Many victims of ongoing abuse use violence against their batterers. Some of that violence is legal and some is not. Communities need to be organized to respond in ways that prioritize the safety of the victim of ongoing abuse who may use force against her batterer in an attempt to stop the violence.

Police officers, prosecutors, and advocates need tools to make distinctions between battering and self-defense or resistive force. Without access to those tools (such as 3 questions to assess for risk & danger in cases of battering, The Blueprint for Safety Practitioners’ Guide to Risk and Danger in Domestic Violence Cases, and Blueprint for Safety Appendix 1C: Training Memo – Interventions with Victims of Battering as Suspects or Defendants), practitioners may make decisions that protect neither party, may embolden the batterer, and may make victims more vulnerable to violence by the batterer. The wrong assessment and response by law enforcement can have serious consequences for victims and their children in any subsequent child protection, custody, or immigration matter. For this reason, the AIR Manual details a response to victims of ongoing battering who have been arrested for violence; these victims are referred to as “victim-defendants.”

Most batterers will claim to be the victim of abuse by the person they batter, making it sometimes difficult to determine who is the batterer and who is the victim. During the initial AIR contact with a victim, if the advocate suspects they are talking to a person who is the batterer in the relationship, they pass this information on to the follow-up advocate who will contact the victim-defendant via phone or visit her in jail. The initial AIR call may indicate that the advocate is talking with the batterer in the following ways:

  • knowing/suspecting that the arrested party received or is currently receiving services from the advocacy program
  • responses to risk assessment questions (“I’m not afraid of her” or “she could never kill me”)
  • comments they make about the incident (“she’s crazy” or “she’s drunk” or “I am not afraid of her” or the story doesn’t really make sense)
  • review of the police report
  • other indications that their story doesn’t add up

For cases involving same sex intimate partners, explore the following resources: Introduction to Screening and Assessment for Abusive Dynamics and Power and Control Wheel in LGTB Relationships, from New York Anti-Violence Programs; LGBTQ Partner Abuse for Providers and Intimate Partner Screening Tool Training, from theNetworklaRed; and Signs of Abuse, from Gay & Lesbian Center.

There are varying perspectives on what advocates should not talk about with victim-defendants, especially related to the specific incident for which she was arrested. There is, however, consensus on what the advocate should talk about with her. This includes talking with her to:

  • assess her and her children’s safety concerns and the impact of the arrest on her and her children
  • discuss the court process
  • discuss the history of violence in the relationship
  • discuss the implications of a guilty plea
  • explain release options and criminal no-contact orders
  • and, importantly, discuss the availability of an attorney to help with her defense in court

Working with law enforcement agencies to implement self-defense and predominant aggressor determinations by patrol response and investigators is one key to reducing the number of battered women who are arrested (read about the top 3 law enforcement practices to reduce the arrest rates of battered women in Praxis Rural Digest, Issue 2). Advocates should also have proactive conversations with the defense bar about the advocate’s role in assisting victim-defendants (see also Working with Battered Women in Jail: A Manual for Community-Based Battered Women’s Advocates). They have unique insights regarding whether court rules or state laws on confidentiality and privilege adequately protect confidential communications with the victim-defendants. They can also discuss ways information advocates receive can assist with the defense strategy (with permission from the victim-defendant).

For battered women who get arrested, an advocate’s role is critical to building responses that account for the fuller context of her use of violence, for both individual victim-defendants and all battered women.

Listen to the following rural webinars for more guidance on advocacy with victim-defendants: