Monday, August 10, 2020
The Violence Against Women's Act was pursued by well-intentioned advocates. Much good has come from the funding that accompanied the act's passage. Funded domestic violence shelters and other services for those experiencing intimate partner abuse has provided options to survivors and their children. From the beginning, however, there were serious flaws in the act. But those were not significant enough for advocates to abandon their advocacy.
Women of color were mostly excluded from the VAWA drafting process. If they had been, they would have raised objections to the stream of funding being primarily to and through the police. Advocates quickly assessed the error of the overwhelming role that law enforcement was assigned under VAWA. The act presumes that the criminal system - law enforcement and prosecutors - is entitled to lead anti intimate partner abuse efforts. How wrong that presumption is.
Had women of color, particularly Native and African American women, been guiding VAWA's development, they would have cautioned about the risks of criminal law involvement. Certainly there are times when victims are safe only when the abusive partner is confined. But many downsides can result from survivors' participation in the criminal system. Survivors complain of not having control over the criminal process. When survivors do not wish to pursue charges, they can be subpoenaed or held in contempt. In one case, the survivor was arrested for contempt for failing to appear at a scheduled hearing. Ultimately the prosecution decided that even with the survivor's testimony they did not have sufficient evidence to prosecute. The survivor ended up with an arrest record for a case the prosecution never pursued.
Further detrimental consequences from the criminal system abound. Cooperation with police can be dangerous to survivors who fear and suffer worse abuse because of their cooperation. Survivors suffering from PTSD or other mental health disorders may not have capacity to testify without suffering further health consequences. Mothers, particularly women of color, may lose custody of their children to the state or to the abuser for "failing to protect" them from an abuser over whom the mother has no control. The arrested abusive partner may not be able to find work, even after an acquittal. With a conviction, employment may be even more difficult to obtain, leaving the the survivor and children financially desperate.
Drastically reducing funding to the criminal system and shifting those funds to civil services can provide what victims decide they need. This could include permanent, safe housing and financial support until survivors can be self-sufficient; mental health resources for survivors and their children. With a shift in funding, survivors could design their own restorative plans for them, their children and even their abusers if they desire.
For critical thinking on the criminal legal system and it's sideways direction in domestic violence cases, I suggest reading Leigh Goodmark's book "decriminalizing Domestic Violence".