Battered Woman Syndrome

Battered woman syndrome (BWS), first proposed in the 1970s after research demonstrated the psychological impact from domestic violence on the victim, has undergone further clarification since its inception. This research paper reviews the historical issues concerning domestic violence and its victims in the criminal justice system (including the criminal and family courts), describes psychological theories about domestic violence victims and the BWS, and discusses the application of the BWS in legal context.

History of Domestic Violence and the Law

Domestic violence is defined as the physical, sexual, and/or psychological abuse by one person (mostly men) of another person (mostly women) with whom there is an intimate relationship, in order to get that person to do what the abuser wants without regard for that person’s rights. Domestic violence is also called intimate partner violence by some, while the term family violence encompasses child and elder abuse as well as intimate partner abuse.

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Some have suggested that the family and monogamous relationships originated to protect women and children from physically and sexually aggressive nomadic men. Unfortunately, the family has not been a safe haven for some women and children. Laws condoning the practice of wife beating were common in the United States and other countries until very recently. Since men were given the legal responsibility of protecting their wives and children, they also had the right to discipline them. When women demanded their own legal and social rights during the renewed women’s movement that began in the early 1970s in the United States, they also began to demand that the laws better protect them from men’s physical and sexual violence.

Battered Women in the Criminal Justice System

The first area that received attention was the need for law enforcement to better protect women who were being abused by intimate partners. Typical reports were that the man would batter the woman and leave the scene if the police were called. Even if he was still present, the police would hesitate to intervene and make an arrest in what was said to be a family matter and instead would typically take the man for a walk around the block in an attempt to calm him down. Women told of how this rarely worked and that they would be beaten even worse after the law enforcement officers left. Police officers complained that prosecutors didn’t take these cases seriously; but prosecutors claimed that women dropped the charges and refused to cooperate and judges didn’t know how to handle these domestic matters. Two areas for reform became clear. First, domestic assaults should be prosecuted just like any other assault, without placing the burden on the woman to file or drop charges. Second, women needed protection from further abuse from all legal, social, and medical institutions and agencies. The barriers that women faced in all society’s institutions became more visible as cases began to be heard in courts around the world. It became clear that it would require cooperation from all levels of society to better protect women and children.

The criminal justice system began to introduce several different reforms, including vertical prosecution of domestic violence cases and the development of pro-prosecution strategies, including special problem-solving domestic violence courts where perpetrators could be diverted into treatment. Other reforms included making restraining orders easier to obtain and strengthening their enforcement with penalties, as well as removing the ability of those arrested to bond out without first being in front of a judge. Research suggested that spending the night in jail and getting a stern message from the judge was a sufficient deterrent for most known batterers, and pro-arrest policies began to be adopted in many cities across the United States. Later research showed that some batterers, particularly those who had few community ties, such as a job or a social network, might actually become more violent after an arrest, and as batterers began to enter treatment programs, it became clear that they were as demographically diverse a population as were the women they abused.

Dependency and Family Courts

It also became clear that both men and women involved in domestic violence often had psychological and substance abuse problems. Although battered woman advocates in shelters and support groups disagreed about the origin of these problems, most agreed that availability of appropriately trained mental health providers was important. In the beginning, few psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, or psychiatric nurses were trained in working with domestic violence victims or perpetrators. Protocols were developed for those in the medical and psychology fields, and large-scale government funding went into training victim advocates, shelter workers, and legal and mental health professionals. The battered woman shelter became the organizing point for policies and services in the United States and other countries. In the United States, the legal system and, in particular, the criminal justice system remained the gatekeeper for services for both perpetrators and victims, while in other countries, where the public health system had more impact, services were provided through that system.

Although the emphasis had been on protection of women from abusers, it was also necessary to focus on protection of children from abuse. Studies found that an overlap of anywhere from 40% to 60% of cases of child abuse occurred in families with known domestic violence. Child protection workers who had been trained to blame the mother for the actual abuse or failure to protect the child had to relearn how to work with moms who were also being battered and who tried to protect their children with little help from agencies in the community. The issue of protection of children is still unsolved, with cases going between criminal, dependency and neglect, and family courts, and children are often inadequately served by any of them.

Many advocates for battered women believe that batterers often use the family courts to continue their contact and control over the woman long after the marriage is dissolved by insisting on shared parental responsibility. They further believe that the court declines to use its power to empower the battered woman and assist her in the protection of the child. When the court does not intervene, the batterer is not stopped from his continued psychological abuse of both the woman and the child. An example of how batterers may use the court to their advantage is by filing numerous court motions, which become a major psychological and financial drain on women who earn less money than do men. To further complicate matters, mental health professionals hired by lawyers on both sides of highly contested divorce and custody cases may introduce constructs, such as Parental Alienation Syndrome and Psychological Munchausen by Proxy, that have questionable validity. These questionable constructs have been ruled inadmissible in criminal courts but are admissible in family courts.

Women Who Kill in Self-Defense

Approximately 1,000 women in the United States are known to have killed their abusive partners in what they claim was self-defense. In contrast, more than 4,000 women are reportedly killed by their partners each year. The self-defense laws had to be re-formed to enable these women to plead not guilty using a justification defense in criminal court. From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, states began the admissibility process through case law and legislation, so that women’s perception of danger and, in particular, the battered woman’s perception of danger would be accepted at trial. Until these cases began to be heard, self-defense was thought to be similar to two men having a fight in a bar. To help the triers of fact—the judges and juries who heard these cases—better understand the battered woman’s perception of danger, especially when the woman killed the man when he was asleep or was just starting his dangerously escalating abuse, the dynamics of domestic violence and psychological theories, such as learned helplessness and BWS, were introduced into court testimony.

Psychological Theories about Domestic Violence and Battered Women

Dynamics of Domestic Violence

In the past 30 years, the assessment of behavior that is or is not considered to be domestic violence has been a major challenge for advocates and professionals. This difficulty may in large part be due to battered women having to maintain secrecy in order to protect them-selves from their abuser, which leads them to minimize or cover up their pain, both emotional and physical. However, as the women began to receive legal protection and services, they have been able to describe the dynamics that occur in their homes, and as batterers began to talk in the offender-specific intervention programs into which they were sent by the courts, they confirmed much of the women’s descriptions. Lenore Walker first found that battering did not occur all the time in homes where domestic violence existed but that it was not random either. Rather, the women described a cycle of violence that followed a courtship period that was mostly made up of loving behavior.

This cycle included three phases: (1) the tension-building period, (2) the acute battering incident, and (3) a period of loving contrition or absence of battering. Each time a new battering event occurred, the memory of fragments of the previous battering incidents added heightened fear, which guided the woman’s response, usually to try to calm down the batterer and prevent further escalation of the violence. However, at times, when the woman saw signs that the batterer’s violence was escalating no matter what she did, she engaged in actions to protect herself. Occasionally, this resulted in her intentionally or unintentionally killing the abuser.

Learned Helplessness

When evaluating battered women who killed their abusers, it became necessary to understand why a woman would use a gun or a knife against a man who was sleeping or at the beginning of a violent event. Why wouldn’t she simply leave? The answer to this question is most important, both for specific cases and generally. The theory of learned helplessness helps explain how someone can learn to believe that her actions will not have a predictable effect and, therefore, that leaving will not stop the violence toward her. Research shows that many women are seriously injured or killed at the point of separation. The batterer who tells his partner that he will follow and harm her wherever she goes and who uses his power and control to enforce isolation, intrusiveness, and overpossessiveness reinforces her belief in his omnipotence. When battering continues unabated and the batterer suffers no consequences for his actions, he confirms her belief in his dominance over her. The loss of contingency between the victim’s behavior and the battering leads to learned helplessness.

Battered women who experience learned helplessness experience the loss of their belief that they can escape to protect themselves. This learned helplessness is sometimes misunderstood as actual helplessness or the actual inability to escape the battering. The theory of learned helplessness, together with the cycle theory of violence and the BWS, has helped juries understand why women do not simply walk out of their homes and leave the batterer. In some of the legal opinions, the BWS is actually described as including the dynamics of abuse together with learned helplessness rather than the collection of psychological signs and symptoms that typically make up a syndrome according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (fourth edition, text revision; DSM-IV-TR; American Psychological Association, 2000). However, this is part of the tension between the advocates who wish to eliminate any discussion of mental disorders as part of BWS and psychologists who understand that exposure to repeated trauma may well cause emotional difficulties, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), of which BWS is considered a subcategory.

Trauma Theory and Battered Woman Syndrome

The complexity of symptomatology and the clinical presentation of battered women has made it challenging for both legal and clinical disciplines. Over the years, these complexities have been widely studied, and a trend across cultures has been identified in the way women experience various forms of violence against them, including sexual assault and rape, domestic violence and sexual exploitation, and harassment. These abuses are perceived by most women as traumatic events, and therefore, a combination of feminist theory, to attempt to account for the power and control issues, and trauma theory, to deal with the abuse underlying BWS, is required.

BWS can best be conceptualized as a combination of posttraumatic stress symptomatology, including reexperiencing a traumatic event (i.e., battering episode); numbing of responsiveness; and hyperarousal, in addition to a variable combination of several other factors. These additional factors include, but are not limited to, disrupted interpersonal relationships, difficulties with body image, somatic concerns, as well as sexual and intimacy problems. Over the past few years, an attempt has been made to clearly define the hypothesized constituents of BWS for research purposes. As such, some variables were isolated and include PTSD symptoms, power and control issues, body image distortion, and sexual dysfunction, using data collected with the use of the Battered Woman Syndrome Questionnaire developed by Lenore Walker.

In the literature from the past 30 years, one of the most contemplated components of BWS is PTSD. When the original research was designed, PTSD had not yet been tested and entered into the DSM diagnostic system. In general, criticisms suggest that the trauma model does not include sufficient context of the woman’s life so that it makes it appear that she has a mental illness rather than her symptoms being a logical response to being abused. While that is true for some women, studies indicate that there are numerous women who come to a therapist because the symptoms do not go away despite the fact that they are no longer being battered. PTSD, which is characterized by reexperiencing of the trauma from stimuli that are both physically and not physically present, can account for this phenomenon.

The Battered Women Syndrome Questionnaire

To gain insight into BWS and its effect on women across cultures, Lenore Walker and colleagues are continuing the validation process for the Revised Battered Woman Syndrome Questionnaire 2003 (BWSQ-3). Given the violence against women as a universal phenomenon, it is essential to interview women from various cultures. Consequently, data from interviews have been gathered from Russia, Spain, Greece, Colombia, and South Florida. Furthermore, the research has recently begun to take into account incarcerated women who report a history of battering relationships.

The original version of the Battered Women Syndrome Questionnaire was developed more than 25 years ago by Lenore Walker. The most recent version, the Battered Women Syndrome Questionnaire-3, and its predecessors serve as comprehensive tools to gather valuable information regarding the field of domestic violence research and treatment. Establishing the reliability and validity of BWSQ-3 will enable future clinicians to use a semistructured clinical interview to assess women who report a battering relationship. The assessment also has the potential to help guide clinicians treating battered women, as the interview allows for an individualized overview of the woman’s history and battering relationship. In addition, researchers have begun to investigate the dynamics of battering relationships as experienced by women who become involved in the criminal justice system, for the purpose of identifying the unique needs of this population. Current research by the authors and their colleagues using the BWSQ-3 has shown similar patterns of experience, including a high endorsement of PTSD symptomatology, across cultures.

Application of Battered Woman Syndrome in Legal Contexts

As was described above, in a legal context, the term battered woman syndrome is most frequently used as an explanation of a woman’s perception of threat leading her to commit a criminal offense in self-defense. Criminal offenses may also include spousal assault (i.e., in cases in which battered women fight back without killing their partners) or any other crime they may co-commit under the influence of their battering partners. In fact, the use of BWS extends beyond the criminal justice system, to include family court (e.g., child custody cases) or even civil court (e.g., in rare cases when the woman is suing the batterer for physical and emotional damages).

BWS is generally applied in the form of evidence being presented during a criminal trial where the battered woman killed her abusive partner in self-defense. The goal of introducing BWS is to obtain either an acquittal or a downgrading of a first-degree murder charge to second-degree murder or manslaughter. The burden carried by the defense includes presenting evidence that the woman was—or perceived herself to be—in imminent danger. The defense usually attempts to establish this with the help of an expert witness who testifies concerning the dynamics of an abusive relationship and how a woman’s perception can be influenced by a history of abuse and PTSD symptomatology. In addition, because the expert conducts a comprehensive assessment of the defendant, he or she is likely able to discuss possible comorbid mental health disorders.

Because of BWS’s broad range of applications within the legal system, and the need for psychological evaluation and/or expert testimony across legal settings, the term battered woman syndrome has traditionally been used in both a legal and a clinical context, with an understanding that the wide-ranging effects of battering are physiological, behavioral, cognitive, and emotional.


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