Dads Against the Divorce Industry

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Men, too, fall victim to abuse in big numbers

Knight Ridder Newspapers


(KRT) - It wasn't the trip to jail that surprised her. She had slugged her new husband in the mouth, after all, over something so small she could not remember it now.

The reaction down at the police station was something else, however. Four years later, it still upsets her.

"They were all laughing, saying, `So, you hit your husband? Ha, ha, ha!" said the woman, who lives in Contra Costa County and asked to remain anonymous. "The one who arrested me, he was chuckling."

Such are the lingering attitudes toward female domestic abusers, say male victims' advocates, despite an emerging body of research that indicates men, too, fall victim in big numbers.

About 835,000 men are raped or physically assaulted by an intimate partner every year in the United States, compared with 1.5 million women victims, according to surveys cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other studies show that men and women suffer domestic violence in equal numbers. The difference - women sustain injury twice as often.

The research has spurred heated debate across the country.

On one side stand women's advocates who say the studies are flawed, and blur the focus on the pervasive problem of violence against women.

On the other hand, male victims' advocates lament weak outreach efforts and a skewed justice system that compromises men in violent relationships.

Locally, concerns have been raised that Contra Costa County's "Zero Tolerance" domestic violence initiative has unduly targeted men.

The debate simmers as a handful of recent cases highlight the other side of a troubling social problem that crosses all social boundaries.

Among them: a California woman charged last month with fatally stabbing her elderly husband; the attack on St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Chuck Finley by his actress wife, Tawny Kitaen, which drew mocking remarks from some media and baseball fans; and a Pittsburg woman accused in July of bludgeoning her husband to death with a towel rack.

Across the state and in the East Bay, between 15 and 20 percent of all spousal abuse arrestees in 2001 were women. In Contra Costa, the number of women arrested for spousal abuse has more than doubled since 1995, according to the state Department of Justice. female arrests rose 37 percent in Alameda County and 46 percent in Solano County over the same period.

The numbers do not suggest a surge in violence by women, experts say, but rather law enforcement's more aggressive response to violence in the home.

Male victims' advocates say the statistics don't reflect the real situation, men are far less likely to report abuse, research shows. The advocates also point to survey research that indicates that women don't usually strike in self-defense.

"One thought is that female aggression has always been a function of protection, or reaction. But the data doesn't support that," said Martin Fiebert, a psychology professor at Cal State Long Beach. He has reviewed more than 100 research studies on domestic violence.

"It turns out, in 50 percent of the cases, you can't separate who started it, and in the other 50 percent, it's equal," Fiebert said.

Contra Costa (Calif.) Superior Court Judge Judith Craddick, who runs the county's misdemeanor domestic violence court, said about 20 of the 500 defendants she now monitors are women.

Those numbers worry John Hamel, a Pleasant Hill clinical social worker who works with violent individuals and couples. Hamel has challenged county leaders to rethink the zero tolerance policy. He said the focus on low-level incidents, through beefed up law enforcement and prosecution, generally results in men being pushed alone into treatment when their partners may also need counseling.

"The dad is sent to jail; mom is treated like a victim. And when dad is released, mom has all this power over him, and she has no pressure on her to change," said Hamel, who is part of a small group of Northern California counselors urging a "gender-inclusive" approach to domestic violence.

The best solution may be couples therapy, Hamel said, but state law prohibits it for defendants undergoing a mandatory 52-week batterers program.

"Our society is fixated on the O.J. Simpsons and the `burning bed' type of encounters. But that's a very small percentage," Hamel said. "Let's not arrest people who don't need to be arrested. Let's look at the situation with the complexity it has."

Such arguments have raised red flags with women's advocates. Some of the surveys cited by male victim's advocates ignore self-defense, said Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Self-reporting surveys _where people are asked if they've engaged in domestic violence, or suffered it - are flawed, she said.

"My experience with batterers is, they lie," Smith said. "To gender-equalize this issue puts an awful lot of people at risk. It's not to say there aren't men battered or killed, but the numbers for the really dangerous or violent episodes and lethality are predominantly women."

State figures show domestic violence led to the slaying of 139 California women and 37 men.

The Contra Costa District Attorney's Office does not keep gender statistics on domestic violence prosecutions, said deputy district attorney Joe Motta. But the large majority of defendants are men.

Motta said the county has developed a solid approach to domestic violence, by honing in on lower level crimes.

"We know it escalates. By the time it's become a felony, it's so aggravated and so awful, you can't fix it," he said.

In many ways, the two sexes are not much different in their response to accusations of abuse, said Michael Elder, a counselor at Concord, Calif.-based STAND Against Domestic Violence. The agency provides treatment for batterers and victims of both sexes. Many attend under a court order.

"The excuses may be different. In the most crude way, it's `I'm a man, I should be obeyed.' Or, `I'm a woman, I should be protected.' Other than that, it's a lot the same," Elder said.

Judge Craddick said she has noticed one difference between men and women defendants.

"It appears women are more inclined to use some type of device - a stick or piece of dishware . . . rather than a punch," she said.

Victims of both sexes feel bound by relationships and unable to leave, say counselors. Duane Samples, a retired law enforcement officer who lives in Folsom, Calif., was a typical victim, he said.

"My scenario was just like a woman's. I left 50 times and I came back. I was trapped," Samples said. "I didn't want her to get arrested. I just wanted her to stop. I was in love with her."

Samples, a 6'4", 230-pound former Marine, said he has scars across his chest and neck from his first wife's attacks. He said he never fought back.

"I didn't know how much of a victim I was until I went to a (law enforcement) training course where two women talked about their experiences. I found my mouth on the floor. I realized they were talking about me."

Sgt. Steve Warne, who heads the domestic violence unit of the Contra Costa sheriff's office, credits the O.J. Simpson case with spurring a broad awareness of domestic violence issues among police, lawmakers and the public, and millions of dollars for better training.

While that awareness cuts across gender lines, men still account for only about 10 percent of victims in domestic violence arrests Warne said.

Harvey Wallace, chairman of the criminology department at Cal State Fresno and the author of "Family Violence," said those efforts are beginning to pay off, even if police, and society in general, have yet to comprehend the magnitude of domestic violence in all its forms.

"We're still driven by stereotypes, and we haven't even come to grips with it," Wallace said. "But we're teaching our officers to be more sophisticated, identifying defensive wounds. So we're learning."


2002, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).

Visit the Contra Costa Times on the Web at

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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