Forgive and Forget? Why Many Domestic Violence Victims Drop Charges

A new study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine is providing rare insight into the mind of domestic violence victims who decide not to pursue criminal charges against their attackers.

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Study shines new light on why so many domestic violence victims drop their charges.

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A new study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine is providing rare insight into the mind of domestic violence victims who decide not to pursue criminal charges against their attackers. The prevailing belief, at least in the criminology research community, is that male attackers often use fear of retribution and future attacks to motivate an already traumatized woman to get them released from police custody and absolve them of legal responsibility for their actions. Careful monitoring and analysis of conversations between nearly 20 pairs of abusers and victims, however, reveals an entirely different psychological tactic that, in each case, resulted in dropped charges and criminal absolution for the accused abuser.

In the study, researchers listened to telephone conversations from a prison in Washington State between domestic abuse victims and their attackers. In each case, the attacker was being held for suspicion of domestic violence after a recent attack, awaiting the start of the trial process if the victim pursued criminal charges. Each couple was aware their phone conversations were being monitored and recorded. The research team identified 17 cases in which the male attacker used a specific psychological technique to convince his victim to drop charges and, in each case, the attacker's persuasion was successful.

Rather than threats of more violence, emotional appeals and expressions of extreme remorse dominated these conversations. Men who convinced their victims to drop charges often spoke of extreme depression and loneliness as a result of their actions. These appeals to the victim's sympathy were described by researchers as being sophisticated and difficult for the victim to counter.

In nearly every case, however, sympathetic emotional appeal did not begin right away. Instead, conversations that led to dropped charges often followed a specific and predictable pattern. Initial conversations typically involved heated arguments about the circumstances that led to the incidence of abuse. In these conversations, victims displayed remarkable strength, often refusing to accept the attacker's view of what happened.

Later, attackers changed their approach, attempting to minimize the abuse and convince the victim that a felony charge was unwarranted. Emotional appeals typically followed with incarcerated abusers often describing how much they missed their victims and detailing how depressed and remorseful they were. One inmate actually threatened suicide in a successful attempt to convince his victim to help him get out of prison.

Finally, researchers observed most couples bonding over reaffirmations of love and final apologies by the attacker. At that point, charges were dropped and the abuser was released from custody and reunited with his victim.

This research creates new opportunities for training and education among criminologists and domestic violence victims alike. By being better prepared for the psychological power of emotional appeals, more women can protect themselves from future abuse by letting the justice system proceed with trial and punishment of accused abusers. Likewise, criminologists who understand the many ways attackers can use emotional manipulation can identify those who pose an ongoing threat to society while helping victims avoid future destructive relationships.

Source: "‚ÄėMeet me at the hill where we used to park': Interpersonal processes associated with victim recantation," Social Science & Medicine, October 2011."

To learn more, explore Regis University’s Master’s of Science in Criminology degree program.

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