Legal Issues for Battered Women Research Paper

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It is a rare battered woman who does not find herself in the middle of a legal problem at some point in her relationship with the man who batters her. While it is acknowledged that at times the man is the victim and the woman is the perpetrator in heterosexual relationships, and same-sex partners also abuse one another, this research paper is written with the focus on the woman as the victim and the man as the perpetrator. Although the law is gender neutral, there is less experience in most areas of the law in dealing with the male domestic violence victims in heterosexual relationships or abuse victims of same-sex partners, who are still in many ways not protected by the law, especially under family law. However, where there are experiences in using the legal system in gender-neutral ways, these will be described.

The most common area of the law for the battered woman to have some contact with is family law, especially if there is a custody battle or disagreement about access to children as the marriage begins to come apart. Since so many of the children exposed to domestic violence in their homes are negatively impacted by the abuse they are exposed to or experience themselves, juvenile court, where child abuse and neglect or delinquency are adjudicated, may be another area that battered women must deal with. If the police get involved or if a battered woman files for a restraining order, she may be faced with being a witness in criminal court where her partner will be arraigned and prosecuted, especially if he violates the court’s no contact order. If she should try to kill her partner in what she believes is self-defense, then she will be under the criminal justice system’s jurisdiction; if someone dies, then probate court might get involved. Finally, if she decides to file in court for damages due to personal injury by her partner, then her case will be handled in civil court with a personal injury lawsuit that may go to a jury trial. In all of these cases, forensic psychologists, who can provide expert testimony about the psychological impact of domestic violence, may be involved.


I. Family Court

II. Child Custody and Visitation

A. Presumptions

B. Removal of Children from the State

III. Validity of Prenuptial Agreements

IV. Child Protection Dependency and Delinquency Courts

A. Dependency Court and Child Protection Issues

B. Delinquency Courts

V. Other Civil Courts and Personal Injury Tort Cases

VI. Criminal Courts

A. Restraining or Protective Orders

B. Assault

VII. Women Who Kill in Self-Defense

VIII. Legal Use of Battered Woman Syndrome

IX. Psychological Evaluation and Battered Woman Syndrome

X. Conclusion

Family Court

It is often thought that battered women do not leave abusive relationships; in fact, those who are married stay in the marriage only about the same length of time as the national average—about six years (Walker 1984/2000). Even so, many battered women leave after a very short time, while others may stay twenty years or longer. When they are ready to leave, it still may take three to five attempts before they can make the final break. Battered women, like most people, do not want to break up the family. Batterers do not want to let the woman and children go. If there are young children still in the home when the battered woman leaves and ends the relationship, the batterer often engages in a custody battle that keeps him in control of his former wife and children.

Child Custody and Visitation

Typically, the custody problems begin when the legal papers are filed for dissolution of the marriage (Bancroft and Silverman 2002; Jaffe and Geffner 1998; Jaffe, Lemon, and Poisson 2003). If the abusive partner has not had a lot of contact with the children, which occurs in very traditional marriages where the father is the wage earner and the mother takes care of the children, then the typical visitation patterns that the court orders may give him more contact and time alone with the children than he or the children are used to. If the children refuse to visit their father or are difficult for him to handle, the mother is usually held responsible and she becomes in danger of losing access to her children (Johnston 2003; Kelly and Johnston 2001; Kuehnle and Walker 2003). In family law, the legal standard for anything that has to do with children is called ‘‘the best interests of the child.’’


There are assumptions, called presumptions, most of which are as yet scientifically untested, that legislators in the United States have accepted and that judges must follow when making a custody decision. If the presumption is challenged, evidence presented must prove more likely than not that it is in the best interests of the child. In most state courts in the United States, there is an assumption that it is best for children to have access to both parents, so the presumption is that parents must share custody and responsibility for their children. Despite the psychological evidence that it is not healthy for children to be exposed to a father who batters their mother (Drozd, Kuehnle, and Walker 2004; Margolin 1998; Rossman, Hughes, and Rosenberg 2000) and that the father’s abuse may cause the mother to be less competent as a parent than if she were not abused (Drozd et al. 2004), the burden of proof is still on the victim to prove both that domestic violence has occurred and that it is detrimental to the children’s best interests for their parents to share legal custody and responsibility.

In most states, domestic violence advocates have been successful in persuading legislators to mandate that judges consider domestic violence when making custody determinations, but this still does not change the burden of proof to make the batterer prove his fitness to parent the children. Psychological studies demonstrate that batterers abuse their power in order to gain control over both their partners and their children, and some studies show that as many as 60 percent of those who physically and sexually abuse women also abuse their children. When psychological abuse is included, it has been found that almost 100 percent of all children exposed to domestic violence are negatively impacted (Holden, Geffner, and Jouriles 1998; Rossman et al. 2000).

A second presumption in child custody laws is that the parent who is friendliest toward the other parent and gives the other parent additional access to the child, speaks well about the other parent to the child, and seems most cooperative with the court is acting in the child’s best interests. Therefore, in a custody battle, it would follow that the friendliest parent should get custody. Obviously, it is difficult for a battered woman to act friendly toward the batterer. She is caught between needing to prove that he is a batterer and is detrimental to the children’s best interests on one hand and having to act friendly to him on the other (Drozd et al. 2004).

A typical child custody argument proposed by the battered woman uses psychological evidence that she has developed battered woman syndrome (BWS) as proof that domestic violence occurred, and she should not be forced to share joint custody with the batterer because both she and the children are in danger of future abuse and violence. The batterer’s counterargument to prove that he is a more fit parent than the mother is to accuse her of parental alienation syndrome (PAS) or psychological Munchausen by proxy, two fictitious disorders that sound reasonable and are often accepted into evidence by unsuspecting courts (Walker, Brantley, and Rigsby 2005). While BWS may provide sufficient psychological data to demonstrate that domestic violence has occurred, it may be insufficient for the court to assume that awarding sole custody to the mother is in the best interests of the child, especially when experts testify that contact with the father is critical to overcome the fictitious PAS (Johnston 2003; Kelly and Johnston 2001). Children who do not want to be in the middle of the abuse or who have already become alienated or even estranged from an abusive father may unwittingly demonstrate the symptoms that are said to be caused by PAS, leading judges to become confused and often paralyzed into inaction (a move that is supported by horrendous court schedules) or impulsively change custody from the mother to the father upon recommendations of guardians ad litem, who are untrained in recognizing domestic violence issues. Frequently, these custody hearings become battles of the experts, with as many experts testifying as there are therapists for children, each parent, and forensic child custody evaluators. Unfortunately, these cases fill the family court dockets (Drozd et al. 2004; Walker et al. 2006).

Parental Alienation Syndrome. PAS is so commonly used in cases against battered women that it is important to describe how this occurs. A psychiatrist, Richard Gardner (1992), formulated PAS based on his limited clinical practice, without any formal scientific studies to support his theory. A syndrome is defined as having interrelated core signs and symptoms due to the causative agent (American Psychiatric Association 2000). Most mental health professionals note that children who have been exposed to domestic violence prefer to be with one parent over the other, unlike children from homes without domestic violence, who wish to spend time with both parents. Sometimes this phenomenon is used as part of the confirmation that domestic violence is occurring in a particular home. A sensitive child may not wish to be bullied by a father who controls with threats and force. This is alienation, but it is based on the father’s behavior. However, it is impossible to make a diagnosis of a parent based on the child; rather, the diagnosis must be made precisely with the parent.

There are many competing reasons why a child might prefer one parent over another besides exposure to domestic violence or child abuse. For example, it may be that a ten-year-old athletic boy prefers to be with a father who coaches his soccer team and takes him to football games, or a six-year-old girl prefers to be with a mother who has been her primary caretaker while her father traveled for his job. This is typically called affinity for one parent, because of interests and historical preference. In other cases, the child may have felt abandoned by a parent who has problems with alcohol or other drugs or has not been emotionally supportive of the child. This can produce what is labeled as estrangement, which may look like alienation but is totally different (Drozd et al. 2004). It is important to recognize that the courts frequently and wrongly apply PAS to mothers who are trying to protect their children from abusive or neglectful fathers based on the child’s refusal to permit the father to act as a parent (Zirogiannis 2001).

Psychological Munchausen by Proxy. Psychological Munchausen by proxy is another commonly used fictitious disorder, modeled after the rare but known disorder called Munchausen syndrome and its progeny, Munchausen by proxy. A parent, usually the mother, who claims that the child is being physically or sexually abused by a batterer, may be accused of making the child psychologically ill by fabricating false allegations against the father, just to bring positive attention to her heroic efforts as a protective mother. In some cases, the mother and child may even be accused of entering into a foliea- deux or collusion against an innocent father. Obviously, it is difficult to prove that the child’s psychological distress is not caused by the father’s behavior, especially when the child is very young. Sometimes exasperated courts actually place the child in the father’s custody in an attempt to prove whether or not abuse is occurring. However, children are resilient, often develop child abuse accommodation syndrome (CAAS), and adapt to the abusive situation by covering up the parent’s abuse for fear of further retribution (Drozd et al. 2004; Kuehnle and Walker 2003; Walker et al. 2005).

During the 1990s, courts around the nation took testimony from citizens concerning gender bias in the courts (Shafran 1990). The reports confirmed dissatisfaction with child custody procedures as well as the allocation and collection of child support. Who was granted custody and how much child support the other parent was ordered to pay often depended on how much time a parent got to spend with a child or whether or not the parenting time was adequate or was even in the child’s best interests. Data suggested by those reports estimated that upward of 70 percent of those obtaining child custody evaluations had faced allegations of domestic violence (Shafran 1990). Despite the evidence of gender bias against mothers when cases involving abuse allegations went to the judge to decide custody, nothing much has changed since then to protect women and children.

Removal of Children from the State

A battered woman who flees from a batterer may take her children across state lines without being arrested for kidnapping if there are no court orders to remain in a particular jurisdiction. Sometimes this precipitates a rush to file for divorce by one party before this happens, especially if a restraining order where another court has made a finding of fact that domestic violence occurred has not been obtained. If the batterer is a known stalker, it may be important to remove the mother and children from constant contact with him, and removal to another state may be in the children’s best interests. This is also true if the battered woman and children have been kept isolated by the batterer and she wants to return to live with her family and others.

Most children do well after such a move, especially if it gets them out of the middle of a violent relationship between two high-conflict parents. Access and visitation can be creatively arranged so that the children get parenting time with the nonabusive father. This may include plans such as having the children spend the school year with one parent and the summers with the other parent or monthly visits for younger children if the parents can afford travel costs. Technology can keep the noncustodial parent in the child’s life through telephone calls, videos, digital pictures, letters, and e-mails when the child is old enough to use a computer. Commensurate with the child’s age, he or she should be given the responsibility of maintaining contact with the other parent without interference from the custodial parent. Often, the noncustodial parent provides a laptop computer or cell phone for older children so that the other parent does not have to be present for the contact times (Kuehnle and Walker 2003; Walker et al. 2005).

III. Validity of Prenuptial Agreements

Another area of contentiousness in divorce hearings with couples where there are reports of domestic violence is the validity of a prenuptial agreement that sets forth the distribution of assets should the marriage end in divorce or even death. Psychologists may be called as expert witnesses to testify that the battered woman signed a prenuptial agreement under the threat of further abuse, which may make it null and void; psychologists may also testify that the woman was not competent to knowingly sign the document because of the psychological effects from domestic violence (Walker and Shapiro 2004). Interestingly, if the prenuptial agreement is signed at the same time as the wedding, the court may also invalidate the marriage vows as having been made under duress, causing the marriage to be considered null and void. This would in turn make division of property occur as if there were no marriage and therefore no accumulation of marital assets. Obviously, this would cause the victim to win the battle over duress and coercion of one agreement but lose the war for a greater share of the property. Sometimes civil torts for personal injury are filed simultaneously, as property or other assets may be used to offset the harm the woman has suffered.

Child Protection Dependency and Delinquency Courts

There are two other legal areas for families with domestic violence to become involved in child protection dependency and delinquency courts. In large cities, these may be separate from the court that hears dissolution of marriage cases; but in smaller towns, these courts constitute one entity. In fact, there is a movement to merge the courts so that all family matters may be heard under one unified family court rather than having cases go from one judge to another when children are at issue. However, this research paper will describe each separately.

Dependency Court and Child Protection Issues

The state has the right to act as the parent under the doctrine of parens patriae when parents fail to assume proper responsibility for their children. Unless this occurs, the state usually does not challenge parental authority. Child abuse and neglect will trigger the threshold in all states for such intervention, while exposure to domestic violence will do so only in some states. In some cases, criminal charges may also be brought against the parties, so that cases involving the same acts or failures to act could be handled in both juvenile court and criminal court. Therefore, there are usually numerous lawyers and experts involved in these cases and different standards of proof.

To protect parents from undue interference by the state, there are laws that each state’s legislature has passed which usually follow the model laws in the Uniform Child Protection Act requiring the presumption that reunification of the family is in the child’s best interest. Therefore, if the state intervenes, its agents must put forth a treatment plan that, if followed, would lead to reunification of the parent and the child. Mental health professionals who work for the state’s Child Protection Team are responsible for putting these plans together for the court, which will then incorporate it into orders of the court. It is often frustrating for a protective parent who becomes ensnared in the child protection system to prove that she is not abusive or to prove that the batterer is abusing both she and the children. Given the possibility that at least three courts may be involved simultaneously with one family, there can be even more confusion when judges do not agree or when different facts are accepted as evidence in different courts. For example, a woman who obtains a restraining order against an abusive partner in criminal or civil court may use that order to ask the juvenile court or family court to order that the batterer may have no contact with the children. Although judges are supposed to respect each other’s findings of fact, jurisdictional problems are often rampant in domestic violence cases, especially when there is more than one state involved. Unfortunately, children do not have legal rights in these cases until their parents’ rights are terminated (which is possible in some states), and their wishes do not get known to the courts. There is a worldwide movement to give children legal standing in the courts so that they may be represented by their own attorneys, who represent their wishes, not just what is believed to be in their best interest (Walker and Shapiro 2004).

Delinquency Courts

The U.S. Department of Juvenile Justice is responsible for prosecuting youth who are arrested for delinquency. Children who commit criminal acts are understood to have different needs than adults who do so, including the priority of rehabilitation. Studies have found a direct connection between child abuse and subsequent delinquency (O’Keefe 1994; Thoennes and Tjaden 1990). In most cases, except for crimes of violence, rehabilitation is recommended over punishment. However, when violence is used, especially in murder and sexual offenses, youths may be waived into adult court, tried as adults, and punished by prison terms if found guilty. Studies of youths who have been arrested and placed in detention centers have found that as many as 85 percent have been exposed to domestic violence and child abuse. Despite the high risk of delinquency in child abuse victims, there are almost no treatment programs for children who have developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from family violence.

Other Civil Courts and Personal Injury Tort Cases

A battered woman who suffers serious physical and/or psychological injuries may sue the batterer in civil court for the damage he has inflicted upon her. These are personal injury tort cases that are similar to lawsuits against any party for negligence or malpractice. The laws specify that the injuries do not have to be intentionally inflicted but rather that the person should know or should have known that such behavior could produce serious and often long-lasting injuries. Most states have removed the laws, called interspousal immunity, barring married parties from suing each other. In some states, such as New Jersey, married parties must file a civil tort together with the action for dissolution of the marriage. Although such cases are heard in family court, if the parties wish, a jury trial may be elected.

Obviously, these actions are taken only when there are large sums of money available to pay off any judgment. Most often they are used as leverage to resolve financial settlements during divorce actions, as described earlier. However, they can be a deterrent to stop wealthy batterers from further stalking and harassment. Such legal actions may help a battered woman pay her medical and psychotherapy bills and live a comfortable life, especially if her injuries interfere with her ability to work outside of the home (Walker and Shapiro 2004).

Criminal Courts

The greatest changes in the laws in the United States to protect battered women and their children are in the criminal courts. Each state has passed laws to make it easier for law enforcement to arrest and prosecute batterers with or without the cooperation of the battered person, and some states even have special domestic violence courts. But perhaps the most important change is that women who killed their abusive partners in what they believed was self-defense may call expert witness testimony to the stand on their behalf. Although these changes began in the United States, they are now in effect in many other countries around the world.

Restraining or Protective Orders

Although the restraining order or other type of protective order is just a piece of paper and will not stop an act of violence if the batterer is determined to commit it, it does carry with it penalties for violation and has other benefits, one of which is that law enforcement officers are more likely to take a domestic violence call seriously when the victim has gone to the trouble of obtaining a protective order. In addition, obtaining a protective order requires a judge to make a finding of fact that the person has a higher than usual risk of being harmed or a finding of fact that the person restrained from contact with the victim did commit domestic violence. This finding of fact may be useful later on should the parties decide to terminate their marriage or become involved in a custody dispute over children, as the family court must then treat the case differently from those for which there is less risk of violence. Perhaps most importantly, the victim may become empowered by learning that a judge does take her reports seriously and is willing to try to protect herself and her children.

The process of obtaining a restraining order has been made very easy, to encourage victims to try to get protection from the court. Costs have been reduced for protective orders, and advocates rather than lawyers usually assist the victim in the process. In some jurisdictions, the batterer does not have to be personally served the order and it can be done by notice published in the newspaper. The alleged batterer has the opportunity to defend against the complaint within a certain period of time, usually thirty days. This is a court hearing in front of a judge. If there is a violation of the restraining or protective order, the allegation is brought before that judge, who may find the batterer guilty of contempt of a court order, which is punishable by fines or jail time.


Prosecution of abuse cases against both men and women now fill the criminal court dockets. Police officers are more likely to make an arrest knowing that there will probably be consequences for an abuser. Battered women are encouraged to use the criminal justice system to help protect themselves and their children, which means reporting assaults as well as obtaining restraining orders. First-time offenders are offered a deferred prosecution plan where they may choose to go into offender-specific court-ordered counseling programs. In some jurisdictions, this is a deferred prosecution which may be dismissed after a certain specified period of time without a reoccurrence of violence. In other places, the offender is required to plead guilty, and after a specified period of time with no further arrests, the offense is expunged from the record. Victims, who often wish to help the batterer stop his violent behavior, are more likely to cooperate with the court system if they believe that there is a chance for him to change. Victim witness programs provide advocates to encourage battered women to follow through and testify at the trials should the batterer not choose the deferral plan.

An unexpected consequence of making arrests easier occurred with police officers arresting both parties when it was not clear who was the aggressor during the initiation phase of the new arrest laws. Frequently, mothers, who have the responsibility for their children on their minds, plead guilty or no contest or enter a deferral program, so that they can be released and go home, preventing involvement by the Child Protection Team and dependency court if they were to be held in jail. They agree to go into a treatment program, usually court approved, to learn how to manage their anger and change their violent behavior despite the fact that they may have used violence only to defend themselves or their children against the batterers’ abuse.

VII. Women Who Kill in Self-Defense

Despite all the changes in the criminal justice system, it is still impossible to totally protect a battered woman from a batterer who is determined to kill her. Women who are desperate may choose to arm themselves with guns, the most common way for them to kill the batterer, and approximately 1,200 battered women each year shoot and kill their batterers, fearing that the batterers will kill them (Browne and Williams 1993). Prior to the 1980s, these women would have been encouraged to plead guilty to first-degree murder and risked being sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison. Today, it is less likely that they will be charged, and if they are, they are likely to present evidence of domestic violence at their trials. Many are acquitted on the grounds of self-defense, or convicted on charges of lesser responsibility, such as second-degree murder (meaning that it was not premeditated, but they should have known that their actions might result in the other person’s death) or even manslaughter (which encompasses various ways in which emotional distress can interfere with good judgment).

The history of getting judges and juries to understand that women can meet the self-defense statute recommendations differently from men was a long battle in the appellate courts rather than in the state legislatures. Women who tried to admit testimony of how being repeatedly abused caused them to believe they needed to use deadly force even before their batterers had struck again were not permitted to do so because of the rules of evidence (Walker 1989). Most self-defense laws require evidence of a reasonable perception of imminent danger as the standard of proof to overcome the prosecution’s evidence that a homicide did take place. It is not who committed the homicide but rather, why did she do it?

The typical male case of self-defense may involve two men engaging in a fist fight, pretty evenly matched. However, women are not typically trained to fight with parts of their bodies, even if they did have the physical strength to fight with a man. Women who develop PTSD from trauma perceive danger sooner than someone who has not been traumatized. They startle more easily and in general have more anxiety than do those who have not experienced domestic violence or other forms of trauma. Descriptions of the look in the man’s eyes or some other recognizable sign that his anger is rising are reasonable perceptions of danger for a battered woman. The issue of imminency also posed problems in the courts, as some wanted to define it as meaning immediate threat of danger. However, a review of the legislative intent indicated that it was meant to signify that danger was about to happen, allowing for some time gap, as if someone might be teetering on a precipice of sorts. Thus, the appellate courts broadened the use of self-defense to include battered women who knew that their partners could stalk and find them no matter where they went if they were to just leave their homes and that there was no escape for most of these women. Even so, the most often asked question is still, ‘‘Why didn’t she just leave?’’ Rather, the question should be, ‘‘Why didn’t he let her go?’’

It is often necessary to have a forensic psychologist testify as an expert witness to help explain how both love and violence can coexist in the same relationship and how that can produce psychological effects such as learned helplessness, PTSD, and BWS, which then can impact on the woman’s state of mind. Although the role of the expert witness is often debated in psychology and law, it may be critical to the understanding of the judge and juror to have such explanations about the woman’s behavior and be able to relate it to other battered women and to this particular woman. Sometimes, the battered woman has other mental disorders that impact on her ability to perceive events and make good decisions about her behavior. For example, a battered woman may become so frightened that she goes into an automatic state where all her responses are governed by the autonomic nervous system and there is no ability to think and process information. This is called a dissociative state and is often seen in long-term victims of early child abuse as well as domestic violence. Other battered women may become paralyzed by fear, and still others may start to act—for example, by firing a gun for protection but not being able to stop until there are no more bullets left. Still others might be so frightened that they purchase a gun just to scare the man and take shooting lessons to make sure the batterer cannot grab it away from them and use it to kill them. In other cases, the batterer may hand the woman the gun he has been threatening or hurting her with and tell her to shoot him, which she may do without even thinking, after so many years of being coerced into doing exactly what he tells her to do. Each case must be analyzed carefully to see how the woman’s behavior during the incident fits into her typical psychological responses.

Legal Use of Battered Woman Syndrome

The psychology of domestic violence relationships has been ruled admissible as meeting the scientific standards that are currently in effect. Although it is often more difficult to get expert testimony admitted in criminal cases than in family court cases, where the scientific reliability is rarely challenged (Zirogiannis 2001), in fact, testimony on BWS has rarely been challenged anywhere since the early 1990s (Myers 1993; Slobogin 1999). In states where there were repeated challenges, the legislatures passed laws specifying the use of BWS either as a part of self-defense or a separate defense entirely in criminal cases. The fact that most state legislatures passed domestic violence protection laws also gives victims consideration as a special class or group of people, which makes it easier to argue that they need special protection in other areas that might not yet be covered by the law.

Psychological Evaluation and Battered Woman Syndrome

Forensic psychologists typically conduct clinical evaluations of people to determine their current mental status and cognitive abilities, and how their emotional status impacts on their cognitive abilities. In trauma cases, it is also important to assess for prior trauma history and its impact on how someone thinks, feels, and behaves. Psychologists use standardized psychological tests in addition to clinical interview data, to permit comparison of one person’s responses with norms developed from others in similar groups (Otto, Edens, and Barcus 2000; Walker and Shapiro 2004). In domestic violence cases, it is also possible to use standardized tests that assess for psychological damage from trauma (Briere 1997). Unlike clinical psychologists or treating therapists, forensic psychologists also review data surrounding the incident(s) and understand the legal questions, to assist the triers of fact in understanding this person’s state of mind in criminal cases or fitness to parent children in family law, or possible damages and the nexus with domestic violence in personal injury cases (Walker and Shapiro 2004).

The typical expert testimony describes the dynamics of the particular relationship and relates it to what is known about domestic violence relationships, with special focus on the abuse of power and control by the batterer and its resulting impact on the battered woman (Walker 1989). If the woman has developed BWS and PTSD or other diagnoses, then testimony about her clinical issues and how they impact her state of mind may also be presented. There has been some controversy in the forensic psychology literature about the scientific underpinnings of BWS and its limitations (Follingstad 2003). BWS does not appear as a diagnostic category in the DSM-IV-TR (American Psychiatric Association 2000). Rather, it is subsumed under the PTSD diagnostic criteria plus several additional psychological criteria that make it distinct. More recent research using a similar methodology to that used in the 1970s when BWS was first defined has reaffirmed its empirical basis across various cultures within the United States as well as among women living in several other countries around the world (Walker et al. 2005). The Battered Woman Syndrome Questionnaire (BWSQ) has been scientifically developed to measure BWS and has been translated in Spanish, Russian, Creole, Italian, and Greek. In most of the legal descriptions of BWS, an additional part of the definition includes the description of the dynamics of the domestic violence relationship. The criteria are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1.

Battered Woman Syndrome Legal Definition

PTSD Criteria:

  • Re-experiencing the event
  • Avoidance and numbing of responsiveness
  • Hyperarousal


  • Three additional effects:
  • Disrupted interpersonal relationships/power and control
  • Difficulties with body image/somatic concerns
  • Sexual and intimacy problems


  • Dynamics of battering relationships


It is a rare battered woman who does not have some contact with the legal system around various issues. This research paper has attempted to outline some of themore common areas where the courts may become involved despite the strong value of privacy in the United States. Early battered women advocates recognized the need to open the doors of the family and let the courts intervene as one way to help protect women and children who lived with domestic violence. Unlike in other countries where the public health system is the gateway into services (Malley-Morrison 2004), in the United States the gateway is through the criminal justice system. This has its problems in that psychological abuse, which most battered women claim is the most devastating form of domestic violence, is not taken as seriously by the criminal justice system as is physical and sexual abuse. Typically, once an arrest is made, the offender is offered the choice of psychoeducational group intervention and the battered woman is assigned a victim witness advocate from the prosecutor’s office. In some jurisdictions, the victim and children might even obtain a grant for psychotherapy, while in others referrals to local agencies that provide counseling at a scaled fee are offered. Battered woman shelters that are located in most major cities also provide advocacy and psychoeducational counseling services and referrals to local professionals who specialize in domestic violence protection. Domestic violence remains a specialized area for lawyers as well as mental health professionals, which means that most lawyers do not have the necessary training to understand the psychological issues presented in this research paper. However, law schools, like psychology programs, are becoming more likely to offer courses in domestic violence, and those professionals who are interested in practicing in this area have many continuing education courses from which to choose.

See also:


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  4. Browne, A., and K. R. Williams. ‘‘Gender, Intimacy, and Lethal Violence: Trends from 1976–1987.’’ Gender and Society 7 (1993): 78–98.
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  9. Jaffe, P. G., and R. Geffner. ‘‘Child Custody Disputes and Domestic Violence: Critical Issues for Mental Health, Social Service, and Legal Professionals.’’ In Holden, Geffner, and Jouriles, Children Exposed to Marital Violence, 1998, pp. 371–408.
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