The Role of the Courtroom in Combating Domestic Violence
The rhetoric surrounding the courtroom can be idealistic. The courtroom is supposed to be a symbol of justice, where every party has a fair opportunity to be heard. Yet the reality for survivors of domestic violence is far from this ideal. Survivors who have the strength to seek their day in court have already shown an incredible amount of strength and courage. They should be met with hope, encouragement, and assistance. But this is a goal yet to be achieved.
Survivors often feel unsafe walking into the courtroom. Not only are survivors at more risk after leaving their abuser, “[a]busers also use court appearances as opportunities to stalk and maintain contact with their ex-partners.” Survivors face an uphill battle in the courtroom. As Sara Ainsworth of Legal Voice stated, “[t]here’s an enormous bias against anyone making accusations [of abuse].”
Domestic violence survivors may end up in the courtroom for a variety of reasons, including seeking a protective order and child custody proceedings. Current law in Massachusetts governing domestic violence in custody proceedings falls far short of the protection society owes to survivors. First, the definition of abuse is narrow, only encompassing physical abuse. Specifically, Massachusetts General Laws Section 31A defines abuse as “(a) attempting to cause or causing bodily injury; or (b) placing another in reasonable fear of imminent bodily injury.” The statute further states that either a pattern of abuse or a ‘serious incident’ of abuse (defined as “(a) attempting to cause or causing serious bodily injury; (b) placing another in reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury; or (c) causing another to engage involuntarily in sexual relations by force, threat or duress”), triggers a rebuttable presumption that granting the abuser sole or shared custody is not in the best interest of the child. The presumption is triggered by a preponderance of the evidence, and can be rebutted by a preponderance of the evidence. A past or current protective order does not automatically trigger the presumption.
Further, while the facts that brought about a protective order can be admissible, protective orders themselves cannot be admitted as evidence of abuse. This means that even if a survivor has succeeded in protecting herself and her child(ren) by obtaining a protective order, she will not automatically get custody of her children. She will have to face her abuser again in the courtroom, and will have to prove once again that abuse has occurred. Further, even if there was extensive verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse, the presumption against custody will not be triggered.
In addition to dealing with statutes that do not adequately protect them, survivors must also deal with judges who may not understand their experiences. In fact, women who are seeking protection for themselves and their children from an abuser are often met by similar behavior from judges. Domestic abuse is often described with what is termed the ‘Power and Control Wheel.’ The wheel describes that variety of ways abusers use their power to manipulate and control their victims. The Texas Council on Family Violence created a power and control wheel that describes the ways judges also reinforce women’s entrapment.
The role of the court in protecting domestic survivors must extend beyond equitable orders. It is an unfortunate truth that sexism is still a very real reality in the courtroom. Moreover, many judges do not understand the dynamics of domestic violence, and do not handle custody disputes with the appropriate sensitivity to domestic abuse, even if they are statutorily required to do so. Judges have the opportunity to empower victims, or to make them feel even less in control.
The idea that judges can play a positive role in protecting domestic abuse survivors is not new. In 1999, The Northeastern University Press published an article titled “Battered Women in the Courtroom: The Power of Judicial Responses.” The article lists multiple ways judges can support survivors: supportive judicial demeanor; take the violence seriously; make the court hospitable; prioritize women’s safety; address the economic aspects of battering; focus on the needs of children; enforce orders and impose sanctions on violent men; and connect women with resources. Specific recommendations targeted sexism during proceedings, including “refusing to joke and bond with violent men”; “talking with battered women rather than around them”; “correcting institutional bias in favor of men”; and “eschewing bureaucratic/perfunctory or hostile attitudes toward victims and casual or collusive attitudes with batterers.”
The article identified five types of judicial demeanor in hearings for protective orders: 1) good-natured; 2) bureaucratic; 3) firm or formal; 4) condescending; and 5) harsh. Interestingly, “[t]here types . . . were demonstrated toward violent men[:] [f]irm or formal, bureaucratic and good-natured. Most judges were good-natured with women and firm with violent men. Condescending and harsh demeanor was not directed toward violent men.” (emphasis added). There is no excuse for the gender discrimination revealed by this study.
While this study is dated, women still face judges who are hostile toward domestic violence survivors. Judges can make a difference by understanding that survivors can be overwhelmed in the courtroom; ensuring a the record is comprehensive; not blaming the victim; and having zero tolerance for violence and gender discrimination during proceedings.
Judges can be powerful role models by choosing to treat women with respect and taking the humble approach of recognizing their need to learn the dynamics of domestic abuse in order to be effective judges.
Boston University School of Law, class of 2018