One Year Later – The Aftermath of the Department of Justice Changing the Definition of Domestic Violence
Please see the full transcript below:
HOST INTRO: Earlier this month, Ireland changed its law on domestic violence. Now “coercive control” is a crime. That’s when someone intimidates, degrades, isolates, controls or abuses a partner. The UK has similar laws. Here in the United States, things are different. The Department of Justice, under the Trump Administration, has narrowed the definition of domestic violence. Lauren Lantry investigates.
LAUREN: About a year ago, the Department of Justice changed the definition of domestic violence on its website. It used to be about 400 words long, and included things like emotional, psychological, sexual, and economic abuse.
LAUREN: Now, that definition is about 100 words. And only includes felony and misdemeanor crimes of violence. The terms “emotional or psychological abuse” were completely erased from the website. The change got very little media coverage.
LAUREN: There was a lot going on when the change was made last April. The F.B.I. raided Michael Cohen’s office
FOX: By the U.S. attorney in Manhattan and was based in part by on a referral from Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
LAUREN: Paul Ryan announced he wasn’t going to run for re-election
RYAN: To ask them to re-elect me, knowing I wasn’t going to stay, it not being honest. So I simply cannot do that. So that’s why, I’m announcing this today.
LAUREN: So that may be why there was little media coverage. But experts who work in the field, say they were shocked. Esther Limb is a Senior Staff Attorney at Her Justice in Manhattan. She works mostly with immigrants who have experienced domestic violence.
ESTHER: They took the broader definition out and made a very, very, what everybody traditionally thinks of as domestic violence as you get hit, you get kicked, you get pushed. It’s none of the psychological, emotional
LAUREN: But here’s the thing, while the definition changed, the law didn’t. Domestic violence is a crime under state law, not federal law. Esther reads to me from the New York “family penal code.”
LAUREN: Even in progressive states like New York and California, emotional abuse isn’t included in the legal definition of domestic violence.
LAUREN: So why does it matter if the DOJ website changed its definition? Well, Limb says that for many survivors, it is actually the emotional, psychological trauma that’s worse.
ESTHER: Maybe they get hit once or twice, they say, but it’s the daily barrage of constant, constant badgering, constant, constant, belittling, constant, constant, like control, like this, the emotional control that that is what is hurtful the most.
LAUREN: A survey in New Zealand found that women who were emotionally abused had considered or attempted suicide.
GOLDSCHEID: You know, the federal government is in a position to set a national floor.
LAUREN: That’s Julie Goldscheid, she’s a professor at CUNY Law School in New York. She’s been working on issues of gender violence since the 1980s. Goldscheid says that the federal government is sending the wrong message.
GOLDSHEID: [20:11] I think it signals a problematic shift in focus, whereas the office on Violence Against Women previously had a broader definition and recognized the collateral consequences of abuse.
LAUREN: So while a state like New York never legally recognized emotional abuse, lawyers say that they did cite the federal definitions in court to help an argument for a client. It wasn’t binding, but at least it was something.
LAUREN: Experts say that before the change women were already reluctant to report domestic abuse. For example, in 2017, in 61% of all domestic violence homicide cases in the city, there was no contact with the police within the year leading up to the murder. Sally MacNichol says the change has sent a dangerous and damaging message. She’s the co-director of Connect, a non-profit organization that helps prevent interpersonal violence. We met at a cafe downtown.
MACNICHOL: People feel unsafe, people feel uncertain. That has a huge effect on whether you’re going to reach out, how you’re going to seek help, who you’re going to talk to, who are you going to tell.
LAUREN: A representative from Justice Department says the current definition reflects what is written in the Violence Against Women Act. And that’s true. But when I asked why the definition changed on the website? They had no comment.
LAUREN: Experts say this move was especially egregious at a time when domestic violence numbers are up in New York in the last year.
LAUREN: To put things into perspective, across the country, every minute 20 people experience intimate partner violence. So since you’ve been listening, 80 people have been physically abused. Lauren Lantry, Columbia Radio News.