Guest Post on Battered-Woman Syndrome


On June 14 I posted my column on the Ohio Supreme Court decision in State v. Goff, in which the Court was faced with the issue of whether a woman who had murdered her husband and raised the battered-woman syndrome as a defense could be compelled to submit to a psychiatric examination by the state. Here’s a guest post from my University of Cincinnati law school colleague, Professor Margaret Drew (Professor of Clinical Law and Director, Domestic Violence and Civil Protection Order Clinic)with some interesting comments on the battered-woman syndrome.

From Professor Drew:

The Goff case provides an opportunity to discuss the inappropriateness of the term “Battered Women’s Syndrome.”  The broader discussion is that often the criminal justice system does not understand or recognize the fundamental dynamics of domestic violence.  But that is a discussion for another day.

Civil domestic violence advocates reject the term “Battered Women’s Syndrome”.  The term implies the presence of mental illness.  So it is not surprising that the state looks for a psychiatric exam when the defense is raised.  Most battered women are not mentally ill.  They recognize when they and their children are in danger of lethal violence.   Defensive actions are not an illness but a response to violence.  Thirty percent of women who are killed by intimate partners never reported any physical violence and no physical abuse was known to friends or family of the battered women.  To focus solely on physical threats ignores the lethality risk that other forms of abuse create.  Evan Stark’s book “Coercive Control” discusses non-physical abuse, the impact on the targets of the abuse and the risk that non-physical coercion represents.   I recommend Stark’s book to those who wish to understand the severity of non-physical abuse and the danger that non-physical abuse portends.

The criminal law in Ohio and many other states is over twenty years behind the research on domestic violence.  It is time to understand women’s responses to abuse and eliminate the suggestion that every battered woman who responds with violence is mentally ill.  The appropriate defense is that battered women respond with as much violence as they believe is necessary to save their lives and those of their children.

Margaret Drew

Prof. of Clinical Law

University of Cincinnati College of Law

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