A recent article in the News and Observer, Wake Couple Had a Tumultuous Past, reports on the horrible death of Jammie Street, as well as the murder charge for her death that was filed against her boyfriend, Daniel Montgomery. The article describes the various legal remedies Street had (and had not) taken in the several months before her death. The article notes: the victim, Street, "stayed silent" about an assault charge pending against her boyfriend- Montgomery- during a court hearing against him; Street allowed a protective order against Montgomery to expire; and Street allowed Montgomery to move back into her home after an assault incident.
By highlighting these aspects of this sad, horrific event, the article draws our attention to the strategies that violence victims do (and do not use) in their efforts to seek safety, end violence, and protect their lives. It is all too easy for those of us on the outside of a violent relationship to ask "Why doesn't she just leave?" or "Why doesn't she call the police?" or "Why not take out and keep a protection order?" The average person who has not had experience with partner violence tends to think that anything that helps a victim leave a violent relationship should increase her safety. Sadly, the realities of partner violence are complex, and these easy questions do not fully capture the challenges of violence victims' lives.
Though I cannot speak to the realities of this horrible situation (I have no knowledge of the event beyond what I read in the paper online today), I can speak to what the research says about legal and safety strategies that seek to enhance safety, end violence, and prevent partner homicides.
Research on the effectiveness of safety services and legal remedies for partner violence is not clear-cut. For example, a 2003 report from the National Institute of Justice, authored by Laura Dugan, Daniel S. Nagin and Richard Rosenfeld, found that some interventions (e.g., restraining orders, arrest, or shelter protection) may result in angering or threatening an abusive partner without providing the victim with any additional protections. So the strategies that the average person tends to think are helpful may- in fact- make violence worse in some situations for some victims.
It is worth noting here that this same research also found that there are two policies that do seem to lower violence victims' exposure to retaliatory abuse from violent partners. These policies are warrantless arrest laws and higher AFDC benefit levels.
However, Dugan and her colleagues do not conclude that legal and safety services should be abandoned as strategies to prevent partner violence deaths. Rather, these researchers recommend that such prevention efforts should be tailored to victims' individual needs and risk situations. Therefore, though a protection order may be helpful for one victim, it may not be helpful for another victim. Likewise, a protection order that may have been helpful to a victim at one time, may no longer offer the same benefits with a change in the victim's circumstances or situation.
Research on partner violence also shows that victims are not only concerned with ending violence and securing safety, they must also grapple with employment, the financial realities of their lives, housing, parenting, as well as their responsibilities to friends and family (just to name a few examples). Taryn Lindhorst, Paula Nurius and I have written research on how the complex challenges of violence victims' lives can complicate or impede their efforts to seek safety. In this research, we also describe comprehensive safety planning strategies (for use by domestic violence advocates, counselors, social workers, and health care providers) that can help victims manage the complex realities of their lives as they work toward safety.
Another evidence-based strategy that can be useful in developing an individualized safety plan for victims is the Danger Assessment Instrument developed by Jacquelyn C. Campbell. (Detailed information on the instrument, including a web-based training can be found here.) Research shows that the risk of partner violence homicide is highest when a victim makes efforts to leave a violent relationship (see Dugan and colleague's research again on this point). Thus, this instrument can be useful in helping victims to assess the risk of their current situation. In turn, such risk information can help a health care provider, human service provider or advocate work with a victim to plan her safety and her family's safety.
Taken together, the research I described here shows that we should never second guess violence victims' actions. Further, this research makes me think that rather than asking what the victim should do differently, we should be asking what can our organizations and communities could be doing differently to help protect victims and prevent partner violence. In preventing partner violence homicides, the most helpful and most important questions to ask are the ones that we ask ourselves.