Domestic Violence Lawsuit Will Help Secure Services for All Abuse Victims

By Marc Angelucci and Glenn Sacks

At the age of 11, Maegan Woods tried to stop a domestic dispute between her parents. She soon found herself staring down the barrel of her father’s shotgun. She watched helplessly as the trigger was pulled. She is only alive today because the gun didn’t fire–the safety was on.

Maegan was abused and witnessed domestic violence in her home for most of her childhood. By age seven there had been knife attacks, punches, kicks, and more. It was hard to leave–the abuser was the one who earned the money, and the victim was unable to work because of a disability. On numerous occasions they looked for help to escape the abuse but were refused. Why?

Because in Maegan’s family, the abused spouse was her father, and the battering and child abuse were perpetrated by her mother.

The California Battered Women Protection Act of 1994, codified in Health & Safety Codes Section 124250, et. seq., created funding for domestic violence shelter-based services. However, by defining domestic violence as something only experienced by women, the statutes exclude male victims from receiving state-funded domestic violence services, including shelter, hotel arrangements, counseling and legal services.

Maegan, now 21, and her father, David Woods, are the lead plaintiffs in a new lawsuit against the State of California and numerous state agencies and state-funded domestic violence service providers. Beginning in the mid-1980s, David was violently attacked on numerous occasions by his wife Ruth, who suffers from a bi-polar disorder which, in her case, creates a propensity toward violence.

On several occasions David decided that he and Maegan should get out of the house to escape Ruth’s violence. However, with his disabling condition and inability to work, David had no money to provide for himself and his daughter. Numerous times he contacted a Sacramento domestic violence agency he had heard of in the media, WEAVE, but they always told him "we don’t help men," and never offered him a referral to another facility. David tried churches and various programs, but all they could offer for men were homeless shelters with waiting lists. He found nothing for abused men and their children. David gave up and sank into a heavy depression.

By February 2003, Maegan began telling her father to find a place of safety from Ruth’s violence. He again called WEAVE and again was told "we don’t help men." Maegan, then 18, became so frustrated watching David being abused that she called WEAVE herself and insisted they help her father. According to Maegan, WEAVE said they do not help men, and that men are the perpetrators of domestic violence, not the victims.

That year Ruth finally began to seek professional help for her problems. David, loyal and a firm believer in his marriage vows, stuck by her. In January 2004, the two appeared together on the NBC’s John Walsh Show and discussed Ruth’s violence.

Domestic violence policies based on the woman good/man bad model kept David trapped in his violent marriage in a number of ways. The biggest reason David didn’t leave Ruth was Maegan. She was frequently the target of Ruth’s attacks, particularly when David wasn’t around to protect her and take Ruth’s blows. Domestic violence researcher Richard Gelles, whose groundbreaking work on domestic violence in the late 1970s was instrumental in bringing the issue to public consciousness, explains that current policies often trap abused fathers like David. They can’t leave their wives because this would leave their children unprotected in the hands of an abuser. If they simply take their children, they can be arrested for kidnapping. Moreover, they would probably lose custody of their children in the divorce anyway, again leaving their children in harm’s way.

These cases often have tragic results. In the highly-publicized Socorro Caro murder case, Socorro often abused her husband Xavier, a prominent Northridge, California rheumatologist, and once assaulted him so badly he had to have surgery to regain his sight in one eye. Trapped and not knowing what to do or where to go, Xavier endured the abuse, once telling his wife "one day you are going to do something that cannot be undone." A short time later Socorro shot and killed three of their four children. Their baby survived only because Socorro ran out of bullets. She was later convicted and sentenced to death for the murders.

While police intervention often works for abused women, abused men understandably fear that once the police are involved, their wives will accuse them of being the abuser and it is they who will be believed. Draconian arrest policies often direct police to make an arrest, and police are often pressured to arrest the man.

The anti-male bias of police policies was evident in the Woods case. During the 1995 shotgun incident, Ruth called the police after David wrestled the shotgun away from her. Maegan yelled to her mom, "Tell the truth!" and Ruth told the police she wanted them to come because she wanted to kill her husband.

Nevertheless, when the police arrived and David opened the door to let them in, the officers immediately grabbed him by the wrist, wrestled him to the ground, and handcuffed him. They only uncuffed him after Maegan told them that it was her mother who had the gun.

What’s needed are domestic violence policies tailored to the needs of all victims of abuse, regardless of gender. Decades of research shows that heterosexual males make up a significant part of the population of domestic violence victims. According to the most recent fact sheet released by the Centers for Disease Control, men comprise over 35% of all domestic violence victims. In a meta-analytic review of 552 domestic violence studies published in the November, 2000 issue of the Psychological Bulletin, psychology professor John Archer found that 38% of the physical injuries in heterosexual domestic assaults were suffered by men.

The National Institute of Mental Health funded and oversaw two of the largest studies of domestic violence ever done, both of which found similar rates of abuse between husbands and wives. California State Long Beach University professor Martin Fiebert maintains an online bibliography summarizing 174 scholarly investigations, with an aggregate sample size exceeding 160,000, which conclude "women are as physically aggressive, or more aggressive, than men in their relationships with their spouses or male partners."

Further, a number of these studies contradict the common claim that women usually hit in self-defense, and demonstrate that abusive women use weapons and the element of surprise to compensate for their smaller size, often with devastating results.

Even the domestic violence shelters admit that almost 10% of those requesting domestic violence services at shelters are men, according to the California Research Bureau’s November, 2002 report The Prevalence of Domestic Violence in California. This is despite the fact that these men are generally doubtful that they will be served, and there is no community outreach for or public acknowledgement of male victims.

Fortunately, the domestic violence industry is not a monolith, and there are many within it who see and acknowledge the need to take a gender-inclusive approach to domestic violence. Patricia Overberg, the former director of the Valley Oasis shelter in Lancaster, opened up her shelter to male victims in the early 80s, with positive results, and current director Carol Ensign has followed suit. Other domestic violence insiders who have criticized male exclusionary policies include: Gay Kennedy, formerly the domestic violence adviser on the LAPD Harbor Division advisory board; Irene Navero, executive director of the Queens Women’s Network in New York City; Linda Mills, author of Insult to Injury: Rethinking our Responses to Intimate Abuse; and numerous others.

Besides Maegan and David, there are three other plaintiffs in the lawsuit. One of them, Greg of Northridge, California, is physically disabled and wheelchair bound. He cannot drive, has trouble lifting his arms, and cannot defend himself. Beginning in November 2004, Greg’s emotionally disturbed girlfriend, with whom he cohabitated, repeatedly assaulted and physically abused him.?Greg ended the relationship after a violent incident in April 2005, but she has continued to harass him and has threatened his life on several occasions.

In late 2005,?Greg was refused services from King Drew Medical Center, who in June 2005, had announced that their Women’s Center of Excellence offers, among other things, "domestic violence counseling and treatment." He was also turned down by other Los Angeles agencies because he is male.

Such conduct is indefensible, and is antithetical to the good work that many domestic violence advocates have done for abused women over the past three decades. Had Ruth Woods been the victim of violence by David, help would have been available. She would have been able to move with her daughter to a shelter. Using the legal services of the shelter, she would have filed a restraining order against her violent husband, and filed for divorce. By getting custody and eliminating her abusive husband’s visitation rights, she would have been able to protect her daughter.

Did Maegan and David Woods deserve any less?

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