AB 2051 Moves California in Wrong Direction on Domestic Violence

By Michael McCormick and Glenn Sacks

The California Assembly just passed a misguided bill which puts ideology over evidence by reiterating the state’s mulish definition of domestic violence as something which only women suffer. Not only does Assemblymember Rebecca Cohn’s AB 2051 turn a blind eye to male DV victims and their children, it may also cost the state tens of millions of dollars in lost federal grants.

California law defines domestic violence as "the infliction or threat of physical harm against…female intimate partners.” AB 2051 refers to domestic violence victims only as “battered women.” By defining domestic violence as something only experienced by women, both existing law and AB 2051 exclude male victims and their children from receiving state-funded domestic violence services, including shelter, hotel arrangements, counseling and legal services.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, men comprise over 35% of all domestic violence victims. A meta-analytic review of 552 domestic violence studies published in the Psychological Bulletin found that 38% of the physical injuries in heterosexual domestic assaults are suffered by men.

The National Institute of Mental Health funded and oversaw two of the largest studies of domestic violence ever conducted, both of which found equal 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 strike in self-defense, and demonstrate that abusive women use weapons and the element of surprise to help compensate for their smaller size.

These cases sometimes turn tragic for fathers and their children. In the Socorro Caro murder case, Socorro often abused her husband Xavier, a prominent Northridge, California rheumatologist, once assaulting him so badly he had to have surgery to regain his sight in one eye. Because the domestic violence, criminal justice and family law systems are almost incapable of seeing a man as a DV victim, Xavier couldn’t take his children and leave. Because of his wife’s violent nature, he couldn’t walk away and leave his children behind. Socorro later shot and killed three of their four children, for which she was convicted and sentenced to death.

California is currently the target of a controversial lawsuit filed on behalf of a young Sacramento-area woman who spent a nightmarish childhood trapped in a home with a violent, abusive mother. Maegan Black’s father David was partially disabled, and thus financially dependent on his wife. His and Maegan’s numerous attempts to get help from domestic violence service providers were consistently rebuffed—David was excluded because he was the wrong gender for a victim. AB 2051 could weaken the state’s legal position by reiterating this exclusion.

The federal Violence Against Women Act, which funds states’ DV programs through STOP grants, was amended last year to include a requirement that DV programs be gender neutral. It was also amended to state that VAWA’s title should not “be construed to prohibit male victims of domestic violence…from receiving benefits and services.” AB 2051 again places California at odds with federal law, putting the state at risk of losing tens of millions of dollars in STOP grant funds.

The California Alliance for Families and Children has organized a petition against the bill signed by 50 prominent domestic violence researchers and treatment providers. The signatories call on California to stop ignoring male victims and their children, and note:

“The data is without question – domestic violence affects both men and women. The politicization of this issue must stop and services must be provided to all children and their parent victims.”

The group is comprised of many of the biggest names in the domestic violence field, including: author and psychologist Don Dutton, who served as a domestic violence expert on the prosecution team in the OJ Simpson trial; author and criminologist Denise A. Hines, PhD; longtime domestic violence researcher Murray A. Straus, whose co-authored 1980 book Behind Closed Doors: Violence in American Families helped launch the movement to help battered women; author and psychologist Kathleen Malley-Morrison; author and psychologist Patricia Noller, former director of the University of Queensland Family Centre; domestic violence treatment provider Mary Susan Convery, MSW, LCSW; author and psychology professor Marlene Moretti, PhD; psychology professor John Archer, Ph.D., former president of the International Society for Research on Aggression; California domestic violence treatment provider Mike Carolla, MFT; clinical psychologist Jennifer Langhinrichsen-Rohling; Laura Petracek, PhD, LCSW, who helped develop the Harborview Hospital Anger Management and Domestic Violence Program for Women; forensic psychologist Dr. Tonia Nicholls; Jan Brown, founder and Executive Director of the Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men and Women; Philip Cook, Executive Director for Stop Abuse for Everyone and the author ofAbused Men: The Hidden Side of Domestic Violence; psychologist Dr. Reena Sommer; certified domestic violence counselor L. Darlene Pratt; Deborah J. Burkes, director of a court-certified batterer intervention program in Contra Costa County, California; Terry W. Gilbert, director of Capitol Anger Management, which provides court-certified batterer intervention programs; and court-certified batterer intervention provider John Hamel, LCSW, author ofGender-Inclusive Treatment of Intimate Partner Abuse: A Comprehensive Approach.

In his testimony against AB 2051 Hamel asserted:

“AB 2051 deliberately ignores heterosexual males, even though they account for half of all domestic violence victims and incur approximately one third of domestic violence related injuries…there is an overwhelming, irrefutable body of research indicating that children are adversely affected by witnessing interparental violence regardless of the perpetrator’s gender. Boys and girls who have seen their mother physically assault their father are just as likely as those who witnessed their father assault their mother to perpetrate dating violence as adolescents and assault their intimate partners in adulthood. Research also finds that parents who assault one another are also likely to also assault their children, and this correlation holds equally for mothers and fathers. By ignoring the problem of female-on-male violence, Cohn’s bill inhibits our common efforts to effectively combat domestic violence in our communities.”

Cohn introduced AB 2051 to address the problem of domestic violence within the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender communities. This is commendable, since research shows that domestic violence occurs as often in gay and lesbian couples as it does in heterosexual ones. The bill also provided Cohn the opportunity to correct California’s harmful (and potentially costly) error of ignoring male DV victims and their children. Rather than fixing this problem, Cohn has instead chosen to exacerbate it.

  • Daily Breeze (Los Angeles, California)