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Restorative Justice for Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence

More than half of IPV incidents aren’t reported—largely because criminal justice doesn’t always provide what survivors need.

By Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Anita didn’t call the police in 2017 when she escaped from her then-partner, Patrick, who tried to sexually assault her and then pinned her against a bedroom wall by her neck. “The one thing that I probably regret more than anything was that I didn't call the police in that moment,” Anita says. “I just wanted to get out.”

Anita stayed with her mother while Patrick holed up at her house. When Anita tried to get Patrick to move out, he called the police, who told Anita she was the one who should leave. “I was like, ‘This is my home,’” Anita says. “And [the police officer] is like, ‘Well, if you don’t feel safe, you need to leave.’ It was ridiculous. It was probably one of the worst experiences I’ve had in my life.”

Eventually, Anita was granted a restraining order that forced Patrick from her home. But she says Patrick continued to contact her for years, which is why she asked that her real name not be published. “I just want to be left alone,” she says.

Less than half of intimate partner violence incidents are reported to law enforcement, demonstrating that many IPV survivors don’t see the criminal justice system as the answer to their problems. In fact, many IPV survivors believe that involving law enforcement would only worsen their troubles. They fear retribution from both abusive partners and community members for calling the police to their neighborhood. They worry about eviction, or losing the financial support of a jailed partner. And they wonder whether they can trust law enforcement not to hurt, or even kill, their abusive partner.

But until recently, little research has been done on the kind of justice IPV survivors wanted instead.

“It’s really important to listen to survivors’ needs,” says Charvonne Holliday Nworu, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor in Population, Family and Reproductive Health. “It can be assumed that survivors of violence want their partner to be arrested, they want him out of there, they don’t want to ever see him again. Sometimes that’s the case. And sometimes it’s not.”

In fact, in more than two dozen in-depth interviews with violence survivors, Holliday Nworu, together with Michele Decker, ScD, MPH, a Bloomberg Professor of American Health in PFRH, found that survivors prioritized accountability, safety, and rehabilitation—rather than punishment—in their definitions of justice. This type of justice, known as restorative justice, centers on repairing harm by centering the survivor’s needs and holding the abusive partner accountable. It is often preferred by IPV survivors, especially when the survivor shares children or financial commitments with the abuser, according to their ongoing work.

“That’s part of the foundation of restorative justice. It looks different for everyone.”

To these survivors, justice doesn’t mean jail time or a prolonged court battle. Instead, it is knowing they are safe from the hands of their abusive partner. It could be an apology and acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Justice could even be safe housing, and recovery from the financial hardship caused by the abuse. “Justice is relative,” says Holliday Nworu. “That’s part of the foundation of restorative justice. It looks different for everyone.”

Historically, “justice” meant a police report, arrest, and the carceral system, Decker notes. “Advocates and women have long articulated the challenges with that system—the barriers to reporting, the unfortunate history of minimization of harm by law enforcement, the sense of futility that the system would not resolve the underlying problem,” she says.

A related study by the researchers helped to understand police reporting among IPV survivors through an intersectional lens of race and gender. A particularly surprising finding: Despite fear of police discrimination, Black women were twice as likely as white women to report an incident of IPV to police—a behavior that Holliday Nworu says doesn’t hold true for other forms of crime. “What’s saddening about our finding is that the reporting was out of hopelessness and fear of fatality,” she says. “They felt that their partner was capable of murdering them and they had nowhere else to turn.”

Holliday Nworu and Decker’s work is advancing the field of restorative justice beyond the theoretical by highlighting what justice means to IPV survivors themselves, says Leigh Goodmark, JD, Marjorie Cook Professor of Law and co-director of the clinical law program at the University of Maryland, who has collaborated with the pair. “For those of us who are interested in helping people achieve their justice goals,” Goodmark says, “having hard data about what that looks like … is absolutely invaluable.”

There is much more research to be done on restorative justice for IPV before solutions can be scaled, Decker says. “We need to know about safety outcomes for the full set of the restorative solutions and for the full set of retributive solutions,” she says. “Survivors’ safety is the No. 1 priority that needs to drive the solution. That’s how we got here to the restorative justice concept, and that also needs to guide where we’re going.”

A first step in that direction: A forthcoming paper shows a significant reduction in IPV revictimization for survivors with access to safe housing provided through House of Ruth Maryland’s transitional and rapid rehousing services.

“[IPV survivors] needed safe housing. They got housing. And, guess what, they had just stunning improvements in safety,” Decker says. “If that’s not part of restorative justice, I don’t know what is.”