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“They Arrested Me—And I Was the Victim”: Women’s Experiences With Getting Arrested in the Context of Domestic Violence

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Since the implementation of mandatory and pro-arrest policies, there has been a sharp increase in the number of women arrested for violence against intimate partners; many of these women are also victims of intimate partner violence (IPV). Through questionnaires and interviews, this study uncovers the experience of getting arrested from the perspective of women who were both victims of IPV and arrested in IPV-related incidents. Women reported that their arrest was unexpected, led to multiple losses and collateral consequences, and served as a turning point in their relationships. Findings support emergency intervention services that include alternatives to arrest for women experiencing IPV.
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“They Arrested Me—And I Was the
Victim”: Women’s Experiences With
Getting Arrested in the Context of
Domestic Violence
Melissa E. Dichter a
a Center for Health Equity Research & Promotion, Philadelphia VA
Medical Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Version of record first published: 11 Mar 2013.
To cite this article: Melissa E. Dichter (2013): “They Arrested Me—And I Was the Victim”: Women’s
Experiences With Getting Arrested in the Context of Domestic Violence, Women & Criminal Justice,
23:2, 81-98
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‘‘They Arrested MeAnd I Was the Victim’’:
Women’s Experiences With Getting Arrested
in the Context of Domestic Violence
MELISSA E. DICHTER
Center for Health Equity Research & Promotion, Philadelphia VA Medical Center,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Since the implementation of mandatory and pro-arrest policies,
there has been a sharp increase in the number of women arrested
for violence against intimate partners; many of these women are
also victims of intimate partner violence (IPV). Through question-
naires and interviews, this study uncovers the experience of getting
arrested from the perspective of women who were both victims of
IPV and arrested in IPV-related incidents. Women reported that
their arrest was unexpected, led to multiple losses and collateral
consequences, and served as a turning point in their relationships.
Findings support emergency intervention services that include
alternatives to arrest for women experiencing IPV.
KEYWORDS arrest, battering, domestic violence, intimate partner
violence
BACKGROUND
When the members of the battered women’s movement advocated for the
criminalization of assaults against intimate partners, the goal was for the
criminal legal system to take violence within the household seriously, to
This work was supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National
Center for Injury Prevention and Control (Grant No. 1R49CE001226-01). Dr. Dichter is a Career
Development awardee, supported by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Health
Administration, Health Services Research and Development Service. The views expressed in
this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Depart-
ment of Veterans Affairs or the U.S. government.
Address correspondence to Melissa E. Dichter, Center for Health Equity Research &
Promotion, Philadelphia VA Medical Center, 3900 Woodland Avenue, Building 4100,
Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA. E-mail: mdichter@sp2.upenn.edu; Melissa.Dichter@va.gov
Women & Criminal Justice, 23:81–98, 2013
Copyright #Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 0897-4454 print=1541-0323 online
DOI: 10.1080/08974454.2013.759068
81
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provide protection and accountability in cases of women being beaten by
their husbands. Prior to these advocacy efforts, the norm had been for police
not to make an arrest in the typical case of spousal violence, to avoid public
intervention into what was considered to be a private matter, or to simply tell
the couple to ‘‘get along.’’ Battered women’s advocates argued that women
experiencing violence at the hands of their husbands should be treated as
any other victims of crime and that law enforcement’s lenient response to
intimate partner violence (IPV) served as implicit endorsement of violence
against women (Ferraro 1989). This advocacy led to policies that encouraged
or mandated arrest in IPV cases, which led to sharp increases in the number
of arrests for assaults against intimate partners. As with all policies, however,
there have been unintended consequences, one of which is an increase
in the number of arrests of women who are victims of IPV (Busch and
Rosenberg 2004; Hirschel and Buzawa 2002; Miller and Meloy 2006; Swan
and Snow 2002). Arrest can lead to a host of negative consequences for a vic-
tim, including increasing her risk of future violence (Busch and Rosenberg
2004; Miller 2001; Miller and Meloy 2006). This article presents an analysis
of the arrest experience from the perspective of women who were victims
of IPV and who were also arrested in an IPV-related incident.
VICTIMS ARRESTED: CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES
One might ask how it can be that a victim could get arrested as an offender.As
Leisenring (2011:368) described, crimes of violence typically have a clear ‘‘vic-
tim,’’ who is ‘‘entitled to sympathy, support and services,’’ and ‘‘victimizer,’’
who is ‘‘stigmatized and subjected to various penalties and punishments.’’
Yet in IPV cases, it is not uncommon for both members of a couple to use viol-
ence or to be arrested for using violence (Swan et al. 2008), clouding the
victim=victimizer dichotomy and potentially causing conflicts in identity
and consequences associated with social response to perceived deviance.
Goffman (1963) noted the tension that arises when there is a conflict between
one’s self-identity (how one views himself or herself) and the identity ascribed
by others. According to Goffman’s theory, a societal labeling of deviance,
regardless of the individual’s self-identity, leads to stigmatization and discrimi-
nation, ‘‘spoiling’’ the individual’s identity. A woman may view herself as a
‘‘victim,’’ but when arrested, the stigma attached to perceived deviance may
obscure and replace her more sympathetic victim identity.
So under what circumstances do victims become labeled as victimizers
through getting arrested? Women victims of IPV may use violence against their
partners; most often, their use of violence is in response to their own victimi-
zation, to protect or defend themselves (or others, like children) from further
harm or violence, or to retaliate against an attack (Hirschel and Buzawa 2002;
Loy et al. 2005; Miller 2001; Miller and Meloy 2006; Swan and Snow 2002). In
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other cases, women victims do not use violence but are falsely accused of
doing so. As an unintended consequence of pro-arrest policies for IPV, bat-
terers who use violence and threats of violence to establish dominance and
control over the victim may manipulate the system to use arrest as a tool in
the battering, whether or not the victim has used violence. They may falsely
claim that the victim has used violence, or that the victim is the predominant
aggressor in the incident or in the relationship, and then use arrest to further
decrease the victim’s freedom (Finn and Bettis 2006; Haviland et al. 2001;
Pollack, Battaglia, and Allspach 2005; Wolf et al. 2003). The frequency of such
cases is difficult to determine. However, the existing literature does indicate
that such manipulation occurs. For example, criminal legal system and social
service professionals in Delaware reported instances of
men self-inflicting wounds so that police would view the women as
assaultive and dangerous, men being the first ones to call 911 to proac-
tively define the situation, and men capitalizing on the outward calm they
display once police arrive (his serenity highlights the hysterical woman).
(Miller 2001:1354)
In addition, Pollack and colleagues (2005:11) found that 10 of 19 women
who had been arrested for assault against a partner ‘‘reported that their male
partner used his knowledge of the criminal justice system (including how
mandatory charge policies work) to portray her as the primary aggressor
and have her arrested and charged.’’
Whether an IPV victim has used violence or has been accused of doing
so, police may be unable or unwilling to determine whom to arrest in IPV
cases. Identifying the primary aggressor may require an examination of the lar-
ger context of the relationship, beyond an individual incident, that police may
not be trained or prepared to conduct (Finn and Bettis 2006; O’Dell 2007). Vic-
tims’ survival strategies, which may include using force, may not be recognized
as such, as they may not fit within the traditional picture of self-defense actions
that are based on imminent threat in an isolated incident (Campbell et al. 1998;
Miller 2001; Osthoff 2002). In cases of ongoing abuse, threats of violence may
be omnipresent and victims may initiate a strike against their abusers in order
to protect themselves and others immediately following a physical attack or at
a more distal point in time. Victims may also use force or violence in response
to forms of IPV that are not as clearly identifiable to outsiders but may be as
damaging as, or more damaging than, physical attacks; examples include iso-
lating the victim from social supports, controlling the victim’s activities and
access to resources, and using verbal threats and nonphysical forms of intimi-
dation (P. H. Smith, Smith, and Earp 1999).
Without knowing the full context of the relationship, police may be
unable to determine the intent or motive behind the behavior (e.g., violence
used in self-defense), especially when both parties have, or claim to have,
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injuries, leading to the arrest of the wrong party or both parties (Finn and
Bettis 2006; Hirschel and Buzawa 2002; McMahon and Pence 2003; Miller
2001; Wolf et al. 2003). Officers may feel that determinations of who is crim-
inally liable should be left to the courts, that they have neither the training
nor the resources to make such determinations. Police may also err on the
side of arresting both partners (dual arrest) because they fear liability if they
fail to arrest a perpetrator who subsequently commits other acts of violence
(Finn et al. 2004).
Police may believe that their intervention will be ultimately beneficial to
the female victim, even if she is arrested: ‘‘They view dual arrests as providing
for victim safety and motivating victims to seek help for the abuse’’ (Finn et al.
2004:568; see also Finn and Bettis 2006). However, arrest may also present
potentially severe consequences for victims, compromising their safety and
overall well-being (Crager, Cousin, and Hardy 2003; Miller 2001). Even in cases
in which a victim’s actions warrant arrest, the impacts of the arrest may extend
far beyond that which is intended as punishment, treatment, or retribution.
What police and others may not realize is that victims of IPV are likely to be
in an even more precarious situation following arrest (Finn et al. 2004).
Victim arrest can lead to an increase in violence, as a victim may lose
access to criminal legal system protection and thus be more vulnerable both
to using violence in self-defense and to further victimization. It is understand-
able that a victim who has been arrested may be reluctant to call on police for
help in a future incident, fearing at worst that she may be arrested again and
at best that the police may provide little or no assistance (Crager et al. 2003;
Hirschel and Buzawa 2002; Saunders 1995; Wolf et al. 2003). Without the
police as a resource, partners may be less deterred by the threat of arrest
and victims may be forced to rely on alternative methods of self-protection,
including fighting back or using violence in self-defense (Miller 2001), further
increasing their risk of victimization (Stith et al. 2004).
Victims of IPV who are arrested may also be denied services from orga-
nizations that have a policy against working with perpetrators or offenders
(Crager et al. 2003; Hirschel and Buzawa 2002; Miller 2001; Osthoff 2002;
Saunders 1995; Wolf et al. 2003). Advocacy programs focusing on victims
may be reluctant or unwilling to provide services to women who have been
arrested for IPV. Other supports dedicated to victims, including assistance
with shelter or temporary housing, counseling and empowerment programs,
support groups, and employment training programs, may also be unavailable
to women who have been arrested (Hirschel and Buzawa 2002; Miller 2001;
Osthoff 2002). Arrested women who are also victims, then, lack access to ser-
vices that could assist them in managing both the emotional and the tangible
consequences of abuse.
For women with children, the impact of arrest on their children may be a
primary concern (Crager et al. 2003). As a result of arrest for a crime of viol-
ence, mothers of minor children may face child welfare charges of failing to
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protect their children from exposure to domestic violence (Kantor and Little
2003; Lemon 1999; Magen 1999) and may face the risk of losing custody of
their children (Hirschel and Buzawa 2002). If women are detained or incarcer-
ated as a result of the arrest, their children may be forced into alternative (and
potentially harmful) living conditions, including being placed in foster care, in
a group home, or with the abusive partner (R. Smith and Coukos 1997).
Finally, the arrest itself may create additional hardships and barriers to
self-sufficiency. If convicted of a crime, a woman is likely to face difficulty
maintaining or gaining employment, particularly in industries or jobs domi-
nated by women, such as child care or teaching (Crager et al. 2003; Hirschel
and Buzawa 2002; Miller 2001). Other financial costs are likely incurred as the
result of an arrestpossibly attorney’s fees, transportation and child care costs
to attend court dates or mandated programs or appointments, and time away
from work. A criminal defendant may need to spend time and resources to
prepare a defense case and call on others for support and corroboration.
Furthermore, as a result of arrest or criminal conviction, individuals may lose
eligibility for public welfare benefits, including Temporary Aid to Needy
Families (Coker 2000). Economic deprivation may cause a woman to be
dependent on her partner or on other (potentially abusive) partners.
THE CURRENT STUDY
As reviewed previously, the literature indicates that women are sometimes
arrested for violence against intimate partners, that some of the women
who are arrested are also victims of violence, and that getting arrested can
have negative consequences for women’s safety and well-being. The pur-
pose of the study presented here was to understand the experience of getting
arrested from the perspective of women who are also victims of partner viol-
ence. The study was guided by a social constructionist framework, recogniz-
ing the subjectivity of reality and that experience and knowledge are shaped
through social interaction (Berger and Luckmann 1966). The focus of this
study is on the participants’ voices in describing their own reality of how
their identities and options are shaped by their interaction with societal sys-
tems. The findings are considered within the social context and applying
tenants of labeling and stigma theories.
METHODS
Data for this study came from a larger study of 173 adult, English-speaking
women who had experienced a police call in response to an incident of
fighting or violence between themselves and a male partner or ex-partner.
Participants were recruited from community-based social service agencies
and a hospital emergency department and completed surveys about their
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experiences with the criminal legal system. A subset of those women also
participated in in-depth interviews to elucidate the same topics in more
detail. For this article, I focused on the 24 survey participants who reported
that they had been arrested for ‘‘fighting, using force, assault, or abuse’’ as a
result of the police call, including 7 who also participated in in-depth
interviews. All of the arrested participants reported experiencing violence
(victimization) from their (ex-)partners.
Data were collected between September 2006 and June 2008 in a large
East Coast city. Data collection took place in a private space at the organiza-
tion from which the participant was recruited. In-depth interviews were
audio recorded and transcribed verbatim, excluding any individually identi-
fying information.
Demographic data, as well as information about who was arrested and
about the violence in the relationship, were collected through the question-
naire. Questions from the Short Form of the Revised Conflict Tactics Scales
(Straus and Douglas 2004) were used to measure the presence of psychologi-
cal aggression (insulted, swore, shouted, yelled, destroyed personal belong-
ing, or threatened to hit), physical assault (pushed, shoved, slapped,
punched, kicked, or beat up), and sexual coercion (forced sex or insistence
on sex or sex without a condom), as well as resulting injury. Participants
were asked whether they had used each of these forms of violence against
their partners (perpetration) as well as whether their partners had used each
of these forms of violence against them ever in the relationship (victimiza-
tion; not necessarily related to the arrest incident). Participants who reported
that they had been arrested were also asked about the collateral conse-
quences of their arrest, including financial costs, impacts on employment,
and involvement of child protective services or loss of custody of children,
as well as whether they would be likely to seek help from the police (for
any reason) in the future.
The in-depth interview sought to elicit further elaboration, in the parti-
cipants’ own words, on the topics raised in the questionnaire. The interview
was semistructured, with questions to guide the interviewer but flexibility to
allow pursuit of topics and themes that emerged in the discussion. The inter-
view guide included broad and open-ended questions; for example, ‘‘Can
you tell me what happened when the police were called?’’ ‘‘What was it like
when the police came?’’ and ‘‘What happened after the arrest?’’
Data Analysis
The quantitative data were managed and analyzed using SPSS statistical soft-
ware, Version 14.0. Frequency analysis was used to obtain univariate descrip-
tive statistics on the full sample as well as the subset of interview participants.
Qualitative data were analyzed using a technique of constant comparative
analysis, based on grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967; Strauss and
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Corbin 1990). Grounded theory allows the theory to emerge from the data
themselves, rather than using the data to test preformed ideas. I first reviewed
each of the transcripts and noted common themes. I then coded the data
according to the identified themes and compared examples to refine the codes
and understanding of the findings. Coding of interview transcripts was facili-
tated by the use of a qualitative data software package, QSR NVivo 7.
RESULTS
Sample Description
Table 1 presents the characteristics of the full sample as well as the subsample
of interview participants. The participants ranged in age from 19 to 54, with
a mean age of 34.7. The interview participants were slightly older than the full
group, with a mean age of 38.9. The majority (n¼16, 66.7 percent) of the part-
icipants self-identified as Black or African American. White=Caucasian women
were overrepresented in the interview sample. More than a third (n¼9, 37.5
percent) of the women did not finish high school; only one had graduated
from college. The majority (n¼18, 75 percent) of the participants had chil-
dren. The sample for this study was demographically similar to the full sample
of participants (N¼173) in the larger study from which this sample was drawn.
Ten of the 24 participants (4 of the 7 interview participants) were arrested
on a single arrest. Nearly all of the participants (and 100 percent of the inter-
view participants) reported that their partners had used both psychological
and physical violence or aggression against them and caused injury related
to violence. More than 70 percent (17 of 24) of the participants (and nearly
all of the interview participants) reported sexual violence victimization. All
of the participants reported that they had used psychological aggression
against their partners. Just over 70 percent (17 of 24) of the participants
reported using physical violence; 20.8 percent (5 of 24) reported using sexual
coercion, and half (12 of 24) reported causing injury as a result of violence.
The Experience of Getting Arrested
Women spoke about the experience of getting arrested as being traumatiz-
ing, degrading, and shocking. The women did not expect that they would
be arrested and were not prepared for the experience of the arrest and what
followed. They also spoke about the arrest incident being a turning point in
both their relationships with their partners and their own thinking about the
violence they were experiencing. The women’s discussions about getting
arrested fell into three themes: (a) the shock of getting arrested: ‘‘I didn’t
think it would happen to me,’’ (b) consequences of getting arrested: ‘‘I lost
everything,’’ and (c) arrest as a (painful) catalyst for change: ‘‘It saved my
lifebut it shouldn’t work like that.’’
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TABLE 1 Sample Description
Questionnaire
participants
(N¼24)
Interview
participants
(N¼7)
a
Variable n%n%
Age
18–25 6 25.0 1 14.3
26–35 7 29.2 1 14.3
36–45 7 29.2 4 57.1
46þ4 16.7 1 14.3
Race
Black=African American 16 66.7 3 42.9
White=Caucasian 6 25.0 4 57.1
Mixed=other 1 4.2 0 0
Missing 1 4.2 0 0
Level of education
Did not finish high school 9 37.5 2 28.6
Completed high school or GED 6 25.0 0 0
Some college 7 29.2 4 57.1
Completed college 1 4.2 1 14.3
Missing 1 4.2 0 0
Employment
Employed (full or part time) 4 16.7 2 28.6
Not employed 19 79.2 5 71.4
Missing 1 4.2 0 0
Children
Yes 18 75.0 5 71.4
No 6 25.0 2 28.6
Who arrested
Participant only (single arrest) 10 41.7 4 57.1
Participant and partner (dual arrest) 14 58.3 3 42.9
Partner’s use of violencePsychological
Yes 23 95.8 7 100.0
No 1 4.2 0 0
Partner’s use of violencePhysical
Yes 22 91.7 7 100.0
No 1 4.2 0 0
Missing 1 4.2 0 0
Partner’s use of violenceSexual
Yes 17 70.8 6 85.7
No 7 29.2 1 14.3
Partner’s use of violenceInjury
Yes 22 91.7 7 100.0
No 1 4.3 0 0
Missing 1 4.2 0 0
Participant’s use of violencePsychological
Yes 24 100.0 7 100.0
No 0 0 0 0
Participant’s use of violencePhysical
Yes 17 70.8 6 85.7
No 6 25.0 1 14.3
Missing 1 4.2 0 0
(Continued )
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THE SHOCK OF GETTING ARRESTED: ‘‘I DIDN’T THINK IT WOULD HAPPEN TO ME’’
Women who were arrested commented that they were shocked by the
arrestthat they never anticipated or expected that they would or could
get arrested for domestic assault. Some women thought of themselves
primarily as victims and viewed this identity=experience as incompatible
with being an ‘‘offender.’’
Felicia said, ‘‘Never in a million years did I think it [arrest] would happen
to me.’’ Suzanne said, ‘‘They arrested meand I was the victim.’’ And Brenda
explained,
I always thought they [the cops] would take [arrest] him. ...He manipulated
me, he manipulated the system. They took me. They handcuffed me and
put me in the back of the wagon; they got me to the police station
and he put me in a cell. And I still couldn’t figure out why they did that.
The participants who were arrested were confused, offended, and surprised
by the fact that they were arrested. These participants thought that their
partners should be arrestedand that they should not.
In some cases, women said that their partners set them up for arrest as
part of the abuse. The partners constructed a situation to position the women
as the offenders and used the criminal system to threaten and further estab-
lish control over the women. The partners proactively intervened with the
system before the women could or did report them for abuse. Whereas the
women were confused by the system and thinking of themselves as victims
and not as offenders, it seemed that their partners were more familiar with
the criminal process and used the system against the women. Felicia noted
that her partner used the criminal system to establish dominance over her,
or retaliate against her, when his power was threatened. She said, ‘‘He called
TABLE 1 Continued
Questionnaire
participants
(N¼24)
Interview
participants
(N¼7)
a
Variable n%n%
Participant’s use of violenceSexual
Yes 5 20.8 3 42.9
No 19 79.2 4 57.1
Participant’s use of violenceInjury
Yes 12 50.0 4 57.1
No 11 45.8 3 42.9
Missing 1 4.2 0 0
Note: GED ¼general equivalency diploma.
a
Interview participants are a subset of the questionnaire participants.
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the police [and had me arrested] when he knew I was gonna leave.’’ This
woman’s partner then capitalized on her criminal status to gain an advantage
in divorce and custody battles.
Erica described her partner setting her up to be arrested in a situation
reflective of those described by Miller (2001), Pollack and colleagues
(2005), and others, in which the partner constructs a scenario with the pur-
pose of having her arrested:
I do remember, after being slammed in the wall, him taking my laptop,
which was my livelihood, and taking it out of my apartment. And, at this
point, he was luring me out of my apartment to lock me out, and that’s
when he scratched himself up. The thing that I remember about the
way that he was actinghe wasn’t running. He was walking with my lap-
top. He was talking control of everything with a very intense craziness,
but a controlled one, which was what got me in the end. ...So I was out-
side in the hallway with the cop and when the door opened I noticed [my
abuser] had scratches all over his chest. I didn’t do that. So the next thing
I know, the cop grabs me brutally by the arm and slams me, my face,
against the door. I looked over at [my abuser] and he’s sitting calmly
on the couch, smiling at me. I think he had done this before because
he did this very calmly and smoothly.
When the police arrived on this scene, Erica’s partner appeared injured but
calm and Erica was shaken and confused, unable to tell her story. Erica found
the experience to be traumatic, and the trauma impacted her memory at the
time and her ability to articulate her side of the story. There were pieces of
events leading up to the police officers’ arrival that she had lost from her
memory at the time:
I remember him [my abuser] grabbing me by the neck and slamming me
into the wall. That memory I didn’t have when the cops came. That mem-
ory came to me about a month after the incident, which was absolutely
devastating to me that some of the vital information of that night didn’t
come back to me until later, which is one point I would always
makepeople need to recognize that when somebody’s put in a trau-
matic situation that a lot of memory gets shut off and closed out.
Erica experienced trauma both from her partner’s violence and from the
police officers’ arrival and behavior. The trauma of the event stayed with her:
So all of a sudden, two cops came running down the hallway, and I
remember the leather on their belts. That noise scared me. I remember
the leather and the things rubbing on their belt was something, even talk-
ing about it now scares me. Um, it’s a serious noise, a noise that disturbs
me a lot today.
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Another participant, Irene, who was arrested along with her partner,
was surprised about the arrest of both of them. She did not expect that the
violence in their relationship would escalate to the point that arrest was a
possibility. She said,
I didn’t have a clue that it would get that far. Like, I can’t say it wasn’t that
serious but it definitely was fight that got way out of hand and I think
something needed to be done, but I would have never had that [arrest]
happen. When they told me that just by law they had to arrest me, I
was like, Why? You know, I don’t understand. I can’t afford it, you know.
I was graduated, you know, I have pretty much my whole life ahead of
me, like, why for a reckless fight? And we weren’t going to press charges,
you know. [The arrest] was really a shock to me. I wouldn’t think it was
a possibility at all. I wasn’t trying to have him get locked up, either. I
didn’t have a clue. I was really in shock and I never expected it to get that
far. I don’t have any prior offenses or any record or anything. When they
told me what my charges were I was like, ‘‘Are you serious?’’ I just think it
was a situation blown way out of proportion.
Irene, like the others, felt ignorant about the criminal process. She did not see
herself as a criminal offendershe said, ‘‘I just couldn’t believe it was hap-
pening. ...I mean, do I seem like the type of person to you?’’and foresaw
that the arrest would cause an upheaval in her life plans, particularly for her
career.
Suzanne was also shocked to be labeled a criminal and felt the process
to be foreign to her. She said, ‘‘I was very ignorant [about the criminal
process]. I was 48 years old and never had a parking ticket.’’
Irene, who described the violence in the relationship as connected with
isolated arguments, was surprised that the violence reached the level of severity
to warrant arrest. Suzanne experienced severe violence throughout the course
of her relationship but was surprised that she was arrested because she saw
herself as a victim of ongoing battering, trying to protect her own safety.
These findings parallel those of Rajah, Frye, and Haviland (2006), who
noted that women who had been arrested for domestic violence had, prior to
the arrest, believed that they were ‘‘on the same side’’ as the police. The women
reported that they were shocked and confused by their being arrested=
their partners not being arrested and that the arrest challenged their
self-identities as ‘‘victims.’’
CONSEQUENCES OF GETTING ARRESTED: ‘‘I LOST EVERYTHING’’
Women were asked on the questionnaire about particular consequences
related to finances or parenting that they might have experienced as a result
of getting arrested. The results of these questions, as well as whether the
arrested women would call the police in the future, should they have the
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need, are presented in Table 2. More than one in four (n¼6) of the arrested
women incurred expenses of more than $1,000 as a result of arrest. More
than a quarter (n¼6) of the arrested women reported that they had trouble
getting a job as a result of the arrest, and 4 of 22 arrested women (more than
18 percent) said that they lost a job because of getting arrested. Four of the 16
participants who had children reported that they experienced investigation
or involvement from child protective services as a result of the arrest. One
of these women lost custody of her children. Another three women, who
did not report child protective services involvement, also lost custody of their
children as a result of getting arrested. Nearly two thirds of the women (14 of
22) who were arrested experienced at least one of the financial=employment
or child-related consequences.
Nearly 60 percent of the women who were arrested (n¼13) said that
they would call the police for help in the future, should they need it (for
any reason), despite the fact that they had been arrested. This is inconsistent
with Crager and colleagues’ (2003) finding that 100 percent of arrested
women would not call the police for help in the future (in comparison, Apsler,
Cummins, and Carl, 2003, found that more than 80 percent of victims who had
not been arrested would ‘‘definitely’’ call the police to intervene in a future
incident). Women in the present study who said that they would call the
police explained this response by noting that they lacked other options for
emergency response. Although most of the participants said that they would
reuse the police as a resource, it is important to note that a substantial portion
(40 percent) said that they would not call the police in the future, eliminating
this resource for them as an option in case of violence or other emergency. As
Miller (2001) noted, avoiding the police as a resource may increase the likeli-
hood that an individual will use violence as a means of self-protection.
The in-depth interviews elicited more detailed information from parti-
cipants about the consequences they experienced from arrest. In some cases,
expenses were incurred from fees for private attorneys, or for attending treat-
ment (e.g., counseling) mandated by the court. Women also had to pay for
TABLE 2 Consequences of Getting Arrested
Consequence n%
Total
a
22 100.0
Incurred expenses >$1,000 6 27.3
Trouble getting a job 6 27.3
Lost job 4 18.2
Child protective services involvement 4 18.2
b
Lost custody 4 18.2
b
Any of the above 14 63.6
Would call the police for help in the future 13 59.1
a
8.3 percent (n¼2) missing.
b
Percentage of those who had children (n¼16).
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transportation to court dates and other appointments and sometimes also
were required to pay for child care to attend these commitments. Trouble
getting a job as a result of the arrest, in many cases, was inferred and implicit.
For example, Irene spoke of an experience in which she had an interview for
a job and the employer told her that they were ‘‘definitely interested’’ in hir-
ing her and that they just had to wait for the background check to come
through. And then she said, ‘‘I just never heard back ...that [the arrest] had
to be what it was.’’ This same participant had lost her previous job because
she had to take too much time off while incarcerated and for mandated
appointments following incarceration.
Participants spoke of multiple losses resulting from getting arrested.
Women spoke about the arrest experience leading them to depression, sui-
cide attempts, and drinking, which also impacted their financial and employ-
ment stability as well as their parenting. Felicia said, ‘‘I lost everything.’’ She
explained that, when she was released from jail, she was out on the street with
nowhere to go and no resources. Her husband had filed for divorce while she
was incarcerated, using her arrest as leverage for the divorce as well as for
custody of their children. She became homeless and her parental rights were
terminated. Erica described the multiple consequences she experienced:
It [the arrest] emotionally hurt my family. It was my grandmother’s end of
her life. I had a bad confrontation with her because of it. It did so much
damage for a period of time that my whole family, my friends, my
self-esteem, my self-worth, my everything. It certainly prolonged my
abuse with drugs over the years because it was a horrifying thing for
me. But, also, I had stigma. Working with childrento this day, when
I’m around a child what’s running through my head is, Your mom and
dad, if they know what a bad person I am, they wouldn’t let me around
you anymore. People are finicky when it comes to their children. So
there’s been many times I’ve been eager to go get a teaching job again,
being that I was a teacher before. I’m afraid that once they look at my
record and they say, ‘‘Have you ever been arrested?’’ It’s been expunged
so I really don’t have to report it but the stigma is always there. And
there’s always this fear that I’m going to be put back into jail again. So
it’s more than money, yes, but mostly emotional things that affected
and still affects.
These impactson family, friends, mental health, employment, and
financeswere common in narratives about the impacts of the arrest.
ARREST AS A (PAINFUL) CATALYST FOR CHANGE: ‘‘IT SAVED MY LIFEBUT IT
SHOULDN’T WORK LIKE THAT’’
Participants described the experience of getting arrested as traumatic and
‘‘lousy.’’ The experience was neither pleasant nor anticipated. Participants
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who were arrested did not speak of feeling supported by, or safe within, the
criminal legal system. And, yet, some participants said that getting arrested,
painful as it was, served as a catalyst to their getting away from the violence
they experienced in their relationshipthat the police intervention broke the
violence trap. Erica said that getting arrested saved her life:
The cops were completely wrong and abusive, but had they not taken
me, I wouldn’t have probably grasped how serious things were. I prob-
ably would be gonebecause I think what would have happened is they
took him, he would have gotten out the next day, come back, and killed
me, because I wouldn’t have gotten help. I would have been embar-
rassed about it. It somehow, you knowit actually worked in my favor.
It saved my life, but it shouldn’t work like that. I had to leave the situation
feeling like the abuser. ... The police, in retrospect, not that they were
trying to, but, in retrospect, the arrest saved my life.
For Erica, the police intervention served as a kind of ‘‘wake-up call,’’ alerting
her to the seriousness of the situation. She said that she would not have
sought help without this intervention because she was embarrassed and
did not think that she necessarily needed help.
Other women who were arrested also identified that the arrest experi-
ence served as a prompt to ending the relationship with the abusive partner,
which they recognized as important. Irene, who considered that she might be
able to restore the relationship (‘‘Maybe some time from now when this kind
of blows over and we get back on our feet. Maybe things will get better and
maybe we can work on the problems that we had before’’) was more
ambivalent about the arrest experience. She also identified the arrest as a
‘‘wake-up call’’ and the catalyst that broke the relationship but lamented
the negative impact of the arrest on her ability to secure employment and
income:
I guess maybe it’s a good thing that that happened because maybe if it
didn’t happen, the fights would have just continued orI don’t know. ...
It was just so awful experience, not worth it at all. Now I’m stuck with
these charges on my record. I can’t get a job and, I mean, this completely
sucks. ...It’s a major setback. Major. ...I don’t know, maybe it was a
wake-up call.
For this participant, having the police intervention caused an interruption in
the fighting with her partner and also led her to reevaluate the relationship.
This participant was, as a result of being arrested, court-mandated to counsel-
ing within an anger management program. She expressed that she felt that the
counseling was useful to her and likely to protect her from future violence
both victimization and perpetration.
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CONCLUSION
This descriptive study was based on a convenience sample of women from
a single community. Caution must be used, therefore, in generalizing the
findings beyond this group. As a descriptive study, its purpose was to
develop knowledge about an underexplored but not infrequent topic of
women who are victims of IPV and also arrested as a result of an incident
with their abusive partners. The findings from this study provide insights into
women’s experiences with getting arrested, in the women’s own words and
from their perspectives, and can further inform societal responses to IPV in
this time of aggressive police response.
The findings suggest that, not surprisingly, getting arrested was not
a favorable experience and carried high costs for the women (as has been pre-
dicted by the previous literature; e.g., Crager et al. 2003 and Miller 2001). For
the participants in this study, all of whom had experienced IPV victimization,
getting arrested was shocking because it challenged their self-identitiesthey
did not see themselves as victimizers or criminal offenders. Despite the
women’s perceptions of themselves as nonoffenders or as victims, the arrest
labeled them as deviant and, consistent with Goffman’s (1963) theory on
deviance and stigma, they were then subject to the associated consequences.
Goffman (1963:11) also noted, however, that stigmatizing events or
characteristics can lead to opportunity, reflection, and change, that the stig-
matized individual ‘‘may also see the trials [s]he has suffered as a blessing
in disguise.’’ One can see this idea reflected in participants finding that the
arrest served as a catalyst for positive change in terms of getting help or get-
ting out of the relationship. That women may have gained strength,
resources, or insights following the arrest experience, however, should not
indicate that police should arrest victims as a means of helping them. One
should not impose hardship, as one would not impose illness or disease to
promote strength that can result from suffering. Rather, the findings suggest
that victims can benefit from intervention and that other forms of intervention
that offer support without suffering should be considered.
The women expressed being trapped in a violent relationship and then
suffering the trauma of an unexpected and sudden arrest. At the same time,
the police intervention may have helped facilitate their breaking away from
the violent partner (consistent with suggestions by Finn et al. 2004 and Finn
and Bettis 2006). It is clear that getting arrested can, and typically does, carry
with it a host of negative consequences for victims, from financial strain to
depression to loss of custody of their children. But intervention can also be
helpful for women experiencing IPV. Therefore, it may be useful to have
options for emergency intervention that reduces the likelihood of victim arrest.
As a 24-hr service available to all, police are in a good position to con-
tinue with emergency response. The findings from this study, however, as
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well as Leisenring’s (2011) finding of police officers being ambivalent or
regretful about arresting victims, may indicate a need to reconsider the struc-
ture and paradigm of this emergency intervention to allow for better assess-
ment and an alternative to arrest as the sole or primary intervention. Both
O’Dell (2007) and Rajan and McCloskey (2007) recommended improving
training for officers on the dynamics of IPV and affording increased time
to conduct more complete investigations to determine criminal liability. In
the process of investigation, police may also be able to assess victim needs
and assist with connecting victims with services to promote future safety.
Women who have come to the attention of the police in IPV cases express
a need for a variety of health and social services, including medical and
mental health care, financial assistance, housing, employment services, legal
services, and parenting support (Dichter and Rhodes 2011).
Miller and Meloy (2006:108) also called for more advocacy, analysis, and
evaluation in the criminal system in IPV cases and argued that ‘‘prosecutors
can play a more directed role in uncovering the context in which the use of
force occurred, using their discretion to detect true offenders from victims
who fought back.’’ The study presented here suggests that the arrest itself,
even without prosecution, can have negative consequences for women vic-
tims, thus leading to the argument that the evaluation and alternatives should
take place at the juncture of police intervention, before a case proceeds to
the prosecutor’s office.
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... These lawsuits helped to usher in a number of mandatory and pro-arrest laws across North America (Durfee & Fetzer, 2014;Fraehlich & Ursel, 2014), intended to mitigate the influence of police officer use of discretion in arrest. They have been met with mixed reactions as their deterring effect on recidivism has been shown to be moderate to minimal (Chesney-Lind, 2002;Petersson & Strand, 2020), while arrest rates for women who are arguably more often victims and survivors have increased (Chesney-Lind, 2002;Dichter, 2013;Fraehlich & Ursel, 2014). The increase in dual arrests that resulted from these laws have spurred intense debates among advocates regarding the blaming effect on survivors (Dichter, 2013), and raise additional concerns in relationships where children are placed in CW when both parents are arrested. ...
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... The increase in dual arrests that resulted from these laws have spurred intense debates among advocates regarding the blaming effect on survivors (Dichter, 2013), and raise additional concerns in relationships where children are placed in CW when both parents are arrested. A call to the police for IPV can result in significant family disruption, with a number of systems including CW, as well as family and criminal courts becoming involved in a family's life for an extended period of time (Dichter, 2013). ...
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... Our caution is also influenced by a history of evidence of women's criminalisation as a result of being incorrectly identified as the predominant aggressor of family violence for their use of defensive violence (Cavanagh, 2003;Wangmann, 2009;Dichter, 2013;Judicial College of Victoria, 2018;Ulbrick & Jago 2018). Consistently and correctly identifying the person most in need of protection in family violence must be a priority before new laws are created. ...
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The misidentification of women as predominant aggressors has emerged as a topical issue in family violence research, with feminist scholarship suggesting that such trends may be attributed to a range of factors, including incident-based policing and a misunderstanding of the ways in which women use violence against their partners. Where existing research has primarily focused on policing practices in relation to misidentification, this article explores the impacts of misidentification on the lives of women victim–survivors of family violence in Victoria (Australia), a jurisdiction that has recently seen significant reforms to family violence systems in the wake of the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence (2016). Using data from interviews with 32 system stakeholders and survey responses from 11 women who have experienced misidentification in Victoria, this study explores misidentification within the family violence intervention order system. It demonstrates that being misidentified as a predominant aggressor on a family violence intervention order can have a significant impact on women’s lives and their access to safety, highlighting the need for improved policing and court responses to the issue beyond existing reforms.
... This action is primarily driven by police failure to examine the context of the relationship, such as the victim-survivor's use of self-defense or retaliatory violence (Miller, 2005). Research has further shown that victim-survivors may not present as the "ideal victim" due to being emotional, angry, or hostile because of the perpetrator's behavior, whereas as perpetrators often present as calm and calculated (Dichter, 2013). Where police fail to identify a perpetrator's manipulation of the situation through coercive control and image management, the predominant victim is at an increased risk of being misidentified as a perpetrator, leading to an increase in the arrest of women in the context of DFV. ...
Chapter
In the last fifty years, a wide body of research on domestic and family violence (DFV) has emerged, much of which focuses on victim-survivor experience with the criminal justice system. DFV is an area of rapid law reform, most notably in western nations such as the US, UK and Australia, as legislative bodies attempt to align policies with emerging knowledges and best practice principles. Policy and law reform, however, has seen a tension between limiting and enhancing victim autonomy in the criminal justice system process. In the most part, policies have focused on the former, reflecting the understanding that DFV is a crime against the state, thus rendering a victim’s ability to choose how they wish to seek protection a secondary priority. For some women, a mandatory criminal justice system intervention may be a useful tool in seeking protection and addresses past limitations of legal responses to DFV, wherein the violence committed by men against women was largely ignored. However, for many other women, engagement in the criminal or civil justice systems may both enhance risks to safety, as well as further engrain disadvantage. Whilst DFV policies have been well-intended and reflective of the growing shift towards recognising DFV as a significant public health issue, the same policies have largely ignored the voices of marginalized women and the ways in which ‘choice’ may manifest differently for different women. This chapter examines the unintended consequences of DFV reforms relating to justice responses, which disproportionately affect some victims. It highlights the importance of a more nuanced approach in police and court responses to DFV to minimize adverse effects on victim survivor voice and help-seeking.
... The women who are victims of violence may also fear that they themselves will be arrested by the police if they report incidents and also fear that they themselves may die in custody (Karaminia et al., 2007;Kerley & Cunneen, 1995;Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, 1991; see also Dichter, 2013). The women may be exhibiting characteristic "battered women syndrome" in their reluctance to report intimate partner violence. ...
Technical Report
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This report identifies priorities for reducing and preventing violence against, and improving services for, Aboriginal women in the Victorian and New South Wales towns of Mildura, Albury and Wodonga. The study contributes to the evidence base on best quality practices to strengthen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and services in meeting the needs of women and their children experiencing family violence. This report also describes aspects of the frontline family violence workforce and services, both Aboriginal and non-Indigenous, in order to obtain an understanding of their capability to improve the safety of women and children experiencing violence.
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