When courts don’t believe women and children who report abuse, it reflects ignorance about the dynamics and prevalence of family abuse and gender norms. Too often stereotypes and mistaken beliefs excuse a man’s controlling behavior of a woman and distort understandings of who abuses, who can be victimized, and how a victim or perpetrator is likely to act.
For instance, we find that judges and evaluators are regularly deceived by perpetrators of abuse who can be charming, sad, and even compassionate when they want to be. We also find that judges and evaluators often think that if a woman is angry (or strong, or large), she can’t really be a victim. Fundamentally, we find that if people like someone, that person is not an abuser, and if they don’t like someone, they can’t be a victim. But life isn’t like that.
We frequently meet survivors who, like judges and evaluators, were taken in by their ex-husband’s charm, intense love, and possessiveness. Because the survivor was not “big on women’s rights” they were not paying attention to the ways their abuser reduced their independence and undermined their confidence in themselves. Victimization can be subtle.
One of the ways abusers are able to intimidate and abuse their loved ones is through control; disempowering them to the point where many victims, when you talk to them, say things like “my dinners weren’t good enough, so I deserved to be hit.” They don’t think they can control anything with their situations. Just having a court affirm that she was right, is very empowering and validating.
A big part of the trauma of abuse is not just physical harm and suffering, but the personal and psychological trauma of having an intimate partner turn on you, degrade you, and “step on” you. When courts accept abusers’ denials and reject women’s (and children’s) true reports of abuse, it compounds the trauma, because the heart of interpersonal trauma is betrayal. Society’s betrayal of victims through the courts profoundly compounds the harm the abuser has already inflicted.
When we take on an appeal, DV LEAP joins with these survivors, affirms the injustice of both the original abuse and the ways courts may have compounded their suffering, providing a critical form of empowerment. That’s why one of our earliest clients said to us, even though we lost her appeal, “you gave me a voice.” When a higher court agrees with us and announces that an injustice was done - both by the abuser and by the lower court - it is a powerful vindication.