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When The Only Legal Option For Domestic Violence Victims Is To Not Survive

The first time my mother called the police on my father, I was 13. He had violently shaken her and had thrown a chair at her. The police contacted my father who, upon finding out what my mother had done, confronted her in the kitchen later that week as she was making dinner. He threatened to kill her if she ever called the police on him again.

The next time the police were called on my father, my mother was already dead in an alley, with seven gunshot wounds to her chest.

Domestic violence is a public health issue. Homicide is one of the leading causes of death for women in the United States ages 44 and younger. Last year, the CDC noted that at least half of all female homicide victims in the U.S. were killed by a former or current intimate partner. It’s estimated that at least 1 in 4 women will suffer extreme violence at the hands of those who purportedly love them.

Although domestic violence affects women across race, class and geographic location, it does not affect them equally. Black and Indigenous women, for example, have the highest risk of homicide, according to the CDC. Additionally, Black women ages 25-29 are about 11 times more likely than white women in that age group to be murdered while pregnant.

For many victims of domestic violence, not unlike my mother, calling the police often puts them at even greater risk of further abuse, criminalization and death.

Mandatory arrest policies, which require police to make an arrest when responding to a domestic violence call, have been shown to lead to greater fatalities, disproportionately affecting low-income women of color. Research has shown that victims are 64 percent more likely to be killed if their partners are arrested instead of being warned and permitted to remain in the home. In many cases, domestic violence homicides occur at homes that police have visited multiple times. Calling the police is simply not a viable option for many victims of domestic violence.

There is a dire need for alternatives that exist outside the realm of carceral feminism, which relies heavily on policing and incarceration in an effort to end domestic violence. Shelters today are one of the few alternatives for seeking help out of an abusive relationship, but many shelters do not cater to the needs of those who could benefit the most.

Undocumented survivors face a unique set of challenges when attempting to seek access to safety out of an abusive situation. They do not feel safe calling the police because of fear surrounding their or their perpetrator’s deportation. In a study conducted with 400 undocumented women living in the Bay Area in 1990, 34 percent had experienced domestic violence; only six women, however, had called the police for help.

Following President Donald Trump’s election, domestic violence calls to the police by Latinos in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego have been declining, whereas reporting by non-Latinos remained practically the same. These victims are often left with two destructive options: deportation or continued abuse.

When I began working at a domestic violence shelter in Oakland, California, fellow staff told me that we do not serve non-English speakers. Even in regions as linguistically diverse as the San Francisco Bay Area, where at least 112 languages are spoken, many domestic violence shelters do not offer interpreters, which means that a vast and already disenfranchised population is not being served.

For women who do not and cannot trust the police for help, shelters are oftentimes a last resort. Marginalized women continue to be pushed further to the margins, unable to attain the resources that are paramount to their survival.

Women lacking the resources to protect themselves from their abusers often face criminal punishment.

Anna Nepomuceno, a Filipina immigrant mother, gained full custody of her two daughters, ages 17 and 5, after learning that their father was allegedly sexually abusing them. The Napa County District Attorney’s Office charged Nepomuceno with child abduction in 2014 after she went to the Philippines to visit her sick father and took her younger daughter with her. Nepomuceno was arrested when she returned to the U.S. and refused to give the younger daughter to the girl’s father. The #RiseWithAnna campaign mobilized around Nepomuceno, who was facing a possible 13-year sentence. In 2015, she was acquitted on all charges.

In 2012, Marissa Alexander fired a warning shot into the wall of her home after a physical altercation with her estranged husband, Rico Gray. Alexander, a Black mother of three, said that she was in fear for her life, and used Florida’s stand-your-ground law as her defense. A judge sentenced her to 20 years in prison despite this law ― the same one that was effective in getting George Zimmerman out on bail following his killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The Free Marissa campaign supported her in appealing her case, which led to a reduced sentence. She served three years before being released in January 2015, and served the following two years under house arrest.

Similarly, Bresha Meadows, a Black teenage girl who made countless attempts to receive help ― from family members, teachers and law enforcement ― killed her allegedly abusive father in 2016. Then just 14 years old, Meadows faced the possibility of being tried as an adult, which could have meant a life sentence for aggravated murder. The #FreeBresha campaign successfully advocated against Meadows being tried as an adult. She was ultimately sentenced to one year in juvenile detention and six months at a mental health facility. She left the facility in February and will remain on probation for the next two years.

The mass mobilization efforts made for these women are, unfortunately, anomalies. Women and girls just like Marissa, Anna and Bresha remain incarcerated and will keep their criminal records.

"For many victims of domestic violence, not unlike my mother, calling the police often puts them at even greater risk of further abuse, criminalization and death."

Women are currently the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population, with an overwhelming 79 percent of those in prison having suffered physical abuse before their arrest. As many as 90 percent of the women who are incarcerated for killing a man were battered by that same person.

Shelters must be more accessible for all women seeking safety from their abusers, including the poor, the undocumented, the criminalized and non-English speakers. The idea that law enforcement is the only option to ending domestic violence must be counteracted with practical options for women existing at the margins of society.

In my domestic violence training with the San Francisco Asian Women’s Shelter, we learn that survivor-centeredness and a margin-to-center approach is at the core of the framework. This means to know the basic needs of survivors, and to address those needs. It also means a collective effort must be made to prioritize the most vulnerable victims of domestic violence. Listening to survivors, and understanding their needs, is key to being able to support them.

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