Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Domestic Violence Now

When I was trying to decide what to write about for Echidne during this week, I happened to stumble across this short article, from the Boston Globe. There is very little in the article that isn’t essentially good news. It details how Massachusetts legislators are talking about passing tougher domestic violence laws, in response to a new report:

A report released Friday by the Legislature's Public Safety Committee called on officials to find better ways to assess how potentially dangerous an abuser might be and to create a statewide notification system for victims if abusers are released from custody.

These would both be good things—actually, I was a little bit shocked to realize that the state isn’t already notifying battered women when their abusers are released from custody.

Nonetheless, the article left me vaguely irked. And on reflection, the source of my irritation is the same as that of my surprise at the nature of the suggested changes. That is, I’m so frustrated that this is still where we are. We’re still passing laws intended to keep women from being killed. (Or, Massachusetts is. As the article notes, Massachusetts already has relatively strong laws in this area, since it’s recognized the basic concept that not killing women = good.) Even the quote in the article from an activist against domestic violence rubbed me the wrong way:
Mary Lauby, executive director of Jane Doe Inc., an anti-domestic violence group, called the proposals "an important first step."
"Victims of domestic violence continue to be murdered," she said. "More than 10 children lost mothers in the past month. Where is the outrage?"
When she says “an important first step,” it still sounds to me like, “an important first step to helping women to stay alive.” She’s still focused—as are the proposals detailed in the article—on how we restrain batterers from committing acts of violence. When we talk about what happens after the violence, I don’t know.

I will be graduating from law school this June. For the past two years, I’ve spent 20 hours per week (more or less, and often much more) doing what is essentially pro bono work as a student attorney. While the organization that I worked with has several focus areas, I primarily handled family law cases for victims of domestic violence. I saw first-hand the aftereffects of violence—poverty, depression, trauma, and lengthy and intrusive court battles over everything possible—child support, custody, visitation—all used quite deliberately by batterers in order to make sure that their victims can’t move on. There are resources available for victims of domestic violence. There are social workers available through various hospitals in my area, for example. And Massachusetts has made huge (and relatively unique) reforms to the way that its Department of Social Services interacts with battered women when investigating accusations of child abuse or neglect (necessary since child abuse and woman abuse often occur in the same households and are perpetrated by, or arise indirectly from the actions of, the same men). There is the welfare system, complete with the nightmarish restrictions that the Clinton administration gave poor people when signing off on Welfare Reform in 1996 (interesting fact: also in 1996, Congress restricted Legal Services funding—which has historically been the backbone of poverty law litigation—so that, among other things, organizations receiving that funding couldn’t challenge the Welfare Reform rules). There are domestic violence shelters, which may begin to address the pressing need for housing that many women will experience on leaving their abusers—but shelters inevitably have time limits and limitations on available space and may not allow a woman’s male children over a certain age to stay there. It all amounts to something a lot better than nothing, but it doesn’t amount to enough, and we don’t talk about that often enough. Instead we talk about the 10 women who have been killed in the past month and because the immediacy of those deaths is so pressing we don’t talk about the many more women who are homeless, who are traumatized and depressed, who are fighting in court to keep their children and for the resources to support them.