Jurisprudence

The Trump Administration Quietly Changed the Definition of Domestic Violence and We Have No Idea What For

Donald Trump answers questions from the press as he leaves the White House on Jan. 14.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Without fanfare or even notice, the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women made significant changes to its definition of domestic violence in April. The Obama-era definition was expansive, vetted by experts including the National Center for Victims of Crime and the National Domestic Violence Hotline. The Trump administration’s definition is substantially more limited and less informed, effectively denying the experiences of victims of abuse by attempting to cast domestic violence as an exclusively criminal concern.

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The previous definition included critical components of the phenomenon that experts recognize as domestic abuse—a pattern of deliberate behavior, the dynamics of power and control, and behaviors that encompass physical or sexual violence as well as forms of emotional, economic, or psychological abuse. But in the Trump Justice Department, only harms that constitute a felony or misdemeanor crime may be called domestic violence. So, for example, a woman whose partner isolates her from her family and friends, monitors her every move, belittles and berates her, or denies her access to money to support herself and her children is not a victim of domestic violence in the eyes of Trump’s Department of Justice. This makes no sense for an office charged with funding and implementing solutions to the problem of domestic violence rather than merely prosecuting individual abusers.

Restoring nonphysical violence to the definition of domestic violence is critical. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, over one-third of U.S. women (43.5 million) have experienced “psychological aggression” at the hands of an intimate partner. Experts have long recognized that the manipulative behaviors identified in the Obama-era definition as restricting a victim’s liberty or freedom can cause greater and more lasting damage than physical harm. I know this from my experiences over a decade working with survivors of domestic violence. In nearly every case, the bruises and broken bones eventually heal, but the psychological scars can last a lifetime.

Trump has attempted to brand his administration as one of “law and order,” so shoehorning domestic violence into a criminal justice framework may seem to him like a sensible way to recast the issue. But it isn’t. The assumption that domestic violence must involve a criminal justice response demonstrates a myopic understanding of abuse. Many survivors—particularly those from minority or marginalized communities—are reluctant to report domestic violence to law enforcement. Race, class, sexual orientation, and immigration status can significantly affect whether a survivor decides to seek outside intervention when suffering violence in the home. A call to the police may make a survivor less safe if, for example, doing so intensifies the abuser’s anger or the arrest of a primary breadwinner renders her homeless. Some survivors do not report because they do not want their abusers to face criminal punishment or because they generally distrust law enforcement. For varied reasons, many survivors therefore make an informed choice to not initiate a criminal case.

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A domestic violence relationship rarely begins with physical violence, much less violence that rises to the level of a crime. If you were punched on a first date, odds are there wouldn’t be a second. Intimate partner abuse is insidious: Emotional and psychological abuse escalates to physical violence as an abuser’s need and/or ability to exert power and control increases. In the United States today, more than half of female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner. If we do not acknowledge the “small” things—yelling or screaming, name-calling, and controlling or monitoring communication and social media—victims may not realize they are in danger until it is too late.

It is too early to assess the full impact of the Trump administration’s definitional change. The Office on Violence Against Women engages in a broad array of activities in its implementation of the Violence Against Women Act. Perhaps grants that support community efforts to combat domestic and sexual abuse will be restricted to agencies serving victims of crime, leaving survivors without critical resources. If OVW’s training, education, and technical assistance curriculum is revised to adhere to the new definition, those experiencing “mere” emotional, economic, or psychological harms may no longer be considered victims. (It is further noteworthy that OVW simultaneously altered the definition of sexual assault, with the new definition containing a similar criminal justice focus.) What is clear is that these seemingly semantic changes, even if not yet embodied in official law or policy, are part of a broader trend toward the devaluation of women by this administration and this president.

Update, Jan. 24, 2019: Following publication of this article, the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women issued the following statement:

The Department is strongly committed to enforcing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and combating domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, and sex trafficking, and to do so in a manner that is consistent with the law enacted by Congress. Domestic violence is clearly defined in VAWA, and OVW has always used the statutory definition in carrying out its mission. By following the statute, the Department ensures the funds made available by Congress are employed in the most effective manner possible to reduce violence and to assist crime victims.

In fiscal year 2018, OVW awarded a record $467 million under VAWA. President Trump’s request for fiscal year 2019 OVW funding was the largest ever requested. OVW discretionary grantees serve an average of 125,000 victims every six months and formula subgrantees serve over 400,000 victims each year. VAWA funding supports victim advocates who answer over a million hotline calls and provides over 2 million housing and shelter bed-nights for victims and their children annually. Every year, VAWA-funded professionals assist victims in securing more than 200,000 protection orders.