In the opening days of Domestic Violence Awareness Month this year, the Nation has watched closely as the Senate was presented with allegations by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford accusing recently confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. Whatever one's political persuasion, the public discourse surrounding these allegations carries monumental consequences for the future of the Supreme Court. However for those of us representing domestic violence survivors, the handling of Dr. Ford’s allegations – especially the recent rhetoric deriding Dr. Ford’s memory gaps and hesitancy in reporting the assault to law enforcement – presents a critical moment in and of itself. We fear that this type of rhetoric will have the real-word impact of chilling survivors from coming forward, empowering abusers, and perpetuating a pattern of violence in many homes and families.
Legal Aid’s Domestic Violence/Family Law Unit represents survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in civil protection order cases and various family law matters. We believe that it is important for our clients to have an advocate in their corner as they overcome numerous challenges in facing their abusers in court. We also work to improve services for survivors and strongly support the mission of bringing awareness to domestic violence.
Congress designated October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month in 1989, acknowledging that “there is a need to increase the public awareness and understanding of domestic violence and the needs of battered women and their children.” Congress has renewed its recognition of this cause annually. Most recently, the Senate passed a resolution stating that it would “support the goals and ideals of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.” To that end, the Senate promised “continued support for programs designed (i) to assist survivors; (ii) to hold perpetrators accountable; and (iii) to bring an end to domestic violence. Senator Chuck Grassley sponsored this resolution, and it passed unanimously in November 2017.
In our practice, we regularly encounter cases where domestic violence survivors have not reported their abusers’ crimes against them to the police. In some cases, abusers have explicitly threatened to harm or kill the survivor if (s)he ever made a report. Some abusers maintain tight control over essential aspects of the survivor’s life, such as financial security or immigration status. Some have children together, or other close, mutual ties keeping survivors’ and abusers’ lives permanently intertwined. Friends and family of the abuser may heap guilt and shame on the survivor, citing challenges that the abuser would face if they were to be reported. These are just a few of the reasons domestic violence survivors do not report abuse to law enforcement. There are countless more.
For our clients who courageously decide to testify against their abusers in court – whether in the context of a civil protection order case or a family law matter – they are often forced to endure a “he said, she said” trial. Because domestic abuse typically happens behind closed doors, the survivor’s testimony is often the only evidence. Compounding the challenge is the fact that trauma memory works differently. Memories do not get encoded as a linear narrative, but as flashes of sensations and images. Gaps in memory are common for our clients, who may struggle to recall the beginning, middle, and end of an event.
In short, many domestic violence survivors who have yet to come forward will never have called the police and will have memory gaps regarding the abuse. If the Senate truly wishes to live up to its stated goals of “assist[ing] survivors” and “hold[ing] perpetrators accountable,” it should be mindful that these survivors were watching as recent debates about memory, trauma, and credibility unfolded on the national stage. This month, and every month, we must strive to ensure that survivors are supported and their stories heard when they come forward.