Court-Involved Battered Women's Responses to Violence: The Role of Psychological, Physical, and Sexual Abuse

Article excerpt

Failure to understand the importance of psychological abuse as a component of domestic violence can result in little appreciation for the complexity of victims' experience and thus a failure to provide the most effective intervention. This study examined the role of psychological abuse, physical violence, injury, and sexual abuse in predicting court-involved women's (1) prior attempts to seek help from the justice system and to leave the battering relationship, (2) use of criminal prosecution and civil protection orders, and (3) traumatic stress reactions. At the univariate level, each abuse variable was significantly associated with at least one strategic response and all traumatic responses to violence. Multivariate analyses revealed that strategic responses were largely predicted by injury and physical assault, whereas traumatic responses were mainly predicted by psychological abuse. Taken together, these findings demonstrate the important role of both physical and psychological abuse in shaping women's responses to domestic violence.

Domestic violence research has continued to expand over the past two decades. Yet only recently has research begun to examine systematically the role of psychological abuse in the context of physically violent relationships. While the severity of physical violence is an important element of battered women's experience, it is critical to understand the entire configuration of coercive control tactics (Stark, 1995). Coercive control can be accomplished through psychological abuse, maintaining control achieved through physical means (Ganley, 1989).

Psychological abuse, along with physical abuse, sexual abuse, and abuse to property and pets (Ascione, 1998) are major dimensions of intimate partner violence (Ganley, 1989). More than half of a community sample of physically abused battered women (Follingstad, Rutledge, Berg, Hause, & Polek, 1990) reported a high frequency (i.e., once a week or more) of three types of emotional abuse: restriction, batterer jealousy, and ridicule. Higher levels of psychological abuse have been reported in physically abusive than in either dissatisfied, but nonabusive, or satisfied relationships (Carbone, 1996; Tolman, in press). Furthermore, O'Leary and his colleagues (O'Leary, Malone, & Tyree, 1994) have shown that psychological abuse significantly predicts the development of physical abuse in marital relationships.

Few studies to date have focused on battered women in the justice system. While most studies have included shelter or community samples, we know far less about women who seek legal remedies-either civil or criminal. The justice system is a critical point of contact and intervention for some battered women yet, in two multistate studies, between 25% and 56% of women did not obtain permanent civil protection orders following the issuance of a temporary order (Keilitz, Hannaford, & Efkeman, 1997), mostly because the batterer stopped bothering her. Prosecutors have developed "no drop" policies and other responses to the problem of uncooperative victims in the criminal prosecution of domestic violence cases (Rebovich, 1996). We know little about what specific factors contribute to women's decisions not to use court resources.

The aim of this study was to investigate the relative role of psychological, physical, and sexual intimate partner abuse among predominately African American women involved in the criminal justice system in shaping strategic and traumatic stress responses to intimate partner violence.

Predicting Women's Strategic Responses to Violence

Strategic responses are defined as helpseeking and other types of behaviors battered women employ to protect themselves and their children from domestic violence (Dutton, 1993). Research has shown that battered women are active in their help-seeking effort (Gondolf & Fisher, 1988; Hutchinson & ahirschel, 1998). Some previous research has examined the relationship between abuse characteristics and women's strategic responses to violence. …