Justice Denied: Confronting the inadequacy of our criminal justice system’s treatment of survivors of intimate partner violence and their children

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Justice Denied: Confronting the inadequacy of our criminal justice system’s treatment of survivors of intimate partner violence and their children

Perhaps she didn’t show up for court due to fear, shame or the devastating reality of testifying against the person she loves or once loved. Perhaps she is deemed “uncooperative” by a caseworker, lawyer or judge and seen as complicit in the violence she suffered. This, despite what we know about the immense financial and psychological barriers faced by survivors leaving an abusive situation, not to mention the danger that often accompanies this process. This unfair judgment and misogyny that reveals itself in our social circles and ultimately in our courtrooms emboldens abusers to continue their behavior and represents the frequently disempowering and sometimes harmful role that the justice system plays in the lives of too many of those who experience domestic violence.

Along these lines, every advocate remembers cases where the system failed to protect even those survivors who “cooperated.” They call police, file charges, appear in court and face the person who may have threatened to murder them and/or their children. If the survivor is lucky, the abusive partner is held accountable; however, charges are often dropped, a TPO is denied and/or visitation rights are given to unsafe parents. As a result of this dysfunction in our system, dangerous and abusive people are permitted to continue their behavior, often with dire consequences for survivors, their children and the communities in which they live.

This is not to say that survivors are not served by the justice system; in fact, we know that statistically, TPO’s do work for the many survivors (National Institute of Justice, 2009). Further, the majority of judges, lawyers, police officers and other actors within our system do have a strong desire to keep violent partners away from those they might harm. However, contrary to what some may shockingly argue, domestic violence is not over-prosecuted (Huffington Post, 2/19/2014); there remains massive room for improvement.

Maria’s Story:

We first heard *Maria’s story through a friend to whom she had given permission to reach out to us for support. In 2006, her ex-husband was sentenced to prison and she was granted a permanent *TPO. Since that time, Maria has been struggling to protect herself. She’s reported numerous TPO violations by her ex-husband, who has repeatedly appeared at her children’s schools and contacted her family and friends in order to determine her whereabouts. When he recently showed-up at her place of employment, law enforcement finally obtained an arrest warrant for *aggravated stalking. Given his erratic behavior and persistent disregard for the law, Maria and her children have gone into hiding. Ironically, this limits their freedom, rather than the freedom of the person engaged in abusive behavior.

Things have only become more frustrating for Maria. During the court hearing that followed her ex-husband’s arrest, the aggravated stalking charge was dropped by the judge due to “insufficient evidence.” Maria’s devastating words to us following the hearing were, “Don’t I have human rights?! (How) I can stop him before I/we make national news!”

In fact, research tells us that survivors’ predictions of future violence are often harrowingly accurate (Nicholls, Pritchard, Reeves & Hilterman, 2013; Weisz, Tolman & Saunders, 2000). The re-victimization and fear that Maria is experiencing is all too common, and has precipitated a many preventable tragedies. Further, if justice was out of reach for Maria, a Latina who spoke English, had legal documentation and was able to afford a private attorney, how difficult might this process be for those without these resources at their disposal? Sadly, we already know the answer to this question when we read about the horrific murders of Deisy Garcia and her two young children as a result of law enforcement’s failure to translate the multiple reports of abuse she filed before her death.

Many people talk about “broken systems.” Some may be at a loss as to what concrete actions we can take to create change. Yes, these issues are complex, but survivors and advocates have no time to wait for justice. GLADV asks that you stand with us as we work to make space for the voices of Latina survivors in policy and community level discussions about domestic violence,

YOU can help by:

1) Sharing this blog post and discussing this issue with family and friends:
These types of issues are almost never easy to talk about. Get the conversation started. Only when we confront the impact of domestic violence within our own social circles and communities will we be able to motivate others to create real and lasting change.

2) Contacting your legislators:
If you use Twitter, tweet your legislators about this issue using the hashtags #TogetherWeCan and #StandWithSurvivors. If you don’t use Twitter, call your legislators and let them know issue matters to you. Suggest solutions such as mandatory training for judges and attorneys who, in our experience, would benefit greatly from additional information on the barriers to safety faced by survivors and the manipulative and dangerous behavior of many abusive partners. 
Find your legislators here.

2) Standing with survivors:
Refuse to engage in conversations that place the responsibility for stopping the abuse on survivors. Make clear to others that it is up to our government to help protect our human rights, including the right to life, liberty and security, and that the only person who is responsible for abuse is the abusive partner.

In solidarity,

Alyse López-Salm
Michelle Toledo-Caíñas,
Georgia Latin@s Against Domestic Violence (GLADV)

The struggle continues! ¡La lucha continúa!
#TogetherWeCan #JuntosPodemos
#StandWithSurvivors #ApoyemosSobrevivientes

*Name changed for privacy and safety. Maria has given permission for us to share her story. All identifying details have been changed and/or removed.

*TPO= Temporary Protective Order

*Effective May 6th, 2013, charges of aggravated stalking can result from TPO violation as outlined in Georgia SB 86: SB 86 (formerly HB 339) relates to stalking and criminal procedure. Provides greater protection to victims of family violence, defines family violence order, changes provisions relating to arrests with and without warrants involving family violence orders. Also changes the provisions relating to bail for persons charged with violating family violence orders (Victimsofcrime.org).


Jeltsen, Melissa. February, 2014. “Texas District Attorney Candidate: Domestic Violence Is ‘So, So Overrated’.” The Huffington Post. Retrieved at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/19/texas-domestic-violence_n_4816138.html

National Institute of Justice. June, 2009 “Section 11- Do Protective Orders Work? Practical Implications of Current Domestic Violence Research: For Law Enforcement, Prosecutors and Judges.” Retrieved at: http://www.nij.gov/topics/crime/intimate-partner-violence/practical-implications-research/ch7/Pages/protective-order effectiveness.aspxa

Nicholls, Tonia L., Pritchard, Michelle, M., Reeves, Kim A. & Hilterman, Ed. 2013. Risk Assessment in Intimate PartnerViolence: A Systematic Review of Contemporary Approaches. Partner Abuse, 4(1). 

Weisz, Arlene N., Tolman, Richard M. & Saunders, Daniel G. 2000. Assessing the Risk of Severe Domestic Violence: The importance of survivors’ predictions. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 15(1):75-90. 

Michelle Toledo-Caiñas
Michelle Toledo-Caiñas was born in San Juan, PR and has been living in the mainland since 1989. Michelle earned her bachelors of science degree in criminal justice from Florida Metropolitan University; her Master's in Forensic Psychology from Argosy University; and has currently been accepted at Capella University to pursuit her PhD in Public Safety Leadership in Criminal Justice. She originally formed the program as a task force with the support of her previous employee, Partnership Against Domestic Violence, in order to establish a better network of advocates who work with the Latin community. With time the task force also became a place for educational opportunity and a collaborative opportunity in the community. In the Summer of 2012, GLADV joined Ser Familia as one of their programs to keep serving the community. Although, Michelle herself is not a survivor of domestic violence, she strongly believes everyone deserves to have a healthy relationship with their family and intimate partner. Therefore education and awareness are imperative to her and bringing it to the community. She has over 100 hours combined of presentations and training in the subject matter of domestic violence. Michelle's invaluable experience also made her great addition to the advisory board of Encuentro Latino in 2010 – 2012. She has also testified in court as an expert witness in a domestic violence case and has had good success in planning and executing conferences and events.

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