Criminalized survivors: Domestic Violence Action Month

October is Domestic Violence Action Month (DVAM), a month highlighting the need for support of our community members experiencing domestic violence. This year, due to conditions created by the COVID-19 pandemic, survivors of domestic violence are likely at an increased risk of abuse and/or decreased access to critical supports. In addition to impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the reality of violence in our communities could not be more present for many in King County and beyond. We continue to collectively witness the ongoing murder of Black men, women and non-binary persons, uprisings for racial justice, and fervent calls for reckonings on government policy and budgetary choices that often prioritize violent responses to social issues. DVAM is an opportunity to recognize that liberation for survivors of domestic violence requires us to think about the ways systems intended to support can cause harm.

Systems can cause harm

Under Washington State law domestic violence is a crime. Many people think of calling law enforcement as the first or most appropriate response to abuse. However, for many survivors of domestic violence, police can represent another source of harm and potential abuse, rather than safety. A 2015 survey of women who contacted the National Domestic Violence Hotline revealed that many survivors are reluctant to turn to law enforcement for help, for a variety of reasons including fear of their own safety. In the survey, one in three women who did call police felt less safe after doing so, compared to only one in five who felt safer. Two thirds of the women who called police said they were afraid to do so in the future, many expressing concern that the police would not believe them, and others expressed fear that police would actually be violent towards them or arrest them while responding to a domestic violence call.

“Good victim vs. non-victim criminal”

Though men make up the overwhelming majority of the over two million Americans currently behind bars, women are the fastest growing incarcerated population. Most people incarcerated in women’s prisons have experienced abuse, and many are locked up for actions taken in self-defense or in order to survive that are considered criminal. As many as 94% of incarcerated adult women have experienced abuse prior to being in prison, and 84% of girls in juvenile detention have experienced abuse. Actions survivors of abuse take to survive and defend themselves often lead to criminalization. Criminalization leads to only survivors seen as “good victims” (A “good victim” is often described as one who willingly accesses and cooperates with the criminal legal system in order to prosecute their abuser) receiving support, while already criminalized survivors are not recognized as needing support and advocacy. Survivors are criminalized for being a person of color, transgender, queer, in the sex industry, having a disability, or having a past “criminal record.” Criminalized survivors can face hostility from police and the criminal justice system. Their experience of domestic violence is often diminished, being viewed as a criminal who should be punished instead of a survivor who should be supported. One notable example of a domestic violence survivor being criminalized is the case of Marissa Alexander, who was convicted of assault and imprisoned after firing a warning shot from a handgun after her abusive husband threatened to kill her.

COVID-19 – a new threat for criminalized survivors

While the COVID-19 pandemic has increased isolation and vulnerability to abuse for many women and others surviving violence in the general public, the threat of the virus has been much more direct for incarcerated women. These survivors of abuse, already literally ‘locked-down’ in prisons, are being exposed to high rates of infection and public health guidelines such as social distancing are often impossible. This DVAM, we are striving to lift up the experiences of all survivors of abuse, including those currently incarcerated, as well as highlight the complex relationship between criminalization and survival and the need to find protection and support for all survivors of domestic violence.

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