Private Violence: Three Years Later

This post is cross-posted from the Private Violence team email.  It’s authored by our longtime advisor, Kit Gruelle. 

Kit Gruelle in the film “Private Violence.”

In January 2014, Private Violence premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Many people who watched the film were stunned and appalled by what they saw on the screen: Deanna Walters, rescued after her estranged husband kidnapped and terrorized her from one end of the country to the other, lying like a corpse in her hospital bed, every inch of her bruised and battered. Viewers were equally appalled by how little regard North Carolina’s criminal justice system had for prosecuting Deanna’s near-death assault. Deanna, it turns out, was lucky: her abuser was ultimately brought to justice in federal court and sentenced to 21 years in prison.

For the last three years, I have traveled throughout the country with the film, including spending a great deal of time in the South, both in small towns and big cities. After the credits roll and the lights come up, a Q&A session usually follows. The general feeling in the room is one of outrage. Again and again, people ask, “How can this be happening now in the United States? Aren’t we more evolved than this?” Sadly, the answer to that question is a definitive no. No, we are not more evolved than this. This sort of violence is a too-oft occurrence in homes all across this country.

At screenings, after the Q&A session ends, a line forms. People want to share their personal experiences. Many approach with tears in their eyes. Even more talk about how afraid they are to “say it out loud.” Too many are afraid to call the police. Some have lost loved ones to what we still call “domestic violence,” but what should be called “intimate or misogynistic terrorism.”

The stories are cut from the same cloth. I hear the same narratives, on repeat. Over and over, women say, “He seemed like such a nice guy when we first got together! The nicest guy I ever met!” They wonder what they missed, and often, they blame themselves for the abuse. They take their cue from larger society, and also, our criminal justice system. With deep, lasting, devastating consequences.

It is our addiction to victim-blaming that allows the abuser to carry on, almost completely unchecked, until there’s one or more dead bodies on the ground, and way too many children left to live with the legacy of family-based terrorism that alters their world view forever. I tell people that the abuser commits the act, but the system drives the getaway car for him. And we all pay for it in spades.

What will it take for this country that gives so much lip service to caring about women and children to actually start caring about them? When will we connect the dots between the abuse and violence that is used to control, coerce, and intimidate family members and the criminal conduct we read and hear about in our communities?

I wish I could say that the issues presented in Private Violence have been addressed and rectified, but they have not. Not by a long shot. The (reported) numbers remain the same: One in three women in the U.S. will experience intimate partner terrorism at the hands of their husband or boyfriend. Many abused women who attempt to leave their abusers will be hunted down and murdered in cold blood. Domestic violence murder/suicides are on the rise. Firearms are the weapon of choice. Over 50% of mass shootings have some connection to domestic violence. These are the hard truths, no matter how hard we try to turn away. It is now 2017, and a new administration is in place. And despite these dismal numbers, there is talk about doing away with the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a bipartisan law that was passed in 1994. It seems that it’s now open season on women and children in the United States.

In the three years since our Sundance premiere, Deanna has graduated from college and is ready to move on to the next phase of her life. But most importantly, she is safe. Living a life free of violence. But thousands upon thousands of Deannas wake up every day in the most dangerous place in the world for them: their very own homes. How is that acceptable in a so-called “free society?” It isn’t, and sadly, Private Violence remains as relevant today as it did at our premiere, and as relevant as it was 10 years ago when we started this project. If VAWA is done away with, it will send an even louder signal to abused and terrorized women and children that what’s happening to them is just fine with the government. In my mind, I can see the lines of women I’ve spoken with around the country, and I think about how nice it would be to say to them “your elected officials care about this and want to make sure you are safe at home.” At this juncture, in too many cases, that would be a lie.

Until we prioritize this crime and deal with it like we should, we will continue to simply play catch-up. Feminist icon and our Executive Producer Gloria Steinem suggested that, rather than lining up ambulances at the bottom of the waterfall, it might be a good idea to build a partition at the top to stop families from cascading over the edge. That would be the more humane and proper approach. Lives and money will be saved (the economic costs to domestic violence are staggering), and we’ll all be able to sleep safer at night. Until then, the work continues. We work until we #EndPrivateViolence.

 

Ruling Fails To Hold Offender Accountable For Facebook Threats

elonsisAdvocates for victims of domestic violence are disappointed the Supreme Court ruled to throw out the conviction of Anthony Elonis, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, who made chilling and vivid threats on Facebook to harm his estranged wife and others.

The Supreme Court on June 1 said it was not enough that an ordinary person would find Elonis’ rap-style social media posts threatening. “The narrow opinion said it was not necessary to address whether the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech protected Elonis’ Facebook statements, the Washington Post wrote. “The opinion also declined to take a position on whether it would be enough for a conviction to show that a defendant had been reckless in making inflammatory statements.”

The justices heard the case of Elonis vs. United States on December 1, 2014. Elonis is challenging a 44-month prison sentence he served for Facebook that appeared to threaten his wife with violence. Even after a restraining order, Elonis continued to post. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to 44 months in prison.

He claimed the posts were meant as jokes and are protected under the First Amendment. Further, he contends that under the federal threat statute, the jury must find that he intended his Facebook posts to be threatening. (The ruling did not address the First Amendment question.)

His wife clearly considered his posts threatening. “I felt like I was being stalked,” she testified. “I felt extremely afraid for mine and my children’s and my family’s lives.”

The National Network to End Domestic Violence criticized the ruling, saying, “We believe a reasonable person standard is appropriate for conviction of threatening under the statute at issue.”

The organization noted that Justice Samuel Alito wrote that “[t]hreats of violence and intimidation are among the most favored weapons of domestic abusers, and the rise of social media has only made those tactics more commonplace.”

But advocates for victims of domestic violence worry the ruling will make it difficult for victims to find protection from online threats.

“The Internet is the crime scene of the 21st century,” Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, told the Washington Post. “The laws governing social media require swift interpretation to keep pace with the ever-advancing criminal activity in this space.”

Lethality Assessments Show Promise for Limiting Further Violence

What are lethality assessments and how can they help? The practice is one of many highlighted in the recent survey by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

One model — The Lethality Assessment Program—Maryland Model (LAP) – was created by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence (MNADV) in 2005. The goal is to identify victims most at risk of serious injury or death by their intimate partners and connect them to service programs. In Maryland, trained officers ask victims questions in their Lethality Screen for First Responders.

Dr. Campbell

Dr. Jacqueline Campbell

Read about the roots of the model, adapted from Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell’s Danger Assessment.

PERF’s study found that 42 percent of responding agencies use lethality assessments, or “structured risk” tools – to assess the level of danger a victim faces. The yes-or-no questions help determine the need for a safety plan. Questions include whether violence from the offender has increased; whether the offender has a criminal history or a history of drug or alcohol abuse; whether the abuser has violated an order of protection; and whether the victim has decided to leave the offender.

Of the agencies using this assessment, 81 percent include the findings in the police report, the PERF survey found. Seventy-nine percent of agencies using the tool say responding officers administer the assessment.

MNADV says using LAP has “improved partnerships and collaboration among law enforcement officers and other community practitioners and advocates.” Agencies have created new guidelines for hotline advocates who speak to high-danger victims and special protocols for health care providers.

Researchers who studied seven Oklahoma police jurisdictions found that “the LAP demonstrates promise as an evidence informed collaborative police-social service intervention that increases survivors’ safety and empowers them toward decisions of self-care.”

Download that report here.