Battered women, like offenders, come from all ethnic, economic, and social categories. They do not fit into one specific "personality profile." Their common characteristic is that they are victims of assaults by their partners. Contrary to popular mythology, many battered women are problem solvers and help seekers, as is evidenced by the numerous attempts they may have made in the past to stop the violence, or sever their relationship with the abuser.
A victim of domestic violence who calls the police has the same goal as the officer responding to the call, the prosecutor, and the court: to stop the violence. While the court can attempt to stop the violence in the long run through its sentencing power and the issuance of civil protective orders, the victim's behavior during the criminal process may be aimed at avoiding the violence in the short term by stopping the batterer from carrying out his most recent threat. Using a variety of strategies that may have worked in the past to avoid another physical assault, (i.e. agreeing with the perpetrator's denial and minimization of the violence in public, accepting promises that it will never happen again, requesting that all charges be dropped, that the court terminate any protective orders, not showing up to court hearings) the victim will again attempt to stop the violence, even if just temporarily.
The criminal justice system will be most effective if it anticipates concerns that the victim may have regarding testifying against the defendant, and provides her with the support she needs to address these concerns.
The reasons given by victims of domestic violence who are initially reluctant to testify are often the same as those given by victims of other types of violent crime. These include:
- Fear of retaliation by the defendant,
- Unwillingness to face the assailant in the courtroom;
- Feelings of shame or guilt that her own behavior may have caused the crime in some way or that the court may perceive the victim's behavior as causative.
- Desire to put the whole incident behind her and move on with her life.
- Denial, ambivalence, withdrawal and emotional swings as a result of being a victim of severe trauma.
The above reasons are often heightened for victims of domestic violence by the following realities:
- The defendant may be living, with the victim, be familiar with her daily routine, or have access to her at home, work, or at the homes of relatives or friends. The existence of an intimate relationship between the defendant and the victim in these cases, creates a unique vulnerability resulting from the defendant's knowledge of details about the victim's life not found in cases where the defendant and victim are strangers. The defendant may also have continuing access to the victim and her children through court sanctioned visitation.
- The victim may have nowhere to hide from the defendant. Moving from home often means becoming hunted and homeless. The victim may decide that life with the batterer is better than the unknown.
- The victim's past efforts to leave the perpetrator or to seek protection from the justice system may have resulted in further violence. The victim has learned that the defendant will follow through with his threats of retaliation for the victim's efforts to leave or to seek help from the justice system. Leaving is often the most dangerous time for a woman.
- The victim and defendant may have children together, and she may believe his threats to kidnap the children if she testifies against him. This is particularly true if the defendant is from another country or state and has threatened to take the children "home" with him.
- A victim/witness may not understand how the criminal justice system will respond to the violence, and may even be unaware that domestic violence is a crime. Her only source of information may be the defendant. The victim and/or children may be dependent on the defendant for economic support. Thus, the victim may have conflicting feelings about the possibility that criminal justice intervention may result in incarceration of the defendant and the loss of support. A clear explanation of the realities of the possible sentence and how prosecution can deter future acts of violence will alleviate some of the victim's anxiety about testifying against the defendant. Appropriate referrals may alleviate some of the financial pressure.
- The victim may want to believe the defendant's promises that the physical abuse will never happen again. In order for the batterer to change his behavior, however, he has to acknowledge that the violence is his responsibility, and he has to be willing to seek help from a domestic violence intervention program. The victim needs to be assured that her behavior will not change the defendant's behavior. The defendant, and only the defendant, is responsible for his violence. He determines if, and when, his abusive behavior will end. Understanding this will help the victim separate her hope that the defendant will stop the violence from the reality of what is actually required for him to change his behavior.
- The victim's cultural or religious community, or family that have previously provided protection from abuse, may be threatening to withdraw their support and protection if the victim testifies. They may also share the erroneous belief that domestic violence is a private family affair that is best worked out privately between the victim and the batterer .
- In cases where the victim is an immigrant or refugee, the defendant may be threatening to have her deported if she testifies. Even when the victim's immigration status is not dependent on the defendant's petitioning for legal status, the victim may still believe his threats. Immigrant and refugee battered women may not be familiar with the legal system in this country, and therefore may not understand that domestic violence is a crime. They may not know that there are legal protections available here that may not exist in their country.
- The victim may believe that the intervention of the criminal justice system will not be effective in stopping the violence, or in protecting the victim and children. This belief may be a result of past experience where the system failed to prevent the violence, or it may be based on the perpetrator's ability to convince the victim that "nothing" will stop him. A domestic violence victim knows that law enforcement cannot provide constant protection. She also knows that when she leaves the court she goes home alone without around the clock police protection. She knows that even if the defendant is convicted he will someday be released from custody and may find her, her children, or her family.