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Gruenberg: How to respond as a community to allegations of abuse

Jill Gruenberg
Guest Opinion

It is the policy of Response and my personal belief that it is not appropriate to use a guest editorial to comment specifically on current domestic-violence or sexual-assault cases within our community that are in the criminal-justice system. Yet within the past month, there have been numerous stories in both of our local papers regarding the domestic violence and sexual assault allegations against Peter Nardi, and the content of many of these articles has prompted me to provide foundational information about the nature of intimate-partner-assault cases without commenting directly on Nardi’s specific case.

Everyone is aware that we live in a very small community with a very attentive media presence, which brings with it pros and cons. The simple reality is that each and every one of you who reads an article or opinion piece in the paper has the potential to become a member of a jury in that specific case. In addition, we all contribute to the social climate and the norms of behavior that our community accepts, and we all might be in the role to act as a bystander or support to survivors of violence against women. For all of these reasons, I am compelled to share my perspective based on a variety of research and 12 years of working with survivors of intimate-partner abuse.

The simple truth in instances of domestic violence, and even more so in sexual assault, is that most acts of abuse go unreported to law enforcement. Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey in 1998 found that among women older than 18, approximately one-fifth of all rapes, one-quarter of all physical assaults and one-half of all stalking perpetrated against female respondents by intimates were reported to the police (Tjaden and Thoennes, 2000).

Even more frustrating than the prevalence of underreporting is what happens to victims when they have made the difficult, courageous and often frightening decision to report and the consequences, or lack thereof, faced by most perpetrators. Sadly, the reporting of sexual assault is unlikely to lead to an arrest and prosecution. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, out of every 100 rapes, 46 would be reported to the police, 12 would result in an arrest, nine would be prosecuted, five would lead to a felony conviction, and only three rapists would spend a single day in jail. The belief that justice for a victim can and will be found within the criminal justice system if an assault occurred is at best misinformed and naïve.

It is crucial that we contrast this dismal conviction rate with the research examining the factual legitimacy of most sexual-assault and domestic-violence allegations. Despite the common myth that “woman cry rape” even when it may not be true, the prevalence of actual false reporting cases of sexual violence is low. For example, a study by Lisak, Gardinier, Nicksa and Cote of sexual-assault cases in Boston from 1998 to 2007 found a 5.9 percent rate of false reports. Similarly there are multiple government agencies that report that only between 2 percent and 8 percent of sexual-assault reports are determined as false. So why are so many perpetrators never held accountable for their crimes?

The reality is that in most domestic-violence and sexual-assault allegations, the perpetrator, the perpetrator’s friends and family, the defense attorneys and even well-meaning outsiders within the community will engage in either an intentional or unintentional pattern of victim-blaming. Attacks on a victim’s credibility, or simply claiming that the victim is lying, are common tactics used by abusers to deny or minimize the abuse, evade responsibility for the abuse and/or blame the victim for its occurrence.

Lundy Bancroft writes that abusers commonly characterize their relationship as mutually abusive if they acknowledge any behavior problems of their own at all. Under close investigation, however, most domestic abusers, even those who use relatively low levels of physical violence, are revealed to involve extensive patterns of verbal degradation, psychological abuse and other types of cruelty.

Another point consistently raised to undermine a victim’s credibility is to focus on or allege that there are inconsistencies in a victim’s account of the abuse. This tactic equates the idea that inconsistencies are indicative of proof that the incident didn’t occur. However, victims who do report may and often do give inconsistent information, due to the significant amount of psychological trauma they have experienced and the neurobiological effects of this trauma. It is important to recognize that if there are inconsistencies in a victim’s story, this is not proof that the incident didn’t occur but that it actually might be very consistent with the typical manifestation of survivor of abuse.

As you read stories both locally and nationally that pertain to domestic violence and sexual assault, it is my hope that you’ll remember some of these facts and common myths about victims and perpetrators. From my perspective, this information serves to make you educated about abuse, not biased. Just as our court system holds that defendants are “innocent until proven guilty,” we as community members have an obligation to treat victims with fairness, dignity and respect. This requires that victims be allowed to live in an environment in which they are safe to report abuse free from a climate of disbelief or the even more damaging atmosphere of victim-blaming.

Jill Gruenberg is the advocacy and prevention program director for Response: Help for Survivors of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. Comments are welcome at jillresponse@yahoo.com. Survivors are encouraged to call Response’s 24-hour help line at 970-925-7233.


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