Fault Lines
21 June 2017

The Catch-22 of Domestic Violence

Apr. 13, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Domestic violence was the focus in The New York Times over the weekend, as they profiled the March 7th murder-suicide of Nadia Saavedra at the hands of her estranged husband, Alejandro Uribe.  Although the murder of a woman at the hands of an estranged husband or boyfriend is, sadly, a fairly frequent occurrence, the tale of Ms. Saavedra and Mr. Uribe was front page news.  It also drew the attention of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration.

“Nadia Saavedra’s death underscores the urgent need to intervene well before violence happens,” said Sarah Solon, the spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

The Times seems to have focused on the Saavedra murder because there was virtually no police involvement with the couple prior to the murder, which according to the article, is not uncommon.

As murders in New York City have fallen to record lows in recent years, domestic killings have come to make up an ever larger part of detectives’ workloads.  The cases often take shape out of the Police Department’s view – less than one-third of victims and abusers in domestic homicides have had previous contact with officers – frustrating an agency that is trying to home in on the most violent and vulnerable people.

The focus of the article seems to argue that a lack of police presence in the life of Alejandro Uribe was the cause of Ms. Saavedra’s murder. It notes that the only time Saavedra had called the police in regard to her husband was on January 28th, when Uribe was threatening to kill himself.  The focus of that police interaction was not on Saavedra’s safety, but on her husband’s.   The following day, officers responded to Saavedra’s apartment when she reported Uribe was trying to break in.  He was taken to a hospital to treat self-inflicted cuts to his arm and no charges were filed.

Other than responding to Uribe’s suicide attempts, the only other legal interaction relevant to the case occurred the following day, when Saavedra filed a temporary order against Uribe in Family Court. Again, The Times seems to take issue at the lack of police (or other governmental agency) involvement.

By the morning of March 7, the order had not been served. It indicated Ms. Saavedra needed to “arrange” to have it served by contacting the authorities, but police records show that she never did – a reflection of the onus placed on victims to secure their own protection, say counselors who work with domestic violence victims.

The statistic that “less than one-third of victims and abusers in domestic homicides have had previous contact with officers” is somewhat surprising.  Prosecutors routinely attend domestic violence seminars that teach of cycles of abuse and patterns of escalation in violence.  Although domestic violence is certainly underreported to authorities, the idea that two-thirds of all “domestic murderers” had zero prior contact with the police is a staggering statistic.

Police officers in the South Bronx are trying to break through the shame and fear that often keep victims from reporting abuse, visiting them repeatedly even if the slam the door.

The killing of Ms. Saavedra, who lived in a private, five-story walk up building, emerged from the same swirl of jealousy, mental instability and silence that makes it difficult for investigators across the city to anticipate domestic violence.

The fact of the matter is that even when police and prosecutors do become involved in domestic violence cases, that involvement can often do more to exacerbate the situation than remedy it.  Although domestic violence is serious and can potentially have lethal consequences, the manner in which the cases are handled generally do very little to actually help.  While law enforcement may have the best of intentions in helping a situation, the collateral effects can very easily lead to a Catch-22.

The most common scenario where police become involved in a domestic violence situation is when the violence is in progress.   The majority of these incidents involve a female, fearing for her safety, calling 911.  Officers respond, arrest the (usually male) offender, and take him to jail.  At some point during the next few days, the fear and intensity of the incident begins to fade and the unfortunate reality of life sets in.

The reality of life is that while the abuser sits in jail, awaiting charges of assault or domestic battery, he or she isn’t at work. When he or she isn’t at work, a paycheck isn’t being earned.  If money is tight, the idea of bonding out is far out of reach.  A few days of missed work will, more often than not, lead to a lost job.

People without jobs are more likely to abuse their partners, counselors say, in part because they lose their stake in following social norms. Around 40 percent of domestic homicide victims in New York City from 2004 to 2013 lived in communities with high poverty, compared to about a quarter of the city’s population over all.

In addition to losing “their stake in following social norms,” abusers are likely to also lose their homes. When abusers lose their homes, they aren’t the only ones; the victims of said abuse (and their children) usually lose that same roof over their head.  These circumstances, coupled with fear, lead so many victims of abuse to do everything in their power to drop charges against their abusers.  The phenomenon of the recanting domestic violence victim is so prevalent that many District Attorney’s Offices have specialized divisions that are specifically tasked with prosecuting domestic violence cases without the cooperation of the victim.

Defense attorneys often criticize prosecutors who are reluctant to dismiss domestic assault cases and accuse them of meddling in private relationships. Yet, those who prosecute domestic violence cases against the wishes of the victim aren’t doing so to make life difficult for them.  They have a genuine fear that some day the victim of a misdemeanor assault case will end up like Nadia Saavedra, and no prosecutor wants that on his or her conscience.  The unintended consequences of job loss, economic devastation, and increased hostility from the abuser are unfortunate, but acceptable, collateral damage.

In the fall of 1994, I was an investigator’s assistant at the District Attorney’s Office in Brazos County.  I vividly recall a woman who came to the office on an almost daily basis, lobbying to drop charges against her common-law husband, who had physically assaulted her.  Ultimately, the prosecutor handling the case realized it couldn’t be proven and dismissed the case.  The afternoon the case was dismissed, we responded to a murder scene.  The common-law husband had stabbed the woman to death in front of a playground full of children.  As he stabbed her, he repeatedly yelled to her: “Was it worth it? Was it worth it?”

That cold afternoon in November has always served as a reminder to me that there is no easy solution or prevention when it comes to domestic violence. Although the New York Times may level the blame for Ms. Saavedra’s death on a lack of police intervention, the unfortunate truth is that police intervention often has the story ending in the exact same way.

That’s the Catch-22 of domestic violence.

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