Why don't domestic violence victims call the police

One of the questions that is often posed in regard to a woman experiencing domestic violence is why didn’t she contact law enforcement when she was experiencing the abuse? The assumption is it must have not been so bad if it was not worth contacting law enforcement, but the truth is there are many reasons that a woman who is experiencing abuse may not contact law enforcement. This article will shed some light as to why a woman may be hesitant to contact law enforcement for help and will provide some suggestions as to how law enforcement can better respond to victims of domestic violence.

One of the main reasons a woman may not want to contact law enforcement is the fear that contacting law enforcement may actually make her situation more dangerous. For many who know what it is like to see their abusive partner escalating, survival mode kicks in and de-escalating becomes the primary instinct. So rather than call 911 for assistance, the woman experiencing the abuse may try to placate the abusive partner or calm the abusive partner by whatever means necessary. Also, typically, if law enforcement is contacted and an arrest is made, it is likely that the abusive partner will receive a “slap on the wrist” and when released, may become more escalated, potentially putting the woman in more danger.

Another reason a woman may not want to contact law enforcement is that she may not have access to a phone. The abusive partner may be interfering with her ability to call 911 by blocking her access to a phone or by breaking/eliminating her phone. The abusive partner may also keep her from leaving her house, making it impossible for her to seek assistance from her neighbors in contacting 911.

There is also the fear that if law enforcement is contacted, they may not believe the woman who has called them for assistance. Law enforcement may arrive and may take the abusive partner’s word over the woman experiencing the abuse. The woman who contacted 911 may even fear getting arrested herself, especially if she has a criminal record. It is very common for an abusive partner to change the narrative and say that it was actually the woman who was being physically abusive first. The abusive partner may even have visible injuries when the woman does not, this being due to the fact that the woman’s injuries may not be visible yet and the wounds that the abusive partner is showing may be defensive in nature (e.g., scratches on his face).

There are many valid reasons as to why a woman who is experiencing abuse may not want to or is unable to contact law enforcement for assistance. As advocates and as members of the law enforcement community, the most important thing we can do initially is believe, believe, believe. We need to be understanding that not everything is black and white – there is a grey area where yes, a woman experiencing domestic violence may have a criminal record, she may have put her hands on the abusive partner to defend herself, or she may not be showing visible injuries. That does not mean the abuse is not happening. And finally, be cognizant of your demeanor when responding to a call, because that impression will stick with her and greatly determine whether or not she seeks help in the future.

Written by Anna Fagan, assistant director of advocacy & education at Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support