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Understanding Domestic Violence

The solution to frustrations in dealing with these situations rests within each officer's empathy with perceptions and points of view of the victims.

October 01, 1999  |  by Mike Magnotti

Understanding the victim's viewpoint, not only as it relates to what happened to them, but also as it relates to their relationship with their abuser, is tantamount to a successful investigation. To investigate sex crimes against children, we have to understand the victim. They are not required, but have no motivation, to understand us. And for us to have this understanding there are four characteristics of child victims of sexual assault that we need to recognize.

Child victims of sexual assault very often feel a sense of responsibility for what has happened to them. These victims think that if they had, or had not, acted in a certain way, they would not have been victimized. This sense of coparticipation in the act, false though it may be, is often commensurate with the strength of the relationship. As well, a corresponding sense of guilt often accompanies this mistaken sense of responsibility held by the victim.

Child victims of sexual assault don't want a cop in their lives. Only rarely, it at all, does a child victim contact the police of their own volition. What has happened to them is intimate, embarrassing, and from their perspective, better off forgotten. Very often these victims have little, if any, understanding of what happened to them and they are at a loss about how to answer an officer's questions. The last thing they want to do is to have to tell a stranger, a cop of otherwise, about a private activity they have been made to feel they are a participant of.

What the victim does want is for either the abuse to stop if it is an ongoing situation, or to forget that it has ever happened to them in the first place. They don't want to move to a strange home, they don't want to see a counselor, they don't want their lives disrupted, and very often, they do not want their abuser arrested, or even forced to leave the house. Victims want the abuse to stop, nothing more.

The child victim usually has multiple dependencies on the abuser. The abuser is an integral part of the victim's life. There are emotional, financial, and psychological dependencies for the victim, even if the victim cannot recognize and articulate how they are dependent. Often the abuse is only one part of a complex relationship shared by the victim and the abuser. In many cases the other aspects of the relationship have created a bond of loyalty that is strong enough to resist our attempts to convince the victim to violate the secrecy upon which the abuse is dependent.

The above four characteristics are due to the intimacy of the relationship between the victims and the abuser, a relationship that far exceeds the relationship between a victim and an investigator. In short, the victims of child sexual assault are totally unconcerned with what WE want, despite the nobility, importance and necessity of our investigation. And sexual assault investigators understand this; after all, the victims are children.

But when officers realize that that the above four characteristics are as equally a result of the relationship between the victims and abuser, and not only due to age discrepancies, a more balanced understanding is possible.

Applied Characteristics

The direction of my argument is obvious. Let's transfer these characteristics, or attitudes, to adult victims of domestic violence.

Do victims of domestic violence feel responsible for what is happening to them? DV victims often regard their own behavior as the underlying cause of their victimization. And while this sense of guilt may be the most infrequently occurring characteristic of DV victims, victims often do feel that for any number of reasons, they deserve to be assaulted.

Do DV victims want cops in their lives and in their homes, especially if they've had previous dealings with the police? A DV assault is a private part of a relationship, a crime of intimacy. At other times in their relationship what goes on between these two people is much different that what the responding officers deal with. By their nature, DV assaults are intensely embarrassing for the victim, primarily because of the relationship the victim shares with the abuser. Being assaulted by someone with whom you have a strong emotional relationship is not something you want others to know, much less be questioned about.

Additionally, when the victim fears the abuser will be made aware of everything the police are told, how willing are victims going to be to fully disclose what occurred? When the cops arrive they want information, which is the last thing the victim wants to give us. When disclosure of the abuse will embarrass and shame the victim, as well as set the stage for additional abuse, how much sense for additional abuse, how much sense does it make for investigating officers to get frustrated with an "uncooperative" victim?

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