According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During a single year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men.
The coalition states that “1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner contact sexual violence, and/or intimate partner stalking with impacts such as injury, fearfulness, post-traumatic stress disorder, use of victim services, contraction of sexually transmitted diseases, etc.”
These are frightening numbers, and depressing to consider. As a result of this breakdown in civility, one in 15 children is exposed to intimate partner violence each year, and 90% of those children are eyewitnesses to this violence.
October is National Domestic Violence Month, a time to be reminded that we have unfinished business in our nation and our community. The financial costs due to lost work days is in the billions, and the psychological costs are incalculable. Despite our best intentions, the problem of domestic violence is not going away.
Despite our reputation for being “Minnesota nice,” we have the same issues here that impact marriages elsewhere. When push comes to shove and leads to a divorce, there are many issues that make abuse a challenge, both for the victims and for the legal system. Disbelieving judges, expensive legal fees, and never-ending litigation are just three of the challenges.
Another complication that many women are unaware of is that there are different courts in which actions take place. Divorce takes place in family court, battering is a criminal matter addressed in criminal court, and cases with children involved may end up in juvenile court.
Criminal cases involve district attorneys. Frequently, DAs would rather plea bargain. Often, these cases are delegated, and the representative may or may not be well-informed about what is going on. Sometimes there are even different judges between hearings. All these factors complicate these kinds of cases. The onus is on victims to prove they are being threatened. In the end, penalties can be small for abusers.
To add insult to injury, in family court, disbelieving judges may question motives for taking a batterer to court, seeing it as an attempt to gain moral high ground in a coming custody case.
The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has put out a useful resource titled “Managing Your Divorce: A Guide for Battered Women.” Though written to help women attempting to represent themselves, it strongly recommends getting an attorney. It’s also important to recognize that legal processes vary state to state, and Minnesota has its own unique procedures. The more at stake, the less you can afford to take chances. As the document notes, “Battered women have spoken repeatedly about the loss of custody as the greatest threat in their lives, saying it is more painful than the physical violence they have suffered.”
Domestic violence is a horror no one should have to live with.
Jessica Sterle is a family law attorney in Duluth.