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Law Against Domestic Abuse May Be Backfiring

Crime: Health professionals are required to report suspected cases. But the rule may be stopping victims, fearful of revenge, from getting help.

December 31, 1996|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

Although it was intended to do good, a 2-year-old state law on domestic violence may be hurting the very people it was meant to help, according to a number of California health organizations.

The Mandatory Reporting Law requires health professionals to notify a local law enforcement agency whenever they know or suspect a patient has been battered. But critics say the law may be further endangering victims and even preventing some individuals from seeking treatment for injuries.

The bill, written by former Assemblywoman Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) and signed by Gov. Pete Wilson on Sept. 19, 1994, was born out of the intense publicity surrounding O.J. Simpson's arrest that year and during an era of heightened awareness about domestic violence.

But this law is an example, critics say, of good intentions gone awry. The lives of battered spouses are so complicated that police intervention may not be in an individual's best interest at the time she seeks health care, they say.

If arrangements cannot be made for a woman to go to a shelter or seek a restraining order, she may return home to a batterer who is extremely angry that the police have been called.

One Los Angeles County doctor recently called the California Alliance Against Domestic Violence to express frustration with the law, said Ariella Hyman, a San Francisco attorney who specializes in domestic violence cases. The doctor had treated a woman in the emergency room for facial injuries inflicted by the woman's husband, Hyman said.

A report was made to police, and the husband was arrested in a hospital waiting room. When the patient returned home, her fuming husband had already been released by police, and she was beaten so badly that she had to return to the hospital for additional treatment.

Hyman, who is compiling anecdotes illustrating the negative repercussions of the law, said some women who know about mandatory reporting are avoiding medical care. According to another report filed to Hyman by the director of a battered women's shelter in Santa Cruz, a woman whose husband burned her face by holding it to a grill and another who suffered serious head injuries when her husband banged her head on a wall and floor came to the shelter for care to avoid police notification.

Physicians are reluctant to call in police when a patient begs them not to, added Janet Nudelman of the Family Violence Prevention Fund in San Francisco, a nonprofit organization that works to improve society's response to domestic violence.

"The mandatory nature of the law is problematic because it takes away doctors' ability to decide on a case-by-case basis what is best for that patient," she said. "It asks them to be cops. It asks them to assume a position that isn't appropriate for them."

The law may also interfere with a trend in medicine that encourages doctors to screen all their patients for evidence of domestic violence by asking a few nonthreatening questions.

"If they identify it, then they have to report it. So they become reluctant to do routine screening," Nudelman said.

These unforeseen repercussions of the law demonstrate just how complicated solutions to domestic violence are, she said.

"We know when the law passed that domestic violence was just beginning to be raised as a public health issue. Legislators were beginning to think about what they could do," Nudelman said. "Jackie Speier had the best intentions when she drafted this law. . . . But, to be perfectly honest, people hadn't thought through the whole spectrum of consequences of the law."

Now, a growing number of groups--including the California Academy of Family Physicians, the Trauma Foundation and Physicians for a Violence-Free Society--have taken stands criticizing mandatory reporting. (Health professionals who must report domestic violence under the law include physicians, nurses, dentists, optometrists and other health providers, with the exception of therapists.)

Meanwhile, a coalition has been formed to press for an amendment to the law that would specify police notification only with the victim's consent.

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But not everyone harbors regrets. Some law enforcement agencies express satisfaction with mandatory reporting, claiming it has greatly assisted in identifying and prosecuting batterers.

"This law has, unquestionably, had a positive impact," said Det. Tim Williams, a senior detective supervisor with the Los Angeles Police Department.

The difference in viewpoints, Hyman said, "comes from having different goals. The criminal justice system goal is to hold perpetrators accountable. [Battered women's] advocates want to provide safety, and health care providers to provide medical care."

All are sincere in their desire to help victims of domestic violence, 90% to 95% of whom are women, said Dr. Elaine J. Alpert, an expert on domestic violence at Boston University School of Medicine. In recent years, both the medical and law enforcement fields have come under attack for not doing more to address such a pervasive problem.

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