Monday, July 12, 2010

Seeking help difficult for domestic violence victims--especially when abusers are getting joint custody (Tacoma, Washington)

Victims of domestic violence face many barriers in securing their safety and the safety of their children. Lack of support services and unenforced orders of protection are a major problem. And so are judges who grant joint custody. In the case cited below, the mother returned to her abuser rather than leave the children alone with him. I have known other mothers who have made the same decision.

Hat tip to L. T.

Seeking help difficult for domestic violence victims
By Paula Horton, Herald staff writer
Published: 07/12/10 1:41 am Updated: 07/12/10 1:58 pm

On one specific day last year, domestic violence advocates took a census of services provided to victims around the country and found that while many victims were getting support they needed, thousands were still being turned away when they sought help.

In Washington, the census found nearly 1,600 victims were served Sept. 15, 2009, with 900 of those seeking refuge in emergency shelters or transitional housing. Another 563 victims called domestic violence hotlines seeking help, according to the 2009 Domestic Violence Counts review.
Across the country, more than 65,000 victims received help from domestic violence programs, with a nearly equal split of victims needing shelter and legal advocacy and counseling. But because of funding and program cuts, more than 9,000 victims didn't get the help they needed.

In Washington, 200 of the 304 victims whose needs were not met that day were looking for somewhere to stay to escape their abuser.

Having enough money to find a new place to live is just one of many challenges victims must overcome. If they don't have jobs or money saved, it's also difficult for them to hire an attorney or even buy necessities like food, advocates say.

And victims usually are the ones who have uproot their lives to be safe, said Kelly Abken, director of Domestic Violence Services of Benton & Franklin Counties.

"Victims have to make all the accommodations for the perpetrators' behavior," she said. "Too many victims, when they are able to break free they ... lose everything."

They also have to deal with feelings of shame or face judgment from others.

Victims often get questions like, "Why did you stay for so long?" or "Why did you keep going back?" and "Why didn't you ask for help sooner?"

"So many times we want to hold victims accountable for the abuse that's been perpetrated against them, but it's his fault that he assaulted her," Abken said. "For those on the outside it can be difficult and challenging to understand, but we have to respect victims and know that they are the experts on their own lives."

A victim often returns to her abuser multiple times before she breaks free for good.

"They go back for a multitude of reasons," Abken said. "Too many times these guys are just relentless and they wear her down and it's just easier to go back... As hard as she's trying to break free, he's trying 10 times as hard to keep them."

Abken cited a woman who left her abuser and got assistance from her family to pay legal costs as she battled for custody of the kids. A judge awarded joint custody, and when the abuser had the children he tried to turn them against her and be the "good" parent by letting them do whatever they wanted.

When the woman found out he wasn't stopping their teen daughter from dating an older man, she went back so she could watch out for her children, Abken said.

Her family and friends couldn't believe she would return after all she'd gone through and all the support they had given her, Abken said.

"But the bottom line is, by her going back she's trying to keep her family together and she's doing the best she can and having faith that it will get better," she said. "How is she wrong? He is the one who's wrong. ... She went back stronger to save her kids."

Advocates say the most dangerous time for a woman is after she's left a violent relationship or is trying to break up. Domestic violence advocates say that's why they help victims make a safety plan, including emergency shelters and protection orders if necessary, when they are ready to leave.

"Leaving typically results in an escalation of violence," Abken said. "Protection orders can too. ... Fortunately, for many victims (getting a protection order) works. It's a useful tool, and for some perpetrators the threat of getting arrested is enough to make them back off.

"But for some perpetrators it's a piece of paper that's not going to stop them," she added.

Then there are protection order violations where a victim willingly agrees to meet or be with an abuser who she previously sought protection from. That can be very frustrating for law enforcement and friends or relatives.

Abken said these violations are just another part of the process of victims struggling to break free. But, she adds, even if the victim initiated the contact it doesn't make it OK for the abuser to violate the order or assault the victim again.

In Franklin County, the prosecutor's office won't charge victims with order violations.

Prosecutor Steve Lowe said he doesn't think it's legal, because the responsibility is on the abuser to follow the court's order and keep away from the victim.

Lowe cites statutory rape as an example. If a 21-year-old has consensual sex with a 13-year-old, the 21-year-old can be charged with statutory rape but prosecutors aren't going to charge the teen with rendering criminal assistance for being a willing participant.

The responsibility is on the adult to know it's against the law to have sex with a teenager, he said.

Advocates say people can help domestic violence victims by doing a few simple things:

* Don't judge the victim for going back.

* Put energy, anger and frustration where it belongs -- at the abuser.

* Provide support for the victim, whether it's the first time or the 100th time.

"For so many clients it is such an uphill battle, but the successes are worth hanging in there," Abken said. "We have to stay in there for the women in our community.

"Everyone gets there at a different point," she added. "But having a support system and options are critical for her being free and building a new life."

Abken said there are good laws in place to hold abusers accountable, but it's essential to make sure the laws and programs are utilized.

One of the biggest obstacles prosecutors face is lack of cooperation from victims. There's a number of reasons for that, Lowe said.

"In many cases, the person who we put in jail is the only provider for the family," he said. "It's a choice of how their family survives and putting up with whatever abuse there is in the family. ... For some, the future of the family is more important than their safety."

One way to get victims to cooperate is making sure they know they're not responsible for charges being filed against their abuser. The prosecutor's office, acting for the state, decides whether to file charges, Lowe said.

That sometimes can divert blame by the abuser from the victim to prosecutors, he said.

But when victims aren't willing to testify, it becomes much more difficult for prosecutors, Lowe said. Franklin County has had a few victimless prosecutions, but "we're not the best at it," he admits.

Victims can be subpoenaed to testify, but if they don't show up prosecutors often have to drop charges, he said. Sometimes if children are able and willing to cooperate, it helps avoid a trial because both parents don't want their children to have to testify, Lowe said.

Lowe has added domestic violence to the felony diversion program, which he said helps when a victim wants the abuser to get treatment instead of a conviction.

Diversion requires defendants to admit they committed an act of domestic violence, participate in treatment and stay out of trouble.

If they complete the program, the case is dropped.

If they don't complete the program, the case goes back to prosecutors with stipulated facts, meaning the defendant already has admitted guilt and a trial isn't required, Lowe said.

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