Each month I attend a Model Court Training session dedicated to a topic of interest to those working with families in juvenile court. Yesterday’s topic was domestic violence and covered such things as how it impacts CINA cases, and also tips for attorneys working with these families. The focus was on helping victims—usually the moms. They really had no tips for attorneys representing dads who were the (alleged) abusers. It occurred to me that when we focus only on the victims, we are always in reactive mode. What if we could shift to a more proactive perspective and try to either stop domestic violence before it happens or at least prevent it from happening again? That, of course, is much harder, but it would also be much more effective.

The first problem is that we aren’t always “diagnosing” the problem accurately.

When someone is arrested the first time for an OWI, we don’t assume the individual has a substance abuse disorder. We instead ask for an assessment. It’s possible the person has a disorder, of course, but it is also possible that this was a one-time event where they drank more than they usually did, misjudged their level of impairment, and got “caught.” But unless there is an assessment done by a professional trained in this type of evaluation, we don’t know which it is. It’s only after the assessment is done that we decide what the treatment/consequence should be.

But with domestic violence, we really only look at two factors: was there violence, and were the parties in an intimate/family relationship? If the answer to those two questions is yes, then it’s domestic violence.

But that might not be true. And if it’s not true, then not only are we giving someone an incorrect (and harmful) label, but we’re not treating the problem correctly. Let me give you two examples from cases I’ve worked on (details changed, of course, to protect identity).

In the first case. Steve and Sarah have a daughter, Cassie, together. Steve does not allow Sarah to work, insisting instead that she stay home and raise Cassie. Because Sarah is not working, she has no income of her own. Steve gives her money for the household and for spending, but she does not have access to that money herself. Further, she must account for every penny she spends from that “allowance.” Sarah has a car, but Steve closely monitors the mileage; he also insists on monitoring her cell phone calls and texts, explaining that he “loves her so much” that he just “couldn’t stand it” if she was seeing someone else. He argues that if she has nothing to hide, she won’t mind if he checks. They’re married after all, and shouldn’t have any secrets.

Steve also tells Sarah that if she tries to leave him, he will take Cassie, and Sarah will never see the little girl again. To demonstrate his ability to do this, Sarah tells about a time when they went to the grocery store. Cassie was asleep in her car seat, so rather than wake her, Steve suggests Sarah go in alone. Steve seems relaxed, and the couple has been getting along, so Sarah agrees.

When she comes out, the truck is gone. Sarah is immediately gripped by an unimaginable terror. She frantically looks around for the truck, and shortly thereafter, Steve pulls up, laughing. He’s made his point. He could run with Cassie at any time. And if Sarah reports what he just did, he will just say that she “forgot where he was parked,” or, that he “moved the truck so Cassie would be in the shade.” His explanation is completely logical, but also completely false.

Sarah reports that Steve pinches her if she’s not doing what he wants, but otherwise there’s no physical violence.

In the second case, Andrew and Jessica have been married for ten years. It’s a second marriage for both, and Jessica has two teenagers from a previous marriage who live with her. Andrew has no previous children, although his first wife also had two teenaged kids. Andrew and Jessica have two children together. Both of his wives’ children have had fairly significant issues: his first stepdaughter ran away from home with her boyfriend when she was 15-years-old. His current stepson has mental health and behavioral issues that resulted in inpatient psychiatric treatment, as well as outpatient counseling. This occurred both before and after Andrew and Jessica met and married. Andrew and Jessica are in their late 40’s; there has never been any allegation of domestic violence against Andrew by anyone.

Both Andrew and Jessica have full-time jobs. In addition to their joint checking account, they each have their own bank account that is not monitored by the other. Both have a vehicle and a cell-phone, but the other party does not monitor that. Both are free to travel to visit family or friends.

Andrew has a high-stress, dangerous job. Jessica has a chronic illness that periodically results in her missing work and being bedridden. At the time of the event described below, Andrew was working a fair amount of overtime. His beloved dog that had been with him for years was dying of cancer. Jessica was having a “flare-up” of her disease and was unable to do anything around the house; she was also unable to properly oversee the two younger children, and was leaving it to the older ones to care for them until Andrew got home.

When he arrived home on this particular evening, an issue came up regarding the behavior of his stepson. The stepdaughter reacted the way teenagers often do—she “mouthed off.” And that was all it took. Because of everything else going on in Andrew’s life, his “emotional bandwidth” was stretched too thin, and he pushed her down—onto the couch. He does not deny this. She claimed he “choked her.” He does deny this, but notes that because of her height, it’s entirely possible that he pushed her in the area of her sternum. There were no marks on her that would support her story of being choked.

At that point, Jessica came into the room, barreling into Andrew to “stop him.” He pushed her off of him, and she lost her balance, falling to the floor. She also did not suffer any injuries and had no marks. She left with the kids, and he did not pursue her, and he ultimately filed for divorce. There was no additional violence, even when she moved out. There was no additional violence when she immediately found a new  (albeit temporary) partner.

Both of the cases were deemed to be domestic violence. But were they? If not, which one was domestic violence and which one wasn’t?

Domestic violence is generally seen as a play for “power and control.” Violence is simply the tool used to achieve that power and control. It’s characterized by such things as preventing the victim from having access to money, family, and friends. She (and it is overwhelmingly a “she”) may be prevented from working (which is different from a decision made together for her to stay home to raise the children). He may refuse to let her visit family and friends without him.

All of these things are clearly present in the first case, but not the second case. Yet the “violence” was much less in the first than the second, especially if you believe the “choking” allegation. It’s important to remember, however, that because it’s about control (and not violence), domestic violence abusers will only use the level of violence necessary to control the victim. If pinching controls her, he doesn’t need to hit, push, choke, or kick her. It’s only when the victim begins to resist control that the violence will escalate.[1]

Too often, abusers are sent to “anger management” class. But because domestic violence is really about control, this isn’t effective. Most abusers know how to manage their anger; they don’t abuse their boss, their golfing buddy, etc. They can present to the rest of the world as a laid-back, reasonable guy. In other words, they “manage” their anger very well. What they need is batterer’s education.

In the case above, Andrew had no history of trying to control either his first or second wife. And there was no “minor” violence that gradually escalated into pushing or choking. In other words, although there was violence, and although it occurred within an intimate/family setting, it was really not domestic violence. It was simply an assault/battery that occurred against a family member/intimate partner. In Andrew’s case, he was sent to batterer’s education, when he may have actually needed anger management (though even that’s debatable; it’s possible it was a situational, one-time event).

But if abusers try to protest that they don’t belong in batterer’s education, they are told they are not “taking ownership” of their actions. Yet that wasn’t true in Andrew’s case; he fully acknowledged that what he did was wrong. He didn’t blame either his stepdaughter or his wife. He simply didn’t believe (probably correctly) that he was a batterer; he did not fit the “profile.” And if he is right about that, then batterer’s education was not going to help him. And anger management was not offered to him.

So was the class effective in preventing further violence? Or was Andrew given solutions to a problem that didn’t exist, while not receiving the information and tools that would have helped him in the future?

Don’t misunderstand—violence against a partner or family member is never ok. The point is, without proper “diagnosis” (i.e., is it domestic violence or is it a one-time assault against an intimate partner?), we can’t properly “treat” the problem. And until we start correctly assessing, diagnosing, and treating the real problem, we’re not going to solve it.

Which means we’re stuck in reactive mode by focusing only on the victim.


[1] This is why the most dangerous time for a woman is when she tries to leave. Leaving is the ultimate loss of control for an abuser, which is why he will resort to the ultimate level of violence—murder.

Is it Really Domestic Violence?