How today’s laws protect abuse victims

State coalition a watchdog of domestic violence legislation
By Sara Bruestle | Mar 18, 2015

The following article is the seventh in an eight-part series produced by The Beacon on domestic violence. Called the Domestic Violence Awareness Project, the series aims to educate our readers while offering information – and hope – to those needing help.

True or false? There were no laws to protect victims of domestic violence in Washington state until 1979.


In 1979, the Legislature declared that “the official response to cases of domestic violence shall stress the enforcement of the laws to protect the victim and shall communicate the attitude that violent behavior is not excused or tolerated.”

If victims called 911 for help before 1979, the police would only separate the victims from their abusers for a day, maybe longer, to allow the aggressors to “cool off.”

“They didn’t do much more than that because it was considered a private, family matter,” said Lisa Campbell, legal advocacy director for Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County. “They weren’t going to be involved in that.”

However, it soon became clear that the law was not being consistently implemented by law enforcement and, therefore, not adequately protecting victims.

Although the law recognized that domestic violence is not a “private wrong” but a serious crime that leads to a significant percentage of homicides, rapes and assaults, not all abusers would get arrested.

It was oftentimes up to the victims whether the police arrested their abuser and took them to jail.

“They’d ask the victim, ‘Do you want them to go to jail?’ and of course they would say yes,” Campbell said. “Then the person abusing them would say, ‘You’re the one who put me in jail.’

“That put a lot of burden on the victim with the fear that they were the one who made this decision.”

So, in 1984, the Legislature passed the Domestic Violence Protection Act, which made it mandatory for police to arrest domestic violence offenders.

“Though it was illegal, a lot of times it wasn’t leading to arrest, so the new law addressed the inconsistency of police response,” said Kelly Starr, spokesperson for the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “It was really to get away from the cool-off-and-walk-around-the-block mentality.”

The law also created protection orders, giving victims an opportunity to get protection through the legal system if, for whatever reason, they didn’t want to rely only on the police.

Today, Washington domestic violence laws are numerous, with the purpose of protecting victims and holding offenders accountable.

Statutes passed since 1984 include the addition of stalking to the legal definition of domestic violence, the lowering of the mandatory arrest age to 16, and limits on an abuser’s time with their children.

The legislation also encourages victims to protect themselves and their families by leaving their abusers and taking advantage of the domestic violence services available, including no-contact orders, shelters, transitional housing, legal advocacy, education and more.

The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence 
is a statewide non-profit organization committed to ending domestic violence through advocacy and action for social change.

Its advocates serve as the “watchdogs” for domestic violence victims. Every legislative session, they are in Olympia, weighing in on legislation that deals with and/or impacts domestic violence.

They analyze domestic violence cases, statistics, policies and practices in and out of the state.

“We take an independent look at specific homicides and everything that led up to it,” Starr said. “Were there missed opportunities for intervention? Are we protecting victims? Are we holding offenders accountable?”

Just like in 1979, advocates often determine that state laws still aren’t adequately protecting victims and holding offenders accountable – and that just passing more laws isn’t the answer.

“Oftentimes, there’s a gap between policy and practice,” Starr said. “These are complex and nuanced crimes. That’s been a struggle.

“A new law may pass, but practical steps need to happen to implement it across the state. It happens at different times, at different paces, with different levels of effectiveness.”

Other issues arise because victims don’t want to involve the legal system.

Maybe they have a criminal history themselves. Maybe they’ve called for help before, but their abuser wasn’t held accountable. Maybe they’ve been threatened that the violence will escalate if they try. Maybe they’re too afraid to testify in court. Maybe English isn’t their first language.

“We always encourage it, but it’s really up to the victim,” Campbell said of legal protections. “They have to decide what’s in their best interests.

“Is it going to make them safer or upset this person so much more, to cause them to escalate their behavior?”

For example, Campbell said, “a protection order is just a piece of paper. If they (an abuser) really want to get to a victim, that paper doesn’t mean anything to them.”

Still, many victims do turn to them for help. Every year, DVS assists an average of 1,000 clients from Snohomish County through the legal system.

Starr pointed out yet another shortfall: A lot of times, victims don’t get the protection they need because what their abuser does isn’t against the law.

“Emotional abuse, manipulating the kids – these aren’t illegal,” Starr said, “and they are often the hardest to untangle yourself from, so you can’t actually rely on one system alone.”

“These laws aren’t going to meet the range of ways that abusers control their partners.”

Starr said that’s why the coalition’s mission is twofold: There has to be social change in order to end domestic violence.

A lot has changed since 1984. Not only do advocates work to modernize domestic violence laws, they also work to change the kinds of services available to victims.

Today, their focus on both fronts is prevention, including the promotion of awareness, education and healthy relationships.

“We’re never going to end this thing if we wait until they’re (victims) in crisis,” Starr said. "We've got to work toward prevention before it (domestic violence) will stop for good."

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