Law Enforcement Bulletin

Sign up for newsletters and other news
Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > December 2014 > Don’t Give Up: Assisting the Reluctant Domestic Violence Victim

Law Enforcement Bulletin RSS feeds

Don’t Give Up: Assisting the Reluctant Domestic Violence Victim

He remembers the day the police came to his house after his dad beat his mom. The officers told his dad to leave and cool down. At only eight-years-old, he remembers wondering how he was going to protect his family when the police left. That day he decided to become a cop.
And Annie Murray remembers him. Murray, director of the domestic violence and stalking unit at the Columbus City Attorney’s Office, heard this story from one of the police recruits she taught in her class on domestic violence. “In every class we have several recruits inform us, sometimes in front of the class, but usually in private, that they are survivors [of domestic violence],” she said.
For many victims, domestic violence leads to personal shame, destroys hope, and fosters a sense of worthlessness. It becomes a trap, a lifestyle like a broken record constantly skipping over the same track.
Law enforcement officers who have witnessed the cycle of domestic violence may often wonder why someone would stay in a relationship that perpetuates that cycle. “It is so easy to be frustrated with the victim if you don’t understand where they are in the cycle,” stated Sandy Huntzinger, victim services coordinator with the Ohio Attorney General’s Crime Victim Services Section.
That’s why it’s hard to understand how a battered victim can go from begging for your help to recanting — from “please help me,” to “it was my fault, don’t arrest him,” right in front of you. It makes you wonder why they called in the first place if they don’t want your help. Huntzinger suggests that it is because the victim sees that 911 call differently than you. “When law enforcement is called out on domestic violence, their job is to make an arrest. The victim, however, may be looking for intervention from the officers, not removal of the abuser,” she explains.  In other words, law enforcement tries to prevent future crime, but the victim is more focused on ending the violence at that moment.   
A common question raised is why do victims stay in abusive relationships? Amanda*, a victim of domestic violence shared, “There is apparently a common thought that those who are abused stay because they are ‘in love’. [Victims] take a lot of blame from others for the abuse — being [thought of as] ‘stupid’ or ‘weak’ because they didn’t leave.”
Amanda was a victim of both mental and physical abuse. She stayed “because he slowly and passively broke me down, isolated me before the violence, and threatened my well-being and those closest to me. By the time I realized the trouble I was in, I saw no safe way out.” Amanda is the kind of person one might expect to leave. She is a young professional, financially independent, and has no children depending on her to stay. She still found it difficult to leave.
By contrast, many victims are financially dependent on their abusers or terrified for their children. Victims with little money may not have a place to go or a way to sustain their family. When this happens, the prospect of the abuser going to jail — and losing the financial support the victim needs — can be more intimidating than staying with the abuser. “When the partner goes to jail, it disrupts the victim’s life, impacting things like finances, transportation, and child care,” stated Huntzinger.
Law enforcement officers are not social workers and can’t make every victim see that he or she should leave. But you can choose not to give up on any of them, no matter how many times they recant or go back to their abuser. Whether or not you can make an arrest, there are several ways to help victims.
First, let the victim know there are people on the outside paying attention. It may be that the interview is the only time the victim tells the story, making you the only person to ever hear it. “Of course, law enforcement officers are not psychologists or counselors, but sometimes they are the only outside contact an abused person might have to get help,” said Amanda.
Huntzinger shared that one of the officers she regularly works with “tells the perpetrator, in front of the victim, that he believes the perpetrator did in fact harm the victim. Then he tells the victim, in front of the perpetrator, that they don’t deserve to be treated in that manner.”  By making a statement like this, it reinforces that someone on the outside does care.
Second, ask probing questions when talking to the victim. “Remember, the victim may be at the peak of trauma when you arrive and is unable to clearly articulate what happened,” said Huntzinger. “Give time for the context of the situation to be revealed.” Asking more questions of the victim also sends a message to the abuser that you are interested in finding out more. Even though an arrest may not happen that particular day, they are put on notice you are watching.
Third, involve a victim advocate. “It is an advocate’s job to be the social worker, connect the victim to resources, help develop a safety plan, and figure out where the victim is in the process,” shared Huntzinger. Every county has a victim witness advocate program. Get business cards from advocates and pass them out to victims. Even if they are not ready to call, they’ll have the number when they are. “The sooner a victim works with a victim advocate, the faster they can get out of the cycle of abuse,” added Murray.
Lastly, get trained about domestic violence (DV). Staying up-to-date on legal changes, tactical response, and resources available in the community will help you protect yourself and provide assistance to a victim. By understanding the cycle of violence and providing resources for assistance, you could save a life.
As law enforcement, just by showing up you may be a victim’s best hope for survival. Murray recalled when one recruit came up after training and told her, “You guys put my dad in jail for DV. That gave me and my mom time to get away. You saved me.”   
Written by:
Jennifer Anne Adair
Deputy General Counsel for Law Enforcement Initiatives