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Domestic Abuse

Well before news of the battering of Nicole Brown by O.J. Simpson focused public attention on the subject of “spousal abuse” and “wife-beating,” those who read newspapers, watched made-for-TV movies, and actually experienced abuse knew far too well that the prevalence of “family abuse” has long been a dirty little secret, in suburbia, as elsewhere. Not long ago, the only affordable prompt, but, sad to say, temporary, relief a battered woman could expect from the judicial system was a sympathetic magistrate’s issuance of an arrest warrant against her husband for assault and battery. The arrested husband was often taken out of circulation briefly for booking on the day of the beating; thereafter, he would exhibit contrition between the time of his arrest and his trial date, when the wife would refuse to press charges because the husband had mended his ways, promised to go to counseling, and so on. This process would often repeat itself, without variation. Due to effective advocacy for legislation which advances women’s interests, Virginia’s and other states’ legislatures have responded such that there have never been more laws on the books intended to slow down and stop an abuser than there are today.

The laws are, of course, “gender neutral” as they define offenses against a spouse, proscribe specific behaviors, prescribe remedies, and specify penalties. Women, as much as men, can be subject to flaws of temperament, personality disorders, and effects of alcoholism and drug abuse which contribute to abusive behavior. Beyond what is theoretically possible, there have indeed been incidents of abuse committed by women against men. It is nonetheless the case that women, far more often than men, are fleeing for protection, often with their children, to “battered women’s shelters. ” And when lawyers, judges, and mental health care experts convene to examine the problem of spousal abuse, discussions occur within the context of a wife’s exposure to her husband’s “cycle of violence. ” We have, fortunately, gotten somewhat beyond the convention of using misdemeanor assault charges as the sole method for trying to keep abusive husbands under control. There are now civil statutes which allow immediate issuance, on application of the abused party, of emergency temporary protective orders which may:

  • prohibit further acts of family abuse
  • exclude the abuser from the home
  • allow the abused party to use, and prohibit the abuser from using, the family car, and/or
  • direct the abuser to provide suitable alternative housing to the abused party

Under specific circumstances, police must now arrest and take into custody a person suspected of assaulting and battering his spouse. The arresting officer must also petition for an emergency order to protect the abused spouse. These mandates are valuable because they shift the primary responsibility for deciding to “press charges” from the abused spouse to the police. The phenomenon of a victim’s having “second thoughts” about prosecution by the time the police arrive—due either to fear or remorse—is thus circumvented. The law now permits the issuance of both verbal and written emergency protective orders providing for:

  • appeal to any one of a number of different judicial officers for relief
  • a civil not criminal process without the requirement, at the outset, of facing her abuser at a “hearing,” and
  • one or more specific, practical, forms of relief, not the least of which are exclusive use of a residence and/or a car
  • These laws are meaningful, of course, only to the extent that battered women call the police, go to a magistrate, or meet with a court intake worker. From this writer’s perspective, action is the only antidote to abuse.

Unfortunately, even now, mental health therapists and lawyers still encounter women who believe that the abuse they have suffered was occasioned by some failure of their own. Sadly, these women believe they can end the spiral of abuse if only they: keep the children quieter; lose some weight; cook better and more timely meals; do a better job of cleaning; etc., etc. Abusers often encourage such “solutions” during that portion of their “cycle” of violence when they are on their best behavior. Then, of course, there are the “traditional” excuses for enduring an abusive relationship: a separation would be “bad for the children;” “he’ll never give me any money, even if a judge tells him to;” “he’ll fight me for custody;” and “at least I have my kids, a house, money in the bank, and my own car. ”

We strongly urge an abused spouse to consult her lawyer on a confidential basis for assistance in developing a realistic strategy of extrication from a harmful, dangerous, situation. A good family law attorney can give a client solid, practical guidance and can reassure the client that she is by no means alone in the quest to overcome the realities of a brutal home life. An honest lawyer will advise his or her client what the client can do on her own to save costs: for instance, much emergency, yet temporary, relief can be secured without legal representation. A lawyer, however, can go to court for a client when the time comes to enforce court orders granting temporary relief, and to secure for her permanent protections against an abusive spouse. To have matters such as spousal support, child custody, child support, as well as disposition of marital property and marital debt properly handled, we suggest you consult a lawyer with experience in family law. Please call one of the family law attorneys at RRBMDK with your questions on these and other family law issues.