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Break the Silence on Domestic Violence

New America Media, Commentary, Earl Ofari Hutchinson Posted: Nov 19, 2009

The pattern in the shocking murder of Flor Medrano in Mid-City Los Angeles was all too familiar. There was long-term abuse by her sometime boyfriend. The abuse included verbal and physical assaults and accusations of rape.

Finally Medrano, fearing for her life and that of her three-year-old daughter, filed a domestic violence complaint with authorities. Police diligently searched for her boyfriend, monitored her apartment, and even called in experts to counsel her on getting a restraining order and going to a shelter.

It didnt save her life. Medranos boyfriend-victimizer slipped into the apartment and murdered her.

The murder was yet another wake-up call, not only on the widespread problem and danger of domestic violence, but on what many victims of domestic violence will and wont do to stop it.

Medrano did the right thing when she filed the domestic violence complaint with police. But as the tragic chain of events showed, she took action only after apparently many threats and sexual and physical attacks. Experts say that domestic violence abusers, driven by frustration, rage and compulsion, often find ways to evade authorities and strike back at their victims. However, the refusal or reluctance of victims to speak out places them at even greater risk, even, as with the Medrano, the risk of death.

According to Bureau of Justice figures, more than three women are murdered by their husbands, ex-husbands or boyfriends every day in America. Thousands more women are injured, beaten, maimed or sexually assaulted in domestic violence attacks. The overwhelming majority of the attacks occur in their home. Domestic violence has had a devastating impact on health care services. It has cost companies nearly $100 million a year in lost employee work time, overtaxed psychological treatment and counseling services. It has also strained the resources of domestic violence shelters. Surveys show that most women rank domestic violence at or near the top of their list of concerns, and womens organizations have made the fight against domestic violence a major public awareness and legislative priority.

While it has paid off in greater public awareness and resources, the problem is still shrouded in myth and victim blame. Many believe that most domestic violence victims are poor and minority women. This is a myth. Domestic violence cuts across all races, income and education groups.

There is the still the prevalent notion that the victims of domestic violence bear some responsibility for the abuse: If the abuse was so bad, why didnt they just leave? The answer is not simple. Medrano, for instance, was counseled to file a restraining order and seek shelter protection. She declined and the reasons she did are probably complex and varied. Theres the daunting problem of finding affordable childcare, the cost and time of relocating, and work disruption. The reality is that even if a victim can just pack up and leave, a domestic shelter is at best a stopgap measure. She would still face the problem of work, relocation, and childcare expenses.

Many women have little confidence that living in a shelter or filing a restraining order will be enough to stop future attacks from their ex-partners.

Still, courts, the police, and public and health officials consider domestic violence as a crime, a health issue, and a compelling criminal justice problem. The Medrano case was a good example. The LAPD encouraged her to file a domestic violence complaint, made a diligent search for her boyfriend, assigned officers to monitor her residence, and counseled her to file a restraining order and go to a shelter.

In the past, that likely would not have happened. Yet there are still problems. In 2000, the California legislature strengthened the laws on domestic violence. The new laws require police to investigate, offer protection, make arrests, offer housing relocation money, and provide counseling about shelters and other protective services, including providing domestic violence complaint forms in languages other than English.

The flaw is that the decision to prosecute domestic violence cases is still up to district attorneys. Funds for counseling, treatment, and shelter space are still strained, and outreach efforts to inform victims of their rights and resources are hardly uniform in all counties. Womens groups still loudly complain that some police agencies still slough off complaints from victims.

A zero tolerance policy by police, public officials and the courts is crucial in the fight against domestic violence. But it still starts with victims who are willing to break their silence on domestic violence.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.

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