfully accessing our complex legal system.

We can also help women attain safety by helping them with their socioeconomic, physical and mental health needs. In addition to the threat of economic instability, women struggling with domestic violence are often also dealing with physical injuries, chronic health problems, and mental health problems such as trauma and depression that are a direct result of the violence they experienced. A woman with health and economic problems can become overwhelmed and find the necessary steps for completing a protection order or moving her family to a shelter insurmountable. Women brave enough to seek help will often need physical and mental health services in addition to resource assistance to attain safety.

Rebecca Macy is an assistant professor at the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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