Her face was bleeding when police officers responded to her call for help, but she wouldn't open the door to let them inside.

Officers forced their way into the Duluth woman's home, fearing for her safety.

She had called 911 that spring night in 2017, saying she had been assaulted, but she would not say by whom. Fresh bruises lined her arm and face, and a trail of dried blood ran from the top of her nose.

She told police she fell, that she did this to herself.

The officer who sat down with her thought she was covering for her partner. She was reluctant to talk about him because he provided critical necessities: a place to live and food. She said he had already left town, something he usually does when she calls the police. She then shared a story of the time he snapped the neck of her cat and threw it outside.

Several times the officer was close to getting a statement from her, "but she was never able to take that final step forward," he wrote.

The officer referred the woman to Safe Haven and called the domestic violence shelter himself. But he didn't have enough to charge the man with a crime.

Her case is just one of many showing the burden domestic assault victims carry in holding their abusers accountable.

On average, a victim will leave an abusive relationship seven times before leaving for good, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Enduring a court procedure and testifying in front of the abuser, advocates say, can be just as hard. That's why victims of domestic violence so often take back their abuse reports or refuse to take part in the legal process.

"Most victims in domestic violence cases across the country recant their testimony," said Scott Miller, interim executive director of the Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs. "It's just the landscape."

Miller, who is called to be an expert witness in domestic assault cases to explain victim behavior, said he's seen "so many victims fight the prosecution because they are afraid of what the consequences are going to be to them when he gets out. He's not going away for life."

Recantation can have "stunning consequences," said Safia Kahn, who specializes in criminal justice system advocacy for the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women. Typically, "prosecutors won't even charge those out," she said.

It's also hard to obtain a conviction when victims refuse to testify, one of the many reasons for case dismissals and low conviction rates for the crime of domestic assault.

"In my first 10 years here I could count on one hand the number of victims willing to testify," said Mary Asmus, a criminal prosecutor for the Duluth City Attorney's Office.

The judicial system doesn't account for the power dynamics in a relationship where one person is in control of the other, she said.

"It presumes people are all free agents not unduly influenced by anybody else," Asmus explained. "It's just the exact opposite of what domestic violence is like."

Sometimes defendants hide, which draws out the process. Warrants are issued at a high rate in misdemeanor domestic assault cases, and the older a case gets, "the harder it is for a victim to hang on" and participate, Asmus said.

Safe Haven's resource center and shelter assists the majority of the area's domestic violence victims. The reasons behind recantation are often layered, said Heather Drees, manager of the resource center and legal advocacy supervisor.

"They call police because they need it at that moment," she said. "Then they have this reprieve - 24 to 48 hours when the abuser is in jail waiting for arraignment, most likely to be released."

During that period a victim tries to figure out a next step, a plan to stay safe. If victims are tied to abusers in multiple ways, whether it's housing or child care or something that could interfere with a job, they may feel stuck.

Backing out of the legal process, Drees said, "may feel like the best thing they can do at that point to maintain their basic needs."

Those issues also help explain why a woman might struggle to leave an abusive relationship.

Poverty, chemical dependency and mental health issues can also be a part of it, said Susan Utech, executive director of Safe Haven. So can history, loyalty and love, despite abuse. But people do leave, she said, and more understanding of domestic abuse and the controlling dynamic between an abusive person and their partner would help dispel stereotypes and help prevent abuse.

Dress said the conversation should be about why the abuser abuses, not why the victim didn't leave.

"Why is it all on her?"

 

Editor's note: The News Tribune is not naming the woman in the police report because the newspaper typically does not identify victims of domestic violence.

 

How to get help:

Safe Haven Shelter and Resource Center

  • 414 W. First St. (resource center)
  • (218) 623-1000 (resource center)
  • (218) 728-6481 (shelter)

 

Dabinoo 'Igan, an emergency domestic violence shelter

  • (218) 722-2247

National Domestic Violence Hotline

911 for emergencies