Survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) face barriers to justice when navigating the legal system. Unable to afford the cost of legal counsel, survivors suffer from under-representation or no representation in the courts. Further, past research suggests that judges require evidence of violent incidents (i.e., extreme physical abuse) to act in favor of the survivor, leading to lenient punishments for perpetrators. The present study reports findings from one aspect of a larger statewide needs assessment conducted in Utah. One research question guided this needs assessment: “What are survivors’ barriers to obtaining safety and stability post-exit from an abusive relationship?”
In-depth, semi-structured interviews and focus groups were conducted with 43 survivors of IPV and 59 service providers from March 2016 to February 2017. Participants were audio recorded with their consent, and all recordings were transcribed verbatim. Data analysis consisted of line-by-line coding, identifying themes, coding categories, and developing matrices to uncover relationships between themes and categories. Codes were analyzed separately for survivors and service providers with the expectation that themes would differ; however, themes were consistent across sub-group. Survivors were 39.9 years of age on average, and the mean age of service providers was 43.3 years. Primarily, participants identified as white (65% for survivors, 88% for service providers) or Native American (21% for survivors, 9% for service providers). The majority of survivors and service providers identified as straight or heterosexual, 74.4% and 81.4% respectively.
Three themes emerged regarding the legal system’s response to IPV, including: (1) re-victimization during the court process, (2) challenges navigating the system, and (3) obstacles to obtaining protective orders. Participants described being required to traverse multiple court systems, both civil and criminal, and indicated a lack of knowledge about appropriate steps. Participants reported being unable to afford legal representation, which often resulted in survivors defending themselves. Survivors discussed their own domestic violence charges that resulted from dual-arrest policies, and worried that these charges would affect child custody and their access to resources. Participants indicated difficulty in obtaining protective orders in addition to confidentiality and safety concerns with identifying information requirements. Finally, survivors discussed maltreatment at the hands of attorneys and judges as well as perpetrators’ ability to “work the system”, resulting in emotional and financial tolls on survivors.
Conclusions and Implications:
Overwhelmingly, participants emphasized the importance of the education of judges and lawyers due to their limited understanding of IPV. Social workers are needed to educate judges and lawyers in an effort to make the system more trauma-informed. As well, there is a need for increased availability of legal representation, including public assistance and pro bono legal services. Finally, more specialized domestic violence courts, which could, at a minimum, calendar domestic violence cases on the same day, time, and location are needed. This would allow survivors to engage with a judge who has knowledge of IPV. Domestic violence courts have shown promise; however, research is needed to examine the impact these specialized courts have on conviction rates and survivors’ safety in the long-term.