Victims of domestic violence: running the gauntlet

The concept of domestic violence (DV) is often phrased in legal terms as a “gender free” idea, where there are “perpetrators” and “victims”.

In practice, however, police, courts, and many sectors of the public widely believe that perpetrators are generally if not entirely adult males, and victims almost entirely adult women and children of either gender.

However, life is rarely this neat and tidy, and even though the laws are often written in gender-neutral language, the reality is that men will be assumed to be the perpetrators, and that the alleged victims will be in need of some kind of protection.

What Constitutes Domestic Violence?

This is a thorny issue, because the idea of DV also has expanded to incorporate non-physical acts, such as raising one’s voice, swearing, or basically doing anything that might make another person fearful. Indeed, the behaviour is less relevant to whether a domestic violence order (DVO) is issued than the fear that the alleged victim expresses.

Think for a moment on your reaction to the words you just read:  “alleged victim.”  Legally, that’s what it is until proven, right? Yet “victim” is so widely used without that qualifier that it seems odd when we see it. There is a presumption of truth in claiming to be a victim which is not warranted without evidence being tendered to a court. And yet, evidence may not be necessary in the DV court. Why? Because the words ‘I’m afraid’ cannot be tested. There is no way to know for sure if the person applying for a DV order is in fact, afraid. Sometimes, they clearly aren’t, and are using the DV order to get a leg up in family law proceedings in a different court. However, impugning an alleged victim’s claim of being afraid makes for bad press for police, courts and government ministers. So alleged behaviour of the alleged perpetrator isn’t subject to a criminal standard of proof, and in fact, isn’t even clearly defined. The violence is whatever the other person says “makes them afraid.”

In short, the crime is not in what you do, but how someone else reacts to it.

The perpetrator is “reasonably expected” to know that others will react negatively to something, and is typically assumed to be using that knowledge to manipulate or control the other person, even when the raising of the voice is for a reason as simple as an unwitting response to the running-down of a hearing aid battery.

Unfortunately, neither the public nor the police, nor many court officials, are aware of the research in the area. Since the 1970’s research has shown that there is basically “gender symmetry” in perpetration of violence, that is, women are about as likely as men to initiate violence of some form. Because of physical size differences, men are somewhat more likely to inflict damage in many cases.

However, to compensate for that size difference, many women may choose to use a weapon first up, and domestic homicides ending in a dead male victim are more common than a reading of the press would lead us to believe. For the man this is a dangerous situation, not because disarming the woman is difficult (though it can be), but rather, because once the woman is disarmed the man is left holding the weapon when police arrive. This does not bode well for his freedom, his ability to return to his own house, the chances of ever seeing his children again, or even maintaining employment in some fields.

There is the further issue of attributions that are made after the fact. Whether a man defends himself or not, there is a tendency of people around him and officials managing the case to assume that the woman was only attacking in self-defense because she was afraid of something. Uninformed minds boggle that a woman might initiate and carry out rather serious violence, or even hurt herself in the absence of the alleged perpetrator, then call police to have him arrested. I have seen too many cases where exactly this has happened, and the men involved are confused that they can be incarcerated and stripped of their children on the say-so of a former partner.

Consider Dave, whose partner was smaller than him, but had a history of violence towards past partners. When he found a heavy wooden cutting board speeding towards his skull after a heated discussion over some trivial thing he couldn’t even remember, he blocked the swing grabbed her arm to prevent himself from potentially serious or fatal injury. This left red finger marks, over which she called police – who promptly arrived, arrested him and threw him in the watch house for the weekend.

Dave said that he felt “very stupid” when he first saw me, because he’d gone to visit the children the next week, when she was very apologetic and nice, but still insisted that he come to her house for the visit – technically in breach of the orders, but he trusted her to play nicely.

He realized he’d “taken the bait” and when she started yelling at him again, he raised his voice again. The neighbors had apparently been warned by her to listen out for trouble, and now he was facing jail for breaching the interim order, by ” not being of good behaviour” when visiting the children, in a context he didn’t choose, where he was readily set up for some payback. He joked that he should have just let her cave his skull in, because as a “vegetable in a hospital bed” he would be free of the terror that he was facing now at the prospect of jail for “wife-beating”.

A research-informed DV specialist will be aware that the cycle of violence may well be a dance between two people who both have poor conflict resolution skills, and will hear both sides of the story non-judgmentally to arrive at a way forward for both, when both wish to preserve the relationship, minus the violence. The famous Duluth model, for all its popularity, generally assumes a perptrator and a victim, but the complexity of real situations where roles may not be what it predicts, or may shift according to circumstances, makes it fall down rather badly.

Legal Proceedings

Where legal proceedings are in place, however, and there is no desire to rekindle the relationship, there is usually some kind of court order involved about dealing with anger and violence issues that may not even be present in the person ordered into therapy. A delicate balance between legal requirements and handling the need to have therapy for problems that don’t exist is difficult to maintain, but ultimately is achievable.

Objective testing as part of any assessment is a first priority. There are established tests that, if the accused perpetrator does not have personality disorders or other psychopathology, will show a “normal” profile.  Such tests can contain sub-tests to look out for people who respond dishonestly to try to skew the results.

If a solicitor is involved, it is best to make sure your psychologist has instructions from that solicitor, but also is able to discuss it with your legal eagle to make sure that everything gets covered that needs to be covered, if there are gaps in the instructions.

Medicare does not cover psycho-legal reports, so there may be some expense in engaging a psychologist to help with your DV matters. You can expect a request for a retainer up front, and a condition that the report be paid for on delivery out of money placed in trust with your solicitor when the report is commissioned.

It may be difficult to get a precise estimate of costs, because it may not be known in advance how much additional documentation may be required, or how much extra work is needed to “make all necessary inquiries,” which is a condition any expert witness has to live up to. That is because ultimately, for an expert report, the duty of the reporter is to the court to provide as accurate a picture as possible on which to base decisions.

Your solicitor may encourage you to see a psychologist, however, you do not have to admit that you are the perpetrator and in need of treatment to attend. Indeed, sorting this out out early in the process may be helpful, because you are getting yourself assessed up front and independently, and if in fact you do have some issues, documenting that you are working on them may help if you find yourself in damage control mode in three to six months. This requires a good degree of self-reflection and honesty, because if there are legal proceedings afoot, there may be other witnesses who can attest to some previous outbursts, all of which may go against you.

However, with support and guidance through the process, the initial shock of finding the machinery of the state arrayed against you can be buffered, to help you focus on your defense at a time when you may well be thinking it is time simply to give up.

Article originally published at

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