AMERICA IS FACING A TEST of its determination to confront domestic violence. Two tests, really: one, a court case; the other, a piece of federal legislation, each signaling in its own way whether the struggle to ensure women’s safety is advancing or in retreat. That struggle—which is as old as Carrie Nation—has made great strides over the last three decades. Domestic violence has been acknowledged and defined, recognized in law, and countered with programs ranging from counseling to shelters to hot lines to enforcement training and judicial reform. As a result, the overall incidence of women being battered or killed by intimate partners has declined or leveled off.
Still, as many as 4 million women are assaulted by spouses or partners each year, and 1,200 are killed. Clearly, the fight is not over.
It certainly isn’t over for Jessica Gonzales, who in June lost her case, Castle Rock v. Gonzales, before the U.S. Supreme Court. One day in 1999, Gonzales’s estranged husband abducted their three daughters from her front yard and murdered them, a carnage that might have been prevented had the Castle Rock, Colorado, police department not repeatedly refused to act on the protective order she’d sworn out. Gonzales sued the town for its negligence; when her case reached the Supreme Court, the Bush administration weighed in on Castle Rock’s side. The arguments were technical legal dissections; left hanging was any consideration of the mayhem an adverse court decision could introduce into many women’s lives. After the court’s ruling favoring Castle Rock, advocates fear a future where restraining orders, standard protection sought by thousands of women each year, will ring hollow, leaving abused women with even less legal support.
That was one test. The second will come when Congress deliberates the renewal of the 10-year-old Violence Against Women Act, which will expire on September 30. Advocates of the successful and popular legislation hope it will be buttressed with enhanced funding but fear its support will be cut.
The stories that follow display the enormous ramifications of such decisions. We may no longer live in the era when so many women, deprived of legal, peaceful remedies to the horror of their lives, resorted to the violent remedy forced on Shelley Hendrickson. But, as Patricia Prickett, a former adviser to the L.A.P.D., attests, the most effective way to solve the larger problem is still being sought by advocates battling for women’s safety. Judging from the casualties, the battle remains to be won.