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House of Horrors

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Posted on Apr 18, 2013
Tiny House Paintings (CC BY-ND 2.0)

By Erika Eichelberger, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

For much of American history, the legal system didn’t recognize most domestic violence, or date rape, or acquaintance rape, or marital rape as crimes. For a century, American men had the explicit right to beat their wives. They lost that right by the late 1870s, but long after that, the police would often respond to reports of wife-beatings by telling the husband to “walk around the block” and cool off. Public aversion to acknowledging violence in the home was so intense for so long that the anti-animal cruelty movement preceded the anti-domestic violence movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Even today, a residual urge to respect the supposed sanctity of the home and marriage helps shield men from laws now on the books.

In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). It was a landmark in bringing domestic violence out of the house and into the public space. Among other things, it provided money for the legal representation of victims of domestic violence, and for police training on the subject, and it helped enforce judicial restraining orders. The law also funded states to adopt mandatory arrest policies, which require that police arrest suspects in cases in which there is probable cause to believe domestic violence has taken place. Such laws now exist in 22 states and the District of Columbia.

Nationwide, however, arrest rates for domestic violence remain low. Only about half of reported domestic violence incidents result in arrest.

Even when states do have mandatory arrest laws, they don’t always play out so well. If an arrest results in the elimination of the breadwinner in a household, it can leave an already battered woman broke as well. And the threat of certain punishment for a husband or boyfriend can actually make women reluctant to report abuse, which means they remain in violent homes. Immigrant and minority victims are even less inclined to call 911, since they have a stronger distrust of the police. Which means that sometimes mandatory arrest laws can backfire, resulting in fewer arrests, continued violence, and more deaths. A 2007 Harvard study found that the murder rate among domestic partners was 60% greater in states with mandatory arrest laws.


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Once Vanette had landed on the floor behind the couch with one leg crumpled under her, it was her boyfriend who called 911. He was scared to death. When the ambulance came and the EMTs questioned her, she claimed it had been an accident. (Washington, D.C. has a mandatory arrest law). They kept her in the hospital for two days. And then she was on a cane. And out of a job. And shuttling between homeless shelters for months because her girlfriends told her she had to get out of that house.

Violence Against Children

Deon, who is now 27, doesn’t cry. Ever. And he doesn’t get angry. His eyes are wide apart and impassive. He talks matter-of-factly about how, when he was 14, his mother tried to kill him. She said it was because he hadn’t done his homework. One day too many. She lashed him with an extension cord and threw a glass at him. She screamed that she’d call the police and then came at him with a knife. But she missed—deliberately or accidentally—and stabbed the wall instead. He says she meant to hit that wall. His little niece, his two sisters, and his mother’s boyfriend were all in the apartment. His older sister kept pleading, “Mummy, that’s enough.” But no one ever reported the incident.

Child Protective Services may not have gotten a call about Deon, but it does respond to millions of reports of alleged abuse: 3.4 million in 2011. There were 681,000 unique victims that year. Seventy-nine percent of those kids suffered from neglect at home. Eighteen percent were physically abused, and 9% were sexually abused. Babies under age one were assaulted most often; 1,570 of those children died from abuse and neglect that year. Eighty-two percent of child victims in 2011 were younger than four.

While the rate of assault on children (as with women) has dropped over the past two decades, a recent Yale School of Medicine study found that serious child abuse—the kind that results in fractures, head injuries, burns, open wounds, or abdominal injuries—is actually up.

Being poor is a good way to increase your chances of being hurt by your parents. The same Yale study of severe abuse found that over the past 12 years, parental punching, thrashing, or burning of children has jumped by 15% for kids on Medicaid, the government health insurance program for families in poverty, but by 5% for the general population. Another recent Yale study suggested that child Medicaid recipients were six times more likely to be victims of abuse than those not on Medicaid.

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