By Judge Rob Canas
As I sit down to write this article, it has been about ten days since four women lost their lives in a domestic violence incident that threw the cities of Dallas and DeSoto into a state of shock. I am sure that event would have galvanized more of a community response if domestic violence murders were rarer events.
To offer some perspective, on September 11, 2001 over 3,000 Americans lost their lives in a terroristic attack and look how our country responded. Every year, over 3,000 American women lose their lives to intimate partners in domestic violence incidents but the response to this fact can barely be felt or seen.
That is not to say that there has not been any response. In fact, the national movement to begin changing attitudes about domestic violence began back in the 1970’s as a branch of the women’s equality movement. Freedom from violence in one’s home is a fundamental civil right, especially for women and their children. Domestic violence really became a national topic of discussion when the O.J. Simpson case captured the nation’s attention in 1994. In that year, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (hereinafter “VAWA”). VAWA provided money for communities to use to improve their response to domestic violence.
Locally, Dallas County’s responses to domestic violence often mirrored the nation’s responses. Some of the first women’s shelters in Dallas opened in the 1970’s. In the 1990’s, the Dallas District Attorney’s Office utilizing VAWA funds established a specialized domestic violence unit and County Criminal Court #10 became the first specialized domestic violence court in Texas.
The concept of specialization for domestic violence courts is critical because domestic violence is a counter-intuitive problem. For example, many people believe that domestic violence is an anger issue, when really it is a power and control issue. Or people will ask “why doesn’t she leave?”, thinking it is the victim who has the power to stop the violence, when really the question to ask is “why does he hit her,” since it is the abuser who is responsible for the violence, and the only one who can stop it. Sometimes people who are not trained to understand domestic violence become police officers, prosecutors and judges. The results are often is disastrous for victims and their children as their safety is jeopardized and offenders are not held accountable.
Judges with specialized domestic violence training are critical to holding offenders accountable. Offenders often try to minimize or deny their use of violence or try to blame the victim by suggesting she did something to justify the use of violence. A judge without specialized training is more susceptible to these messages. For example, an offender may argue “I only pushed her” or “I only slapped her” as an attempt to minimize the violence and thus attempt to escape consequences. A trained judge learns to expect these arguments, refuse to accept them and remain focused on sending the message of accountability to the offender.
Assessing the safety risks a victim faces is the hardest part of a judge’s job, and the most critical. Many victims want to keep their family together but they want the violence to stop. Thus the issue becomes whether the offender can be trusted to stay with his family. The difficulty lies in that facts that what may seem proof of a minimal threat may actually be a factor indicating high-risk for more violence. For example, an offender may make a comment to his victim such as “We are meant to be together until the day that we die.” In a healthy relationship, this may be understood as a romantic statement but in a relationship with violence in it, this comment is possible evidence of an unhealthy fixation that could be a precursor to more violence. A judge without specific training may not be able to differentiate between the two.
In her call for action, Hillary Rodham Clinton stated that violence against women affects their “health and well-being; it hurts children and families and poses considerable costs to societies – economically and socially.” The criminal justice system is a critical part of the coordinated community response to domestic violence and judges being at the top of that system can enhance or undermine that response. That is why, when after nearly twenty years of developing best practices, having specially trained judges versus untrained judges still remains the most appropriate way to run a domestic violence court.
Judge Canas was elected in 2006 when Dallas County turned blue. Judge Canas’ court was recently named a Mentor Court by the Department of Justice, one of only three for the whole country. He also is a member of the faculty for the National Judicial Institute on Domestic Violence and travels around the country to train judges about domestic violence.
The op-ed was submitted on behalf of North Dallas Texas Democratic Women.