Domestic Strife Prompts Rise in Victim-Defendants

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Seattle officials are arresting an increasing number of complainants in domestic violence cases, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports. Case in point: when one woman tried to push past her 6-foot-1-inch partner, he slugged her in the face, threw her on the couch, punched her and finally pinned her against a desk. She grabbed him by the throat, worked her way free and dialed 911. Because of scratches on her partner’s neck, she was arrested.

The story appears in a report by the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence to illustrate domestic violence victims who get arrested and face charges of their own. Some act in self-defense or are set up by manipulative spouses or partners who convince police they are the real victims. Others do attack their partners, in some cases after years of abuse.

Victims’ advocates in King County are among the first in the country to look at the emerging issue of so-called “victim-defendants,” defined as domestic violence defendants who are also victims of ongoing abuse by an intimate partner. It’s a problem that many feel is the unintended consequence of laws mandating that police make an arrest when they’re called to a domestic violence scene. These laws were created to ensure that police consistently acted on domestic violence calls. Washington passed such a law in 1984. Required to make an arrest, officers sometimes take in the wrong person. Those wrongly arrested can end up losing custody of their children, and a domestic violence conviction can lead to exclusion from employment in fields such as child care, loss of public benefits — even deportation if the person is an immigrant.

Many believe the ranks of victim-defendants are growing, but hard numbers are scant. “It’s been very difficult to get data,” said Sue Osthoff of The National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women in Philadelphia. “Believe me, we’ve been trying.”

The coalition’s report relies on bookings at the King County Jail to suggest a rise in the number of victim-defendants. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of women booked into the jail for domestic violence went from 588 to 1,065 — an increase of 81 percent. During the same 10-year period, bookings for men went from 3,374 to 3,702 — a 9.7 percent increase.


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