Lack of Accountability in Domestic Violence Policy

face of a prisoner

In recent decades, judicial innovations and judicial training about domestic violence has emphasized holding offenders accountable. Offenders pleading guilty or found guilty of domestic violence unquestionably should be held accountable in the course of administering equal justice under law. Accountability, however, is also a more general public issue. The public should be reasonably accountable for the broad aggregate of state actions under domestic violence emergency law and policies. Public information is crucial for ensuring public accountability for the operation of the criminal justice system.^

Basic facts about justice-system activity addressing domestic violence aren’t publicly well-understood. While domestic violence is treated as a specialized concern, arrests for domestic violence actually account for the majority of arrests for interpersonal violence. Aggregate statistics on calls to police concerning domestic violence present a much different picture of domestic violence that do prevalent, sensational accounts of a man murdering his wife. Gender-stereotyping of domestic violence is prevalent. The bitter scholarly dispute about domestic-violence against men is ignored in the presentation of domestic violence expertise to public officials. Nonetheless, even with gender-profiling men for arrest for domestic violence, police statistics indicate that about 25% of persons arrested for domestic violence are female. That fact is important for understanding the demographics of mass incarceration.

Domestic violence problem solving in the judicial system has not generally produced good aggregate information about judicial actions addressing domestic violence. Public reporting of an individual judge’s decision in a particular case is advantageous for attracting readers and generating public anger. Public information about the aggregate pattern of court activity, in contrast, could support reasoned public discussion of domestic violence policy. New, integrated domestic violence courts tend to obscure charges and actions concerning domestic violence within cases encompassing divorce, child custody, and child support. That lack of transparency tends to propagate the domestic-violence deliberative failure across other areas of intense personal concern.

Judicial statistics on restraining orders are important and could easily be improved greatly. Judges in the U.S. issue an estimated 1.7 million domestic-violence restraining orders per year. These restraining orders evict persons from their homes, cut off their communication with their children, and restrict their ordinary freedom of movement. Making publicly available aggregate statistics on the incidence, demographics, and reasons for restraining orders would increase public accountability in this important area of justice system activity. Registries of restraining orders intended to be comprehensive exist in most states. These registries are accessible nationally. Federal officials and state administrative divisions of courts, however, have not generally published aggregate statistics from these electronic databases. Domestic violence research is rife with anti-men gender bigotry and often is of poor intellectual quality. Lack of credible, aggregate public data limits public accountability for domestic violence policy.

  1. I believe I was a victim of several issued raised in this and other pages in your domestic violence discussion, namely:
    • gender-profiling men for arrest for domestic violence
    • domestic violence gender stereotyping
    • unaccountable domestic violence emergency law and policies
    • the wide range of acts that are labeled domestic violence
    • one-sided judicial training about domestic violence

    The short story is that I was arrested for the first time in my 30s for aggravated assault (with reckless intent) in Tennessee around October 2014. I was railroaded into a plea deal in which I would receive a reduction in my charges to simple assault and avoid jail time by means of a judicial diversion. Judicial diversion is also referred to as a suspended sentence; it allows a first-time offender to have his charges dismissed following a probationary period. Charges dismissed following the successful completion of judicial diversion are also eligible for expungement (if you have $500).

    My story isn’t simple. My wife and I both grew up being abused. I was emotionally and physically abused by may father, and she was sexually abused by an uncle who lived with her grandmother (who watched over her as a toddler and in her early school years while her parents were at work). She also grew up in a rural Appalachian community that was mildly misogynistic; she and her mother experienced more of that than most because her mom was an unwed teenage mother in the early 1980s. I grew up in a large metropolitan area where gender inequality just wasn’t a conscious part of my identity; I generally and genuinely believe men and women are equal in worth and should treat one another with mutual respect. However, my upbringing in an abusive environment made me largely ignorant of what is and isn’t acceptable domestic behavior; I simply resolved treat my family better than my father did. My mother ultimately abandoned my brother and me to escape my father when we were young teenagers.

    So, there was an incident early in our marriage where my wife had an overreaction to some failure of mine (I think I neglected to follow through on a promise to put away a basket of laundry). She felt as if I betrayed her trust and I was very confused about why she was being so harsh and critical of me over a mistake completely devoid of malicious intent. The argument escalated as I pursued forgiveness and reassurance from her which she felt no obligation or inclination to provide. I think I criticized her for her lack of compassion, and she responded by getting up to leave the house. I took her arm intending to slow her down and implore her to stay and talk things out. She started slapping and clawing my arm and I was again completely bewildered. I let her go almost immediately and asked her why she reacted that way. She perceived that I was genuinely confused and finally started to calm down. She then explained that standing in front of her and grabbing her arm were technically abusive actions. I apologized profusely and explained that I didn’t know that.

    Fast forward 8 years… My wife had demonstrated extreme difficulty with keeping to our agreed-upon family budget. A friend suggested that I allow her to manage the family finances so that she would have a better understanding of out limited resources. I decided this made sense, and I allowed her to manage the budget and pay the bills for about a year. To my knowledge everything was fine, until I noticed her buying groceries with a credit card that I though we had paid off a few months earlier. After some further overspending on a different card during our family vacation, I decided to investigate.

    To my horror, I discovered that she had charged up balances of nearly $60,000 on our credit cards without my knowledge (some of which were solely in my name and used without my consent). At this point I could clearly see that we would be bankrupt in 6 – 8 months. After 3 weeks of anxious hand-wringing, I arranged for her to file for bankruptcy under chapter 13 without me. I was desperate to avoid bankruptcy since it could easily destroy my career; I work in the financial industry where a bankruptcy is seen as a sign of dishonesty and/or incompetence.

    During those three weeks, I had decided to set my personal feelings aside and focus on a solution. After finally coming up with a workable solution to the problem, I wanted to talk to her about those personal feelings. I wanted to communicate the sense of betrayal, ask about how and why this wasn’t communicated to me sooner, as well as ask her what was she thinking when she was making all those purchases. Well, that conversation started on a Friday evening, it continued throughout the day on Saturday, and spilled into Sunday morning. I would be detained by the police awaiting arrest by lunchtime on Sunday.

    Both of us were frustrated and tired of fighting; however, I insisted on talking things through until we had reached some kind of resolution. You see, as I explained/processed my feelings on the matter, I realized that the basis of trust between us had eroded to the point that I couldn’t trust her. I desperately wanted her to acknowledge and validate my feelings on the matter. I wanted her to encourage/remind me that living with $600 per month to pay for gas, groceries, and all other household expenses for a family of four (those expenses that you don’t send in a monthly bill to pay) was worth it. However, she kept insisting that while there was some slight over-spending on her part, most of the debt came from outside factors related to her health and childcare.

    She wouldn’t/couldn’t bring herself to accept responsibility for our situation, and she thought I was just overreacting. I believed that I had legitimate and major concerns that needed to be taken seriously and addressed. Eventually, she started stonewalling me. There was a moment on Sunday morning when I thought I was getting through to her, then I realized she was just patronizing me. I was standing in the kitchen and she was sitting 6-8 feet away at the kitchen table. I began to try a different approach when she interrupted me and said, “Are you going to stop anytime soon? If we don’t leave soon, we’re going to be late for church.”

    For whatever reason, this struck me as supremely insulting. It showed me that she wasn’t even really listening to me, she was just trying to burn out the clock; she didn’t care about how this horrible situation affected me or how it made me feel. All of my efforts to get through to her were completely wasted. I wasn’t appreciated for my efforts to fix things, I was resented for exposing her faults. I realized that I wasn’t even on her radar, this was all about her even though I was the one with everything to lose. So, I lost my temper; I picked up a knife that was lying out on the counter and stabbed it into the wall.

    This was admittedly a foolish decision. However, I was completely ignorant that it could be construed to be a criminal act. When my wife reacted to the knife sticking in the wall with surprised fear, I pulled it out of the wall and threw it away from her (i.e. I threw the knife behind me in the opposite direction – out of the kitchen and into the garage). My luck wasn’t in that day, the knife skipped across the garage floor and lodged itself into the roll-up garage door. After that – referring to the knife – I shouted, “That’s not about you! I’m just so angry!”

    My memory gets a little fuzzy at this point. I think that I began to angrily engage in a “no holds barred” explanation of my grievances and why I was so angry at an elevated volume. I explained that I had no family for 400 miles (so I had no where to go). I also expressed my worries that she had endangered my career and ruined our future. She responded to all this by texting her mother to come get her and the kids, then she explained that she wanted a divorce.

    This put me into overdrive. Over the course of our marriage, I have always prioritized her wants and needs above my own. It seemed like an unspeakable act of callousness for her to abandon me and take our boys with her. In reality, she was scared because from where she was sitting it looked like I had completely lost control. I will confess that I was beside myself with hurt and anger, but it would have been an exaggeration to say that I was completely out of control.

    She picked up the kids and made to leave with them, and one of the reached out for me. I took his hand and she forcefully jerked him away. So, I followed her trying to point out that she was going to break her kids’ hearts with her horrible and poorly-thought-out decision. She walked out into the empty garage with the one kid on each hip. There was no car in the garage and she had passed the button to open the garage door without opening it. I saw that she was fleeing into a corner, and I was struck by the absurdity of the situation: she couldn’t go anywhere. So, I decided to try to de-escalate the situation by my changing my tone, putting my arms around her and the boys, and sincerely asking her not to rip our family apart. She reacted stiffly to being touched and I could see she was struggling to hold up the boys, so I pulled them down with me into a my lap as I sat down on the ground. Once seated she began to scream; I was so startled and confused that I immediately let her go and began to apologize.

    Motivated by concern and confusion I kept trying to figure out what made her scream. I was worried that I might have accidentally hurt her somehow. She then said something inflammatory. As I began to respond she cut me off and told me she had been recording our argument on her phone. I have no memory of what was said, but when she threatened to send her recording out to our friends at church, I reached for her phone. There was a brief scuffle over her phone and I discovered that she was lying about recording me. She meant it as a test of my intentions and I was just freaked out that she was going to try to assassinate my character with out of context and selectively recorded statements.

    We went back into the house and she said that she was just going to wait for her mom to show up. Her mom is not exactly a reasonable person. We had asked her for money during our bankruptcy deliberations, and when it became clear that bankruptcy was inevitable, she wanted me to file as well no matter what the consequences. As I pondered the ramifications of a divorce in combination with her bankruptcy, her attitude and her mother’s imminent arrival; I realized that I would lose just about everything:
    • my family
    • my kids
    • my home
    • my job (and probably my chance of ever securing another financial job in the future)
    • my car (it is/was registered in her name only and if she reported it stolen, I would have no recourse)
    • my future comfort and security (I have no family to shelter me and child support would make it impossible for me to avoid bankruptcy on the debts she acquired in my name)

    So, being dominated with thoughts of anxiety, despair, fear, abandonment, and hopelessness, I decided to kill myself. I reasoned that if she was going to end or take everything I hold dear in life, well I should go ahead and end my life for her. At least then maybe she could afford to take care of the kids with my life insurance proceeds. Then, I made a supremely stupid decision based on strong emotions: I retrieved our handgun from our bedroom.

    At that moment, she was sitting on the living room sofa while the boys were playing in the living room floor. I stopped a few feet shy of the door connecting our bedroom to the living room with the pistol in my hand to address my wife and summon the courage to go through with the suicide. During that conversation, we were in different rooms (about 25 feet apart) and I made a few gestures (i.e. I was talking with my hands) while holding the gun. I’d like to make it clear that I ever pointed the gun at anyone and that aside from the hand-talk the gun remained pointed at the ground. Also, the gun was loaded, but my finger never touched the trigger.

    I determined that my wife was serious in her intent to leave me and intentionally destroy my future, so I made for the garage with gun in hand. She jumped to her feet and cut me off. She began to push, slap, and punch me to stop me from moving forward. She also exclaimed, “You’re NOT going to frame me for murder!” I honestly had not considered that outcome and I stopped walking. Some level of rationality had come over her and it affected me. I set the gun down in a nearby laundry basket. Then, as I was about to walk away, I realized the gun was in reach of the kids and I took it back to the bedroom where I set it on top of a dresser (out of reach of the kids).

    The next and last moments had a different feel to them. It seemed like we were right on the verge of working something out. My wife’s temper/pride proved to be an obstacle, though. She met me at the bedroom door with the largest kitchen knife we owned and put the tip of it against my throat. She then promised to kill me if did anything like that again. Again I had no idea why she was reacting this way or even what she meant by “anything like that.” She wasn’t answering questions, just angrily asking if I understood her. I told her that she didn’t have anything to worry about from me and that I hadn’t done anything to threaten or harm her or the children and apologized again for any accidental pain I may have caused in the garage earlier. I later learned that I had not hurt her, but that she complained of a dull ache in her shoulder that was just as likely to have been self-inflicted by jerking our son away as it was to have been caused by me when I pulled her down into my lap or during our scuffle for the phone.

    I asked her why she stopped me from hurting myself only to threaten to hurt me. She didn’t answer (she just repeated “do you understand me?!” with increasing volume), so I took her by the hand – the one in which she held the knife – and pointed it at my heart. I walked a little closer so that the point of the knife was on the verge of piercing my shirt/skin. I then looked her in the eye and told her to do it if she was going to do so. She looked away, so I wrested the knife out of her hand and put it away.

    Things calmed down and I offered to leave, asking only that she accompany me to the door with the boys so that I could say goodbye. I was just a crying mess at this point and I remember my one and a half year old son walking over on shaky legs to give me a hug which even now brings a tear to my eye. I asked her if divorce was really what she wanted and she gave a weak reply in the affirmative. I offered to let her go without any interference on my part and she declined, insisting that she was waiting for her mother. She then added that she was going to go to the hospital over her sore shoulder and “to get everything documented.”

    I knew that if I was present when her mother arrived that it was going to be a no-win situation. So, I began to explain what a divorce would involve. After that, I asked again if she was still intent on leaving and again she nodded her head with an uncertain look in her eye. I thought about it a little bit and I came to the conclusion that a one-sided account of a real or imagined injury given by one medical professional (i.e. my wife) to another would likely initiate police involvement. So, I made a somewhat hasty decision to protect myself: I called 911.

    I explained before I dialed that she was leaving me little choice, I expressed doubt about having caused her any injury, and I told her that of the two of us she was the only one who had threatened to battered the other. I also explained that I saw little chance of keeping my kids in my life if she were to give an exaggerated narrative to hospital staff about how her husband had hurt her. She interrupted me before the phone could ring a second time and I ended the call. She begged me not to go through with the call since it would likely initiate a DCS investigation and that could potentially threaten her career. So I asked yet again if she were still planning to make good on her threats. She didn’t answer and the 911 operator was calling me back.

    I looked at her, showed her the phone, and she implored me to tell them that the kids had dialed 911 by mistake. I met her eyes again and saw something that led me to answer the phone. I told the operator that I stabbed a knife in the wall in a fight about our pending bankruptcy, that my wife had threatened me with a knife to my throat, and that we needed help. Whatever I had seen in her eyes moments before had melted away, and was replaced with terror. I was moved by the hopeful change in her attitude and asked the 911 operator if we could call the whole thing off. The operator firmly stated, “There’s knives involved. You’re getting a police officer.”

    After that, my wife expressed a willingness to work with me but conditioned it on my ability to convince the police to leave. That was the last time I saw my wife for 7.5 weeks. I opened the garage and waited outside for them to arrive. The officers seemed to find it amusing that I was friendly, calm, polite, and respectful. They thought it was hilarious that I wanted them to leave. They got the basic facts from me and a statement from my wife. Then, they told me that they weren’t sure what to do with me. They explained how odd it was for an “aggressor” to call for help and they told me that they were considering whether or not to charge me with aggravated assault. I was floored and I asked how that could be since I didn’t hit her, threaten her, or lay hands on her in any way other than to try to calm her down. The officer kind of shrugged and told me that those were the reasons he had called in a detective to evaluate the situation. Almost 2 hours later the detective showed up. He gets and records another statement from my wife, and the police have me sequestered in a fold-up chair in my garage. For a while they didn’t object to me amusing myself on my cell phone, but as time went on, they pretty much confined me to my chair and ordered me to leave my phone alone. Fortunately, I was able to text my boss and call in sick to work the next day and contact a friend to help bail me out if needed.

    The detective came into the garage and declared it was my turn. He gave me a catch-22 choice: give me a statement or you’ll be arrested because all I have to go on is what was said by your wife. I knew better than to speak to the police without a lawyer, but I didn’t have a lawyer (the only lawyers I knew specialized in business law) and I really couldn’t imagine what I did that was illegal. So, I told my side of the story. The detective seemed conflicted; as it turns out, that’s because he was. He ended up calling the assistant district attorney who prosecutes domestic violence cases. At first he had to leave a message, but she eventually called back and they had a lengthy discussion about whether or not I should be charged with a crime. The detective correctly understood that I had no intent to harm, intimidate, or threaten my wife.

    I made some bad choices in a state of emotional distress, but he seemed to argue that criminal charges were inappropriate. In the end, the DA insisted that I be charged with assault on the basis that presenting a weapon is an implicit threat which is sufficient to cause a person to reasonably fear imminent harm. Intentionally or knowingly causing a person to reasonably fear imminent harm is the definition of misdemeanor assault in Tennessee; however, when a weapon is displayed in connection with a misdemeanor assault, it becomes a felony (i.e. aggravated assault with reckless intent). So, that was how I was charged.

    I was charged anyway. After 4 hours with the same officers, I had built up something of a rapport with them. So it was odd that it felt like a betrayal when they told me that I was under arrest. They explained that the gun had done me in. The DA was insistent that I be charged since there was a gun involved and children were present. That made little sense because the gun was never used in a threatening or violent manner; however, my wife had stated that she was scared when I retrieved the gun. Assuming that my actions were knowing and/or intentional (or confusing the “intentionally or knowingly causes another to reasonably fear imminent bodily injury” with the recklessness aspect of a separate but related definition of assault “Intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causes bodily injury to another”) I was handcuffed and taken to the county jail.

    This is was odd, because my wife says that she did not want them to arrest me nor did she want to press charges. Apparently, the law considers domestic violence to be a crime against the state, so the victim cannot prevent the aggressor from being arrested by declining to press charges. My wife was pretty angry at me for a while, but once she cooled off she consistently indicated a desire to stay together.

    Now, you know something is amiss when every corrections officer you interact with expresses pity and shock that you have been incarcerated. Interestingly, I met two other guys who were arrested on first time domestic assault charges. One claimed to have been arrested in his home based on accusations by a woman he hadn’t even spoken to that day. The other had gotten in a scuffle with his girlfriend when she caught him watching pornography on his iPad. He believed that she passively consented to involve the police in an effort keep her job. This couple was new in town and they were living room at the hotel in which she worked. Apparently, the shouting and the scuffle caused the other hotel guests to alert the front desk and they stopped by to investigate the disturbance.

    I was held for a mandatory 12 hours before I was allowed to purchase a bail bond. My friend was there waiting on me; he and his wife contacted my wife and they got some clothes and basic necessities for me. They were kind enough to allow me to live with them from late October to mid May of the following year. The criminal case was resolved in early December, but DCS got involved and would allow only supervised visitation from November to May.

    That’s a whole other story… the short version is that in February, all parties involved agreed that I should be granted unsupervised visitation rights; however, the DCS attorney (who had not had any interaction with me or my wife) ignored the recommendations of both the DCS case worker and the guardian ad litem (i.e. the attorney appointed by the court to represent the kids’ interests) and insisted on a finding that the kids were dependent and neglected as a result of witnessing the “domestic violence incident.”

    My wife tearfully pleaded with the juvenile court judge to allow me to come home. He incredulously asked why and then dismissed her answer out of hand with a derisive comment about how “it happened this time and has probably happened before…” My lawyer angrily objected that there are no allegations of prior abuse, but ultimately the choice was (A) disagree and extend the legally mandated separation or (B) accept the finding which could adversely affect me and possibly my wife in any future juvenile/family court cases (divorce, custody, etc.).

    My lawyer counseled me and my wife not to agree. Well, we consented to follow his advice. However, the “contested hearing” was scheduled four months later (i.e. June). That meant that I would miss my kids’ birthdays, Easter, the camping trip we had planned for Memorial Day, and that I would not get to spend my birthday with my family. It also meant that I had to ask to stay another four months with my friend. That was also another four months of having to buy separate bills of groceries and paying other miscellaneous costs of living separately that we could ill afford. Eventually, the financial stress and the emotional stress of being separated from my family broke me. I had been so sure that this was going to be over in February, that I just couldn’t wait until June. I tried to get my lawyer to contact the DCS attorney so that I could just agree to the finding and go home. For reasons that make no sense, it took 14 weeks to get this done! I finally got to go home in May. I was forced to live outside of my home for seven months, pay for and attend anger management & domestic violence counseling, as well as a psychiatric evaluation.

    The funny part is that I only recently paid close attention to the “Intentionally or knowingly” part of the law. Neither was true in my case; there were three times that I frightened my wife but each time I did so was accidental. Now whether or not I could have convinced a jury of that is something that I’ll never know, but it is the truth and I would like to think that justice would have prevailed. It’s an academic concern at this point.

    You see, the legal costs associated with my representation in the county general sessions court were so expensive that I had to exhaust all my available credit and borrow from my parents. I was told they would triple if my case went to trial. On top of that, I was told that I would have to wait 10 – 12 months even if I could have afforded to go to trial. However, the ex parte no-contact order that I received, followed by the restraining order imposed on me by child protective services sapped me of my resolve to fight. I just wanted to put my family back together. My wife may have provoked me and acted like an over-proud petulant child, but I am responsible for my actions – not her. The thought of making her relive the pain of that day by giving testimony at trial seemed unconscionably selfish and there was also the likely possibility that the juvenile court would have kept its restricted visitation order in place until the criminal case was resolved. So, I was faced with the choice of destroying my family to save my good name or keeping it together by accepting the plea deal.

    Curiously, had I consented to the dependent and neglected finding, I would have been allowed to go home three months earlier… It seems like this whole process is setup to punish the innocent and reward the guilty. I’d say that the motivation is to brand as many as possible with a modern-day scarlet letter. A politically minded individual might even go so far as to see an agenda to defame and destabilize nuclear families. Another politically minded person might see an effort to force cultural change in such a way that any man caught asserting himself is economically neutered and socially ostracized all the while supporting and encouraging women to assert themselves more in every role of their lives.

    I would like to see a concerted effort to right the wrongs I suffered. According to the expansive definitions of domestic violence, I could argue that I had been the victim of

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