Protection for all?

by Christina Warner

 “I no longer knew how dead I was becoming inside. I was going through the motions but I no longer had life.”

Jason Stitt/

This is how Silvia* described her 12 years of abuse in her home. As an undocumented mother in the United States, she felt unable to fill out the required paperwork and police reports to seek protection from her husband for her and her children. Instead, she turned to West Coast MCC’s Victim Service Collaborative, an alternative option for legal assistance and emergency services.

Silvia’s experience is unique because of her gender, immigration status and cultural history. However, her story of feeling trapped inside abusive situations crosses all social boundaries. Abuse is a shared experience of 25 percent of women in the United States, a symptom of an existing system of dominance over women.

Policy responses to domestic abuse

Federal policy began to address the prevalence of domestic violence as recently as 1984, with the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA). It is still the largest source of funding for services for victims and their children.

In 1994, Congress also passed into law the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) which further strengthened services for victims and created new roles for law enforcement and the criminal justice system in responding to abuse. These laws reflect the changing awareness of domestic violence within U.S. society. During the 1970s, women experiencing abuse and their allies spoke out against violence in the home. These women began the important work of making clear that violence at the hand of one’s husband or partner is abuse and must be condemned.

As an example of the importance of defining terms, it was not until the late 1970s that forced intercourse between husband and wife was defined nationwide as rape. The consequences for an abuser in marriage were not nearly as pronounced as they are now.

As victims come forward, society is held accountable for the power dynamics that allow abuse to happen behind closed doors. Both FVPSA and VAWA were landmark events in response to change.

VAWA, the criminal justice system and African American women

Because of their gender, men often experience privilege. But this privilege can change if the man is African American or Hispanic. For example, African American men in the United States have a 1 in 3 chance of being incarcerated at some point in life, Latino men a 1 in 6 chance, and white men a 1 in 17 chance. These rates of incarceration are not indicative of increased violence in African American or Latino communities.

Rather, they reflect the impact of punitive drug enforcement laws passed in the 1980s. Although all races use drugs at similar rates, African American men in particular are more likely to be arrested, sentenced and incarcerated for drug offenses. The result has been a staggering 500 percent increase in the U.S. prison population since 1981, disproportionately affecting communities of color and communities experiencing poverty.

As long as African American women and men are defined by racial stereotypes and targeted for racial profiling by the criminal justice system, U.S. society will fail to recognize what domestic violence means for these communities. This contributes to greater underreporting of abuse in African American communities. “For every African American/Black woman that reports her rape, at least 15 African American/Black women do not report theirs” (Women of Color Network).

Since 2000 VAWA has implemented “pro-arrest” policies in response to domestic violence calls, encouraging police responders to use arrest as a tool to separate partners. Pro-arrest policies deter women from reporting abuse. African American women are also more likely to be arrested along with their partner, compared to white women who report abuse to the police.

African American women are currently the fastest growing population in the criminal justice system, increasing their chances of being abused. In 2004 the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics stated that “allegations of staff sexual misconduct were made in all but one state prison and in 41 percent of local and private jails and prisons.”

Their children are also more likely to end up in foster care. States are authorized to begin adoption proceedings for children who have been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months. More than 60 percent of currently incarcerated mothers are expected to serve more than 24 months on their sentences. Should a woman who calls the police for assistance in abusive situations be arrested and consequently incarcerated, she may be at greater risk of losing her children altogether.

For these reasons, instead of turning to the criminal justice system African American women are more likely to turn to faith communities or services not typically supported through federal policies like FVPSA or VAWA.

The criminal justice system and Native American women

Far from being targeted by the criminal justice system, Native American women face a severe lack of services and law enforcement capacity in Indian country. The origins of prevalent sexual violence in Native communities can be traced to the history of colonization by European communities, when assimilation policies removed women from their traditional roles of honor and shared power and forced them into subordination.

Native women experience higher rates of violence than any other population. Although one in three Native women will be abused during her lifetime, only one in four reports of sexual abuse are investigated.

While other women are most likely to be abused by someone from the same racial/ethnic background, Native women are more likely to be abused by a non-Native man. This is a reflection of all violent crime committed on Native land, where 88 percent of violent crimes are committed by non-Natives.

Since 1978, tribes have had no authority to prosecute non-Natives for crimes committed on Native land. This means that nine out of ten times, tribes have no authority to protect Native women who are abused and instead must turn outside of the criminal justice system to tools like enhanced protection orders.

Necessary policy changes

Although women from all back-grounds and identities are at risk of abuse, like Silvia not all women have similar access to protection.

Just as both people and policy needed to learn that violence at the hand of a husband was abuse of his wife, now people and policy must learn that racialized stereotypes must not get in the way of addressing abuse with respect to the needs of victims. As VAWA and FVPSA are reauthorized, funding must be set aside specifically for underserved communities and the services they seek to leave abuse.

Policies must also recognize the racialized targeting by the criminal justice system for what it is: abuse.

Should arrest be encouraged as a tool to respond to domestic violence, it must be coupled with increased training for officers on the consequences of arrest. Training should include culturally and linguistically appropriate content.

Legislation must take into account not only the power dynamics in in-dividual abusive situations, but also broader power dynamics which cause entire people groups to be more vulnerable to abuse and its consequences.

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