To the Honorable Members of This Committee:
To start, I would like to share that as a child I was present during many incidents of domestic violence in my home, which explains my current intense interest in the subject matter of this task force. One of the most vivid memories I have at age 12 is of being in the emergency room when a doctor approached me and asked me to explain what had happened to my mother because he didn't believe that the injuries she had sustained came from falling against a door knob. Since I'd had my parents drill me on how I'd be punished if I ever spoke of what went on in my home, I refused to answer at the time, which left me feeling very guilty and traumatized. So I personally know what it is like to be in the shoes of these children about whom we are speaking and I believe that the interests of children are central to any discussion in regard to domestic violence.
I want to thank each and every one of you individually for your service on this task force and also thank the various presenters who took the time to share their insights with the task force. The current focus of this task force is very timely and welcome to members of the community who have long endured the damage that results from domestic violence, particularly those who are struggling with custody issues in family court. As one expert stated, "Domestic Violence puts millions of women and children at risk each year and it is one of the single greatest social ills impacting the nation." The impact on children can be profound. As the task force report states, in 11% of DV incidents in 2012 children were present and involved in the these incidents, while in 20% of the incidents children were not involved or present. However, I assume we can expect that on one level or another, children experience the shock waves of these DV incidents even when they are not present. It is worth noting that other studies report that an even greater cohort of children are exposed to DV than the task force has indicated. Further, as the task force report indicated the impact on children as the result of this exposure to DV is extremely damaging, i.e., "children exposed to domestic violence may show increased aggression, persistent sleep problems, increased anxiety, difficulty with peer relationships and diminished capacity to concentrate in school" as well as a core loss of a sense of security in the world around them.
My interest regarding this Task Force is in connection to the inadequate response of the CT Judicial Branch to regard to the issue of domestic violence. These areas are as follows:
Description of Victims of DV Acts as a Barrier: On a personal level, my primary exposure to the issue of DV occurred during my time in family court when I filed for divorce, an experience which lasted from 2006 up until 2012. During the time that I was in family court, attorneys, judges and court personnel refused to acknowledge my experience of DV. In particular, when I reported the abuse to the GAL in my case, she responded, "All women claim abuse." This was a former head of the Family Relations Division in New Britain. Since that time, I have seen many cases where legal professionals and judges have responded to DV cases with indifference and disregard. It is my view that some of this puzzling response is related to how these legal professionals define a victim of DV. The definition they have received from DV professionals is that a DV victim is the passive recipient of batterer violence who would not fight back. They also presume that a victim would deny the abuse and would be reluctant to speak of it, and that such a victim would necessarily wish to return to her abuser, not divorce him or her. While some victims of domestic violence meet this definition, not all of them do. Unfortunately, if you do not meet this widely disseminated description of a DV victim, if you actually assertively engage in defending yourself from DV and seek to divorce your abuser, legal professionals are unlikely to believe your reports of abuse. This means that if you speak up and state that you are a victim of DV in family court, you are unlikely to be believed simply by virtue of your ability to speak of it.
I believe this characterization of the DV victim as passive victims has undercut the ability of the legal profession and the CT Judicial Branch to identify DV victims properly. The problem arises from the fact that while time has marched on and our understanding of who the victims of DV are has become more complex and enriched, task forces such as this one continue to depend on DV literature that is at least ten or more years old, particularly when it comes to how they characteristize DV victims. Since DV became such a significant issue in the 70s and 80s, a new generation has grown up which, through extensive education and the widespread availability of PSAs and movies regarding DV, has become considerably educated on what DV is. This means that the victims of domestic violence are not as afraid of the stigma of DV as a previous generation has been. This is a culture where in literature and within the film industries taboo subjects that few people used to speak of out loud are now the subject of living room conversation--pretty much there are no holds barred. This means that while the more traditional intimidated and silenced DV victim continues to exist, there are many more victims who are willing to speak up and who feel it is their duty to speak up. Many victims fight back in the face of batterer violence, but doing so does not make them any less victims. These individuals' experiences should not be denied and ignored as they have been in connection to family court matters, and victims should not be revictimized and retraumatized by ignorant denials, simply because they break the mold of a past, more traditional, conservative generation. Why is this important to children? This is important to children because when they observe their parents being subjected to ongoing, unhindered abuse through the actions of a batterer, and an indifferent family court system, such children endure the trauma which has been reported in this task force as being so harmful to their young minds and bodies.
Psychological, as well as Physical Abuse: Not only is there a problem with defining who is a victim, there is an additional problem when it comes to defining what DV is. Currently, our CT statutes solely define DV in terms of physical injury or a threat of physical injury between members of a household or family. Yet, the June 2015 report on DV presented by the CT Academy of Science and Engineering specifically states that the issue of DV goes beyond physical violence. On page 4, that report states, "Although the literature primarily focuses on physical and/or sexual abuse, research suggests that psychological abuse appears to have as great a negative impact, if not more, on mental health and physical health." The report continues on to state that "an additional 14-17% of women have experienced psychological abuse alone." While work on DV in this task force thus far has solely focused on physical violence, the evidence is clear that psychological abuse is equally, if not more, damaging. These results concur with the discussion found in Dr. Evan Stark's book "Coercive Control" published on March 1, 2009. Furthermore, the Academy's report points out that "psychological abuse often precedes physical abuse" which indicates that taking decisive steps to intervene in the presence of psychological abuse could prevent harm that could occur from later physical violence. Ignoring psychological abuse, which is the current approach taken now, particularly in family court in connection to custody issues, is simply irresponsible and inhumane. We need to have specific legislation attached to CT DV statutes that directly addresses psychological abuse as well as physical abuse in order to protect both DV victims and their children.
Even without statutory changes, in family court, Judges and attorneys can go a long way towards eliminating much of this psychological abuse simply by insisting that perpetrators obey court orders. Unfortunately, Judges repeatedly see abusers violating court orders and yet fail to hold them in contempt, despite knowing very well what is going on. Examples of such wrongdoing would be refusing to pay child support as court ordered, refusing to pay for heat and hot water--particularly in the middle of winter--as court ordered, refusing to pay for electricity as court ordered, refusing to pay for telephone services as court ordered, refusing to pay rent or mortgage as court ordered, or refusing to obey access plans regarding the children as court ordered. Perpetrators have indulged in this kind of nonsense for years with judges allowing them to avoid the consequences. It is time to put a stop to such behavior because it ultimately leaves children insecure and at risk in their own homes where they live on a daily basis and puts the parent who is being victimized under stress such that attention that by rights belongs to taking care of the children ends up being diverted to issues of survival.
An Unacceptably High Dual Arrest Rate: Closely allied to the issue of identifying the victims of DV is the problem of CT's unusually high dual arrest rate. Again, the CT Judicial Branch comes across as the wrongdoer in this situation since it has blocked attempts to resolve this matter. I personally consider the Judicial Branch's actions in this matter extremely outrageous and typical of a Judicial System which has shown great insensitivity to the issue of DV on an ongoing basis. The facts are as follows. According to a 2011 study, CT "has the unwelcome distinction of having the highest domestic violence dual arrest rate in the nation." The article reports CT's dual arrest rate as ranging "between 20% to 40% from 1988 to the present." As a point of comparison, the article indicated that the nearby state of Rhode Island has a rate between 2-5% and the national rate is around 3.8%. Apparently, the reason why CT has such a high dual arrest rate, according to this report, is because CT is pretty much the last State in the nation that has a "mandatory arrest law without a companion primary aggressor provision." However, in 2004 when the Judiciary Committee attempted to insert a primary aggressor provision in the CT Statutes on DV, according to journalist Chase Wright of "The Hour" the CT Judicial Branch intervened and had the provision removed. Just to inform you of how this problem has continued to fester as the result of the Judicial Branch's irresponsible actions, according to the Family Violence Arrests Annual Report of 2013, published by Commissioner Dora B. Schriro of the CT Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, the dual arrest rate in CT for the year 2013 was 39% indicating that the rate has shown no signs of slowing down. In the last few years, large numbers of family court victims, many including DV victims, have stepped forward to state that the CT Judicial Branch has treated them harshly and unfairly. This extremely high dual arrest rate, and the CT Judicial Branch's gratuitous intervention in 2004 which has kept it high, indicate that the Branch has an unacceptable attitude of indifference towards family violence and the children who suffer from the consequences of this violence. This must change.
Final Issues: I have also spoken many times in other contexts in regard to the multiple cases in the State of CT where victims of DV who reported abuse were subsequently accused of PAS for speaking of the abuse and denied all access to their children. I would again like to draw your attention to this issue. Furthermore, many family court victims have spoken about the fact that the CT Judicial Branch does not comply with Federal ADA law. It is essential that victims of DV and their affected children who have thereby become disabled, or who have been disabled ongoing, have the necessary modifications they need in order to access the legal proceedings in their cases. Thus far, the CT Judicial Branch has failed to do this. Not only is the CT Judicial Branch's refusal to comply with ADA law a violation of federal ADA law and a violation of the constitutional and human rights of our most vulnerable, it is also foolish, short sighted, and bottom line negligent. I would urge this task force to address this issue as well.
I do apologize here that, to a certain extent, I am focusing more the CT Judicial Branch's weaknesses rather than its strengths. The Judicial Branch's call for more information sharing within its own departments and with other agencies are well taken. It is my belief that there is a pressing need for additional advocates in family court to assist victims in filling out forms to obtain restraining orders and in articulating their experiences of DV to the judge. I also agree with the CT Judicial Branch that it would be helpful to have the Family Relations Division screen applicants for restraining orders for DV in advance of court proceedings. I appreciate the CT Judicial Branch for taking the positive step of self scrutiny in this area.
Elizabeth A. Richter
Elizabeth A. Richter, M.L.A.
Certified ADA Advocate
P.O. Box 5
Canton, CT 06019
Certified ADA Advocate
P.O. Box 5
Canton, CT 06019