Kristof Jumps the Gun

@NicholasKristof has done a terrific job using his platform at the @NYT, and his book Half the Sky (co-authored with his wife Sheryl WuDunn), to shine light on sex trafficking. This week he turned his attention to domestic violence.  While it’s thrilling to have such a powerful ally in our work to end partner violence, I fear he waded in this area without his typical level of knowledge. He interviewed a victim and compellingly related her story; he narrated realities about past and present challenges with law enforcement response; and he demanded that we must take notice. So far so good. But when he got to his closer, the action steps, one of them was to mandate batterers programs for all offenders.  After 20 years in the field, mandated batterers program would in no way be on my short list of what must be done. The research on batterers programs is less than promising.  Even when it has some effect on reducing recidivism, it is very clear that it is not equally effective for all offenders. But we send everyone there anyway.  When a powerful cultural presence like Nicholas Kristof says we should, we’ll continue to do so, even though it flies in the face of evidence. In a field that still lacks sufficient research, I implore our allies to be careful what they recommend. We need Nicholas Kristof, and influencers like him, to partner with us, to use their bullhorn to support the research that leads to evidence-based responses to this problem. Now that is something I would love to see on @NIcholasKristof’s short list!

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I Can’t Unlearn the New Verb “Upskirting”

The Massachussetts Supreme Court just ruled that a man who had taken secret cell phone photographs up the skirts of women in public places had not violated the state “peeping Tom” statute, because the women had no expectation of privacy in public places.  The ruling is wrong in so many ways. First, the expectation when one goes out into the world fully clothed is that only the part of your person that you have chosen to expose will be seen. Although framed by some as a gender-neutral law and ruling (CNN paraphrases thusly: Massachusetts’ highest court ruled Wednesday that it is not illegal to secretly photograph underneath a person’s clothing — a practice known as “upskirting”) that fact that it’s called “upskirting,” combined with the fact that we do not live in Scotland, makes it clear this is about the public availability of women’s bodies. Second, the ruling implies that unless women are duct-taped into their clothes, any body part that is discoverable is fair game. Other countries choose to “protect” women from such scrutiny by having them emerge in public space only when fully covered head to toe – surely, that is not what our legal or social structure suggests? Finally, the ruling presumes that women’s bodies are fair game for public consumption, unless explicitly in a private space. One Massachusetts prosecutor has already called for an amendment to the law to accommodate modern technology. They should amend the law – other states, including New York, have already closed this “legal loophole.” But I worry that it’s not just about the law, but the fact that we need a law to clearly define when women’s bodies are not available for others. As one reporter puts it “under most voyeurism laws, women must have a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy,’ which is difficult to prove when she is in public.” Again, the fact that it’s framed as a women’s issue, highlights the fact that apparently no one is taking pictures up the pant legs of men.  But why is hard to prove that a woman has a reasonable expectation of the privacy of her naked body when she has gone into the public space fully clothed?! Shouldn’t the presumption instead be our bodies are private, unless we say or clearly indicate otherwise?

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DV Prosecutors on Trial – Again

Prosecuting crimes is hard. Prosecuting crimes committed between dating or married people is really hard. Reading posts by non-professionals that blithely second guess those prosecutions, or the motives of the victims of the alleged crimes, is the hardest part of all.  The general public desperately needs to understand how our criminal justice system works; blog posts with catchy headlines that take pot shots don’t help. Aaargh.

On trial is whether prosecutors should compel victims of partner violence and/or rape to participate in prosecutions of their abusers against their will. The most recent case in question concerns the alleged kidnapping of a woman in Cowlitz County, Washington, by her ex-boyfriend, who assaulted her over two days then allegedly forced her to perform oral sex on another man. Not only that, the defendant has 10 prior felony convictions, and is on the state’s sex offender registry. I think we’d all agree, it would be great if this man could be tried and hopefully convicted.

The victim in the case missed some pre-trial meetings with prosecutors, and her desire to participate in the prosecution is up for debate (victim’s attorney says she wanted to participate; prosecutor says she missed meetings and did not respond to outreach – she is homeless),  so the prosecutor used a material witness warrant to make her come in.  The warrant included jailing her overnight.  Awful, I know. Whatever this victim’s position, it is common for victims of brutal assaults by their partners or former partners to refuse to participate in the prosecution, for a host of logical and legitimate reasons. Some of the reasons I have heard as a victim advocate and attorney is that the victim does not want to participate because she is scared of possible retribution; she doesn’t have cab/subway/bus fare; she didn’t get the prosecutors’  messages; she thinks she’ll be safer showing her ex-boyfriend that she’s  not participating; she wants to forget the whole thing ever happened; and even if she risk taking the stand, the perpetrator might not be convicted and/or might not do much time. Despite these real and understandable positions, the absence of the victim of the crime makes it much harder for prosecutors to hold the people who commit these atrocities accountable. As a terrific prosecutor colleague of mine puts it, this the Hard Part.  There are enumerable reasons NOT to force a victim to testify in a criminal prosecution BUT a prosecutor is sworn to uphold public safety, and not prosecuting means this  victim, and well as probable future victims, will be at risk. What to do?

Prosecutors’ ability to use legal tools to force victims of sexual and/or domestic assault to participate in trials is often rightly opposed by victim advocates. I often oppose it. It should never be an automatic tool; there are too many reasons it is wrong. Victims lose trust in the criminal justice system and the community they need to have supporting them; victims are re-victimized and re-traumatized; and important relationships among victims, citizens, prosecution and community are threatened.  Thing is, if on rare occasions when the defendant has committed a particularly egregious act and prosecutors are facing the dropping of a case for lack of other evidence, the offenders might go on to hurt that same victim, or another one.

Good, empathetic, “victim-centric” prosecutors (meaning those that think through issues of victim autonomy carefully) sometimes use these tools, and poor prosecutors (meaning those that just drop cases with difficult victims because they won’t get a ‘win’) often don’t. Therefore, their occasional use are not necessarily litmus tests for caring about victims. In @Jezebel, @Rebecca Rose is outraged at the Washington prosecutor’s approach. She writes, accurately, about how difficult it can be for a victim of such an assault to appear when and where the prosecutor asks her to. But then Rose simply throws up her hands at the apparent brutality and ignorance of the prosecutor. She writes “there’s a sensitivity chip missing in the brains of each and every person involved with this decision. Although I share her shock, given that even defense counsel says he has never seen a material witness warrant used for this kind of case indicates to me at least that the prosecutor thought long and hard about using this coercive technique, perhaps even considered its use with empathy.

@AmandaMarcotte of @Slate’s @XXFactor picks up here, framing the debate as a choice between victim’s wishes vs. prosecution of bad guys. She gets part of that right too, but it’s not as simple as she makes it out either. Different victims want different things; most want their abusers not to hurt them or anyone else again. What they can do to help make that happen varies.  Marcotte references research conducted by Amy Bonomi, to state that a victim’s lack of participation in a prosecution (note that I use the less judgment ‘participation in prosecution’ not ‘cooperation in prosecution’ because language matters) is not usually due to actual, explicit threats from their partners, but due to “their relationship with the abuser.” The research she cites actually draws a more complex conclusion. Bonami reviewed jail house calls from inmates to the partners they were accused of abusing and finds that the inmates use a complex strategy of psychological manipulation to convince their partners not to participate in their prosecution. I have listened to these kinds of calls; they’re compelling and completely coercive in the way the toggle between pleading, cajoling, threatening, and guilt-tripping. The defendant’s mom and attorney have spoken with the victim in this case – the prosecutor should consider reviewing the jailhouse calls, if there are any – they can be a gold mine. But even given the defendant’s skill in persuading his victim not to testify, is arresting the victim and forcing her participation the right solution?

So the Hard Part is how can a person sworn to defend public safety not do everything within her/his power to go after a guy like the defendant in this case? To find a just compromise between personal and public safety, sometimes prosecutors use subpoenas or material witness warrants with victims, not because they do not care about their well being, but because they do. Sometime the victim is adamant about having no role in the trial, but when there’s a warrant, she can honestly say to her partner that the prosecutor made her do it. There are also more compassionate ways to implement these warrants: send a social worker with the arresting officer to support the victim, and explain what is happening. Avoid the use of handcuffs. Prosecutors have told me that some victims have thanked them afterwards for going forward with the trial; others have always resented it, and never gave useful testimony. It’s hard to know which way a case will go, but it’s downright impossible for a blogger to know.  Bottom line: it’s not an easy judgment call.

I don’t know the people involved in this case, and I hope the prosecutor made the decision to use a material witness warrant with all appropriate concern and consideration. But it helps no one to attack one side or the other from the comfort of a keyboard. The @Marcotte position ends up criticizing the victim for being frustrating, and @Rose assumes that the prosecutor was too lazy to make a few phone calls. The reality is much more complicated, and by not discussing the complexity, we lose an opportunity to make it simpler. Victims of these crimes should get justice, but our current criminal courts make that very hard to achieve. That problem is something we should talk about and explain, so that it does not seem like crime victims are pitted against the public prosecutors sworn to protect them. They shouldn’t be, and they don’t need to be. 

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Avoiding Shame Does Not Mean Avoiding Blame

A new article talks about the complex distinctions between shame and guilt for criminal offenders, and that guilt is more closely associated with reduced recidivism than shame. The coverage about the article does not indicate that the researchers distinguished among crimes, or focused on intimate partner crimes. That is a shame (I can’t read the entire article because it’s behind an APA paywall). Neil Websdale, a leader of the IPV Fatality Review efforts in the U.S., writes in his book Familicidal Hearts: The Emotional Styles of 211 Killers that many of the homicidal men he encounters in his reviews felt shame due to their perceived inability to meet the social norms of masculinity. This observation does not excuse the killers, but may contribute to our understanding both of why some partner abusers commit homicides, as opposed to others. Websdale make an important contribution to discussions about danger assessment that point the finger at retrograde and confining gender norms as contributing factors to partner violence. I’d love psychologists to further dissect the shame/guilt difference regarding partner violence recidivism.  We want them to feel bad about their behavior, but perhaps bad in a different way that would change how we conduct public awareness, design programs for offenders, and manage this issue for re-entry. Since partner violence is so prevalent among incarcerated individuals, we need to know.

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Bystander Campaigns Gaining Ground on Campuses

The New York Times has a comprehensive article about the proliferation of sexual assault bystander campaigns taking hold on campuses. Anything that encourages all students to see themselves as responsible for the wellbeing of their classmates, and with the power to help them, the better. The article omits certain discussions I would love to hear more about. First, it only discusses male on female sexual assault, with no mention of whether students would be as strong to intervene in the assault of a man by a man, or of a trans woman. It also frames heterosexual assault as harmful to women because, well, they’re assaulted, and harmful to men because if caught, it might end their college or athletic career. Are there no men who have sexually assault a woman who feel psychological harm afterwards? There is a body of literature that discusses the harm it does to individuals to inflict violence, I wonder if that question has been investigated in this context. Finally, the article does mention that only a very small percentage of college men commit sexual assaults; the good news there is that most men are possible allies. The other question though is what is going on for the men who are committing the assaults; how are they “different,” why are they disproportionately in the athletic community, how can we not just stop them in the act, but understand how to stop them from starting?  I am fully supportive of bystander campaigns, but don’t want it to stand in the way of believing primary prevention is possible.

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New Report – Gun in the Home Increases Risk of Death by Gun in the Home

Although the above headline may sound almost tautological, it is a hotly debated issue these days.  This report is the first of it’s kind to conduct a rigorous analysis of the correlation between gun presence in the home and death in the home by gun – including both homicides and suicides.  Given that many intimate partner homicides take place in the home, this report is important for partner violence advocates.  No matter where you fall on the gun debate, if you work with victims or perpetrators of partner violence, your screening should include asking about the presence of a gun. Same goes for those working with troubled teens: teens were particularly likely to use an unlocked gun if attempting suicide.  According to the authors, this is the first “systematic review and meta-analysis to estimate the association between firearm accessibility and suicide or homicide victimization.”

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Out-of-School Programs Successful in Reducing Dating Violence for High Risk Teen Girls

Adolescent girls in the child welfare system are at high risk of revictimization in teen dating relationships and later in adulthood. A new study compares two out-of-school interventions designed to decrease revictimization. Girls who participated in one of the two interventions were three- to five-times less likely to report sexual or physical revictimization than girls in the comparison group. This report suggests that we would do well to investigate non-school-based dating violence interventions, since many of the girls who benefited from this out of school approach would not have been reached by traditional, school‐based dating violence programming.

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