Our Inhuman Response to Domestic Violence

witnessed abuse

Last night, we attended a domestic violence forum sponsored by the Children’s Aid Society here in Manhattan. We’ve been involved with the CAS for many years, and they do some pretty awesome things for kids in intense situations. And domestic violence is a deep and complex social issue we come across plenty. So we figured it might be worth checking out, and maybe come away with some new insights.

It was, and we did, but not in the way we’d expected. There was very little discussion of the causes of domestic violence, the various patterns of behavior of abusers and victims, what actions work to stop it and what doesn’t work, and challenges to be overcome in reducing the incidence of domestic violence. Those are sort of the kinds of topics we expected a domestic violence forum to get into, but unfortunately the talks were pretty much surface discussions of what the speakers do in their jobs, and the kinds of things they deal with.

That’s okay, we guess. The speakers were social workers, and most of the audience seemed to be social workers. So it’s probably nice that they got to hear what others in their field are seeing. But for anyone with a passing familiarity with domestic violence issues, there wasn’t much we’d consider enlightening.

Except for one thing.

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Some in the audience expressed concern about getting ACS (our child-protective-services agency) involved, especially in cases of spousal abuse. They felt uncomfortable, even guilty, knowing that ACS — like pretty much every child-protection agency you’ve ever heard of — is more likely to do harm than good to the families it breaks up, by taking the children away. A mother who’s already being victimized by her husband or boyfriend now gets doubly victimized by losing her children, and the children are traumatized for life. “How can we justify getting ACS involved,” they wanted to know; “how can we live with ourselves afterwards.”

The unanimous response from the panelists was yeah, it feels bad, but you can’t blame yourself for making the call. It’s the abuser’s fault, not yours.

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Where to begin with that attitude? It neatly summarizes everything that is wrong — not just broken, but wrong — with the way we handle domestic violence in this country.

Now believe us, we are fully aware of the horrific abuse that some spouses and children suffer. There are absolutely cases where the best thing to do is get the kids the fuck out of the house. But most cases aren’t like that. More often than not, kids are hauled into foster care or some other form of detention. They’re torn from their parents, suffering very real soul-raping trauma, something no child deserves. They’re taken away from the home “where the love is” (as one of the panelists put it), and forced to live in essentially state custody, in often non-nurturing environments where they get to lose something like one IQ point for each month they stay there. And the trauma is life-changing. Permanent. It cannot be undone.

Well, at least that doesn’t happen to kids unless there’s good reason for it, right?

Well, no. That’s not right at all.

You see, that social worker at the hospital is going to call in ACS if she merely suspects the kid might be in danger. Mere suspicion is enough. There need not be any actual proof. Panelists gave examples of what might justify their suspicion: a child is clinging a little to her mother, a child’s tone of voice, subtle body language. Seriously, that’s all it takes.

And what kind of danger are we talking about? Not necessarily the obvious stuff. Not a danger that the kid herself is being hit or anything. No, the kid’s in danger of (get this) witnessing her mother being abused.

And what kind of abuse are we talking about? Hitting, sure. But also name-calling, that counts too. Being mean, that’s psychological abuse. Restricting how much money the wife gets to spend, that’s abusive. Being bossy about how the wife dresses, that’s abuse too. Basically anything that can be interpreted as the man trying to have some kind of control over the woman counts as abuse.

So if the social worker gets a hint that the kid might be witnessing Daddy calling Mommy names, the social worker gets to call ACS. And the kid gets taken away. And that family is destroyed forever.

And get this, too: The social worker is perfectly justified in reporting Mommy for mistreating her kids. Mommy’s the one being abused, sure, but the kids saw it! She’s guilty of failing to protect them from witnessing her getting abused. Words from the panelists, I’m not making this shit up.

And the social workers get to sleep at night, because they can tell themselves it’s not their fault, it’s the abuser’s fault. At least, the fault of the guy they sorta kinda suspected might be an abuser.

You think that doesn’t happen? You bet your ass it happens.

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Another staggering comment was about situations where a woman makes a false allegation of abuse. We all know it happens. When we were in the DA’s office, we got trained on dealing with this kind of situation, the false accusation, because we all know it happens. Happens in rape, too. There’s this certain subset of women who, for reasons of control or embarrassment or vindictiveness, will try to get the guy in trouble with the law. Maybe they want to get back at him for breaking up with her. Maybe they had sex they now regret. Maybe they want to show they guy who’s boss. Whatever the reason, they call the cops.

And now they’ve started a process they can’t stop. The system rolls in, and rolls over everything. The guy gets arrested. There’s an order of protection. He can’t come home now. He can’t help with the kids. He can’t talk to her. Maybe the kids get taken away, to get them out of the situation. Maybe the guy goes to jail, gets a record, maybe not. She can cry all she wants that she wants him home again, but it’s not her call any more. The machine cannot be turned off. And at the end of the day the family is destroyed over something that never happened in the first place.

This happens, sure, but how do you tell that situation apart from the equally common situation where a woman really is being abused, and she makes up stories to try to get back together with the abuser?

That’s a real problem. You’ll get a woman who needs that relationship, no matter how badly she gets hurt. You put her in a shelter, secret and safe where she and other victims like her are hidden from the men who would hurt them, and she’ll call her man to come get her, ruining the secret for all of them. Sometimes, that kind of relationship is just all they know, they grew up seeing that kind of relationship. More often, it’s a psychological addiction. The make-up periods after each incident are so good, she needs them. So she keeps going back. The abuse gets worse each time, but so do the make-ups. And if something isn’t done in time, she’ll wind up dead. That happens, too.

So how do you tell them apart? It requires some real judgment and probably some pretty specific training, so we were curious to find out how the experts try to spot the false accusations from the false retractions.

We asked one of the social workers, after the function. And we were told that this is a false premise: there is no such thing as a woman who alleges abuse where none occurred. If a woman says it’s happening, then it’s happening.

When pressed to at least consider the possibility of a false allegation, which we could attest to from cases we’ve actually handled, the social worker said it doesn’t matter. If someone’s making that kind of allegation, then something has to be happening at home that justifies state action.

Yes, something is happening. It’s a failure to even look for the possibility of innocence.

It’s bad enough when the police do it. But at least with the police there is some recourse through the criminal process. But in the bureaucracy of public social manipulation work, there’s nothing we can do but watch with dismay as injustice piles on injustice.

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These injustices are only a symptom, of course, of a broader illness.

It’s the result of putting too much power in the hands of people who can’t handle it. We know they can’t handle it, so we don’t give them a lot of leeway to exercise their judgment. We’re afraid that, if the people in these jobs were given discretion, they’d abuse it or misuse it. So to minimize injustices, we give them bright-line rules to follow, and take away their discretion.

But it is precisely that, the bright-line rule, which causes injustice. A person without discretion, who knows that a certain call is unnecessary or unjust, or who simply feels in their gut that it’s wrong, still has no choice. They must either do the wrong thing, or get in trouble. So they do the wrong thing.

This is, of course, an appealing situation for those of a nastily bureaucratic mindset. Little people who have their one bit of authority in this world, and who delight in using that power, because it’s all they have. When they’re just reviewing filings at a clerk’s office, or telling you you’re in the wrong line at the DMV, they’re merely an annoyance. But when they have the power to fuck up your life, they are dangerous.

It’s an appealing situation for that kind of person, so guess what kind of person is drawn to the job? We’re not saying all, or even most social workers in these roles are anything like that. It doesn’t matter. The point is that enough of them are. And plenty more simply lack the guts or judgment or experience to do the right thing.

We place far too much authority in the hands of people who can’t handle it. So it should be no surprise that injustice is routine.

With power must come the discretion to exercise it. And the greater the power to mess with people’s lives, the more discretion must be given. That’s why prosecutors are given so much discretion. Social workers need to be given that discretion as well.

And they need to be more carefully chosen. The people at the function last night were all very smart and capable. But let’s face it, this particular field doesn’t always get the best and brightest. That’s why we have these bright-line rules, again. Because we recognize they’re not the best or the brightest, so we can’t trust them to do the right thing, so we give them a command that requires no judgment, only mechanical reaction. Hiring people based on their ability to exercise good judgment would do much to make the problem go away.

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We’ve probably just offended a significant chunk of our readers. That’s okay, we’ll still sleep well tonight. It’s not our fault, it’s just this system and that lying son of a bitch, Johnson! We would never hurt you. You know that.

But please feel free to respond and let us know how you feel.

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3 Comments

  1. Comment from a Facebook friend, May 13, 2010:

    Wow. How does one improve a system so faulty? Horrifying.

  2. Jeff, May 13, 2010:

    Thanks for the post. This was heavy on passion but light on facts. Not a complaint, just a different set up than some of your other posts. My step sister accused her father and my mother of some pretty ridiculous things when she was in elementary school. She was attention starved and this was her way of acting out. Her mother didn’t encourage her but didn’t help the situation either. It hurt the family and it still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth when I think about it. It’s really hard to distinguish truth on these situations, especially with children and divorced couples. Thanks again for the post.

  3. Banatu, June 26, 2011:

    Over the 10 years I was with my (moderately abusive) boyfriend I watched the ‘system’ go from somewhat reasonable to utterly insane as described in this article. For this reason I, and so many others like me, ceased all forms of seeking help. My boyfriend even wanted to try counsling but we didn’t dare. You mustn’t talk to anyone at all about it because everyone is required to tell the ‘authorities’ (when did our servents become our masters?) and then it’s out of control and lives are ruined. This inhibition of seeking legitimate help alone makes the system far more harmful than helpful.

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