Look no further than a judge in Kansas determining that a 13 and a 14-year-old girl were “aggressors” when they had sex with a 67-year-old man to understand that our legal system can really screw things up. We see this happen often in domestic violence cases: a victim of domestic violence uses some form of illegal violence in a situation that leads to their arrest. This use of illegal violence is not the same as “battering”, as that term requires an ongoing pattern of domination and control of a partner. Without examining context and patterns, victims of domestic violence are often arrested, charged, plead or are found guilty and then ordered to complete a battering intervention program. It seems obvious, but victims of domestic violence, even if they use illegal violence, should never be sent to a battering intervention program (BIP).
With the advent of mandatory arrest laws in domestic violence cases, beginning in the 1990’s, a police officer became required to make an arrest in DV cases if there was probable cause that a crime had been committed. Often, in domestic violence events, the responding officer is not able to sort out who is the predominant aggressor, and who is the victim. The officer arrests the victim or both parties, and the wheels of the system are put into motion. Since the criminal justice system is incident driven, there is rarely an examination of historical information or context in which the incident occurred. Eventually the case will go to court, or a diversion application is submitted, and a victim of domestic violence ends up with a criminal conviction and is often ordered to attend a BIP as part of the sentence.
Sending a victim of domestic violence to a BIP heaps further injustice onto injustice
Sending a victim of domestic violence to a BIP heaps further injustice onto injustice. To my knowledge, Kansas is one of only a few states that has attempted to address this problem by implementing an assessment as the gateway to a BIP program. In Kansas, if courts order an individual to a BIP, they are ordering the individual to get a BIP assessment by a certified provider and follow the recommendations. This requires the BIP assessor to examine the context and look for patterns of cruel behavior prior to recommending that someone attend a BIP.
There are many states in our country where victims get ordered to BIP programs, and are forced to engage in these programs, paying money while being labeled as someone who batters their partner. BIP facilitators should actively work to identify potential victims who get referred to their programs. These people need to be screened out of BIP and referred to services more appropriate for their situation.
Of course, things are rarely simple. People can be victims in one circumstance and dominating and controlling in another. It is not uncommon for those who batter to claim victimization and it is not uncommon for those victimized to own abusive and cruel behaviors that were defensive in nature. An assessor needs to examine a wide range of information to make the best determination possible. In Kansas, this information includes an interview with the offender, attempt to gather related information from the victim (if willing), a review of police and court documents, and a conversation with other available collateral contacts.
Battering intervention programs have a dual responsibility: holding those who batter accountable for their behavior AND keeping victims safe.
Battering intervention programs have a dual responsibility: holding those who batter accountable for their behavior AND keeping victims safe. Being a willing participant in the criminal justice system’s mischaracterization of victims as those who batter has BIPs falling short in both arenas. If we take our responsibility seriously, BIPs can create a powerful correction to the damage done to these victims by the criminal justice system. Our effectiveness rests not only on what we do with those in our program: it also rests on not allowing anyone but those who actually batter into our programs.
The wheels of the justice system can make it difficult to think we, as BIP providers, can change this. After all, some courts and states expect programs to accept everyone sent to be accepted into the program. Providers can resist by refusing to accept anyone into their program who does not use a pattern of domination and control. Join forces with victim advocates to create awareness that this is an injustice to victims. Create legislative change. Don’t let it happen to victims in your community, and on your watch!