Understanding the Connection between Domestic Violence, Crime, and Poverty: How Welfare Reform May Keep Battered Women from Leaving Abusive Relationships

By Moore, ShelA D. | Texas Journal of Women and the Law, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Understanding the Connection between Domestic Violence, Crime, and Poverty: How Welfare Reform May Keep Battered Women from Leaving Abusive Relationships


Moore, ShelA D., Texas Journal of Women and the Law


I. Introduction

Much of the attention given to battered women as criminal defendants has historically focused on the issue of self-defense when abused women assault, seriously injure, or kill their abusive husbands or partners to prevent further battering and ultimately to escape the abuse.1 Indeed, feminist legal theorists seemed slow to embrace the connection between violence against women and the crimes women commit.2 Feminist legal scholars concerned with the "intersection of domestic violence, criminal law, and women as defendants have concentrated most of their . . . energies on developing a viable self-defense theory for women who are prosecuted for killing abusive spouses or intimate others."3

It is within this context that defense attorneys and other advocates of women's rights have often relied on self-defense to justify a woman's criminal behavior, employing the "Battered Woman Syndrome"4 or some similar psychological disability to explain why an abused woman committed a crime against her batterer, particularly when the threat to her was not immediate.5

However, since clinical psychologist Dr. Lenore Walker initially introduced the term "Battered Woman Syndrome,"6 battered woman's jurisprudence has moved beyond the psychological disability of an abused woman as a primary concern. The change has been slow. It has come, at least in part, due to criticism from scholars and lawyers who argue that the use of battered woman syndrome to explain why and how a woman chooses to defend herself is disempowering because it carries the baggage of victimization.7 Further, it is neither accessible nor welcoming to a large number of battered women because it does not recognize the complex interplay of racism and classism in the criminal justice system.8 In fact, Sue Osthoff, Director of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women indicates:

The term "Battered Woman Syndrome" does not adequately reflect the breadth or nature of knowledge concerning battering and its effects, nor should we restrict the testimony about the effects of battering to a discussion of whether or not a woman suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Testimony about "battering and its effects" is a more accurate representation of the range of issues on the nature and dynamics of battering, the effects of violence, battered women's responses to violence, and the social and psychological context in which domestic violence occurs, all of which are relevant to a battered woman's defense claim.9

It is within this context that advocates for battered women have begun to redefine their mission and refocus their collective energy to consider the full range of problems abused women face.10

By asserting that there has been a refocusing of energies in battered women's defense work, I do not mean to suggest that the abuse of women has diminished11 or that the complexities of these private relationships do not have serious public consequences. Indeed, battered women continue to suffer a number of indignities as a result of being victimized by abuse. For example, they are denied housing and insurance because they are abused.12 Similarly, they are denied custody of their children.13 Further, battered women are unable to obtain or maintain steady employment because they are in or are attempting to flee abusive relationships.14 Often, these women are poor or lower middle class.15 Clearly, low economic status does not afford security to women trying to leave their batterers. As a result, abused women's ability to successfully escape such relationships may be inextricably tied to their ability to rely on protection from our current welfare system.16 These issues are further complicated when race is added to the equation.17

It should come as no surprise that women who are in abusive relationships or who at one time experienced domestic violence from a spouse or male partner commit other violent and nonviolent crimes.

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