Research Aims to Protect Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence

(Photo: Getty Images)

Study will focus on creating evidence-based pretrial safety assessment aimed at increasing safety for survivors during pretrial period.

By Matt Keyser
National Partnership for Pretrial Justice
Published: Dec. 10, 2021

Nearly a third of women in the United States are physically abused by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

One in four report severe abuse, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. When this abuse results in criminal charges, the pretrial stage can continue to be a dangerous time for survivors of intimate partner violence. Harassment can continue without escalating to behavior punishable by criminal law. Violence can erupt quickly and unexpectedly.

That’s why researchers with the University of Central Florida and Arizona State University, an NPPJ partner, are working on a project to increase safety for survivors of intimate partner violence. The two universities are conducting a study to create a pretrial safety assessment guide that will grant judges better insight when considering pretrial release for people charged with intimate partner violence.

“Women are dying in this period,” said Bethany Backes, an assistant professor with the University of Central Florida and co-lead investigator for the study. “When survivors separate or become estranged from their partner, it’s a time of heightened intensity and the probability of homicide increases.”

The goal of the study is to create an evidence-based assessment that will focus on the safety of the survivor. The study is supported by Arnold Ventures, which also supports the National Partnership for Pretrial Justice.

As part of the study, survivors will complete weekly assessments that focus on the types of abuse they experience during the pretrial period. Those assessments, along with other criminal justice data, will allow researchers to provide safety-based recommendations for judges who will ultimately make pretrial decisions for people charged with intimate partner violence.

Pretrial release conditions in intimate partner violence cases regularly mandate no contact with the survivor, but other forms of harassment and abuse can occur that often aren’t tracked. Backes said survivors during the pretrial period will routinely face stalking, online harassment, or the accused expressing suicidal thoughts—behaviors that largely go unreported to police.

“This study will help us better understand what abuse is occurring during the pretrial period and ensure it is addressed in our recommendations to judges,” Backes said. “Post-arrest and the time waiting for trial are delicate. Those who use violence against their partners often try to reconcile, threaten, and intimidate survivors. This will help us better understand what abuse is occurring during the pretrial period and ensure it is addressed in our recommendations for judges.”

The study is the first of its kind that directly focuses on pretrial decisions regarding intimate partner violence, Backes said. Other pretrial risk assessments focus on factors such as failure to appear to future court appearances or likelihood to commit a new crime while released.

“When a judge is making these decisions, we want them to consider how safe the survivor is going to be,” said Jill Messing, a professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University and co-lead investigator on the study. “It’s a different approach to the criminal justice process because what we’re concerned about is that this violence is occurring and it tends to happen more than once,” she added. “People don’t call the police the first time they get assaulted. They don’t call the police every time they get assaulted.”

Messing notes that not all survivors resort to calling the police on their partners, for a variety of reasons.

“Maybe that person might be the father of their children, or somebody who brings home a paycheck, or it might be that their childcare is dependent on their partner’s family,” Messing said. “So there are all of these considerations in terms of how do we make these decisions for intimate partner violence survivors during the pretrial period.”

There are also other reasons why survivors don’t look to law enforcement for help dealing with intimate partner violence.

In her book, “Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color,” author Andrea J. Ritchie notes that survivors can be punished or criminalized by police for not assisting in the prosecution or their accused partners, particularly women of color.

“Survivors face challenges and violence throughout the entire course of the criminal justice system—from arrest to incarceration and eventual release,” Ritchie writes.

For example, in 2016 prosecutors in Harris County, Texas, locked a 25-year-old rape survivor in jail for more than a month to ensure that she would testify at trial.

“The woman, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, had a mental breakdown on the witness stand and then was jailed by Harris County prosecutors who feared she wouldn’t come back to court,” the Houston Chronicle reported at the time.

The district attorney lost her reelection campaign that year, and the state responded by passing a law to ensure that witnesses had access to an attorney before being jailed, but the damage had been done.