Scott Peterson, Mark Hacking, Neil Entwistle — their names have become synonymous with the word "monster." These cases of domestic violence captured front page headlines, and they also captured our attention, as if we had a personal stake in the cases. We did — and still do.
When you think about the most dangerous place for an American woman, what comes to mind? Mall parking lots? Dark alleys? Seedy neighborhoods? No, no, and no. You might be surprised to learn that the most dangerous place for a woman in the United States is her own home. Domestic violence is the single biggest threat of injury to U.S. women — more than heart attacks, cancer, strokes, car accidents, muggings and rapes combined!
Domestic violence violates the fundamental premise of a good relationship — trust. And it affects not only wives and girlfriends, but also mothers, children, and the elderly. This is one plague that doesn’t discriminate. It affects all women equally, whether rich, poor, religious, non-religious, black, or white.
Not long ago, domestic violence went unpunished or unnoticed because domestic disputes were considered "family matters." The law followed the mantra that what happens at home, stays at home. Nicole Simpson, O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife, called the police to her house no less than eight times before her death. Eight times! What went wrong? Police believed it was a "family matter" and left the couple alone. Law enforcement didn’t get involved with family disputes, unless there were visible signs of physical abuse. So, a woman had to be cut up or close to death before someone paid attention.
Domestic violence isn’t just a private "family matter." It’s become an epidemic — not merely a problem that’ll disappear. The numbers don’t lie. According to website www.woymkind.org, which sources a Time magazine article, an estimated two million wives are beaten by their husbands each year. That’s one every 16 seconds. The sad truth is that "big cases" on TV are not just tragic anomalies. We ask ourselves, "How did these women not know that their husbands were capable of murder?" But the real question we’re asking is, "Could this happen to me?"
In the late 1980s, a few states began passing legislation to make domestic violence a crime. And if there is any silver lining from Nicole Simpson’s death, it is that it raised national awareness of domestic violence. After her death, domestic violence hotlines reported a huge increase in calls.
How does the law protect us now? If the abuse is visible, the police can arrest the abuser and the victim can file for a protective order. Protective orders (also called restraining orders) are issued by the court and mandate the abuser to stay away from you, your home, your work, your school, or your child’s school. This gives women some recourse, instead of living in isolation with the abuse.
But how much weight does that protective order actually have? After all, it is just paper; it doesn’t come with a set of handcuffs. Does it really protect you?
In 2003, police found the body of a man and his girlfriend. The man had tracked down his girlfriend and shot her as she called 911, then he killed himself. Next to the woman’s body, police found a court order directing the murderer to have no contact with the victim. He violated the protective order four times before shooting her in cold blood. The restraining order wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.
Abusers often defy protective orders, placing victims at high risk. Research shows that almost half of the perpetrators re-abused their victims after the issuance of a protective order. How do they get away with this? One officer says that officials frequently view protective orders as a civil matter associated with divorce or custody, rather than a criminal matter. But violations are a criminal matter and often a signal that "something worse is about to happen."
Experts say investigators must review protection order violations case-by-case. In Orange County, Florida police methodically track protective order violations, viewing all cases as potential homicides, and the results speak volumes. Orange County has seen a 13 percent decline in the number of domestic abuse homicides from 1998 to 2003. Imagine the number of lives saved if other states followed suit.
Oklahoma State Representative Ron Peters saw firsthand that protective orders have "no teeth." This meant one thing — abusers didn’t take them seriously, so the abuse continued. Peters wrote and sponsored a bill calling for stronger penalties for protective order violations. The bill is a step in the right direction, as it requires counseling, mandates follow-up hearings, and makes certain violations felonies with prison time.
On January 5, 2006, President Bush signed into law the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, another positive step. This legislation supports and expands ongoing efforts to combat domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking. These are promising advancements — but if we don’t require mandatory jail time, the progress falls on deaf ears.
In the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast, the woman kisses the beast and he turns into a charming prince. In cases of domestic violence, the scenario is flipped upside down. The "prince" she married transforms into the beast she feared. We need to have tough laws to protect her.
Domestic abuse is not just a "family matter;" it’s a national epidemic. Lets make a woman’s home safe. It’s a matter of life and death.
Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently an associate professor of law at the University of Washington School of Law. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.