For the past week, the Topeka, Kansas City Council has debated whether or not to repeal the city’s Domestic Violence ordinance. The local government has been overwhelmed with felony cases and just can’t afford to keep those pesky spouse batterers behind bars or, at the very least, away from their victims, and wants the county government to bear the cost for doing so (not only when it comes to jailing abusers but in providing critical victim services such as housing and protection).
So, as of October 11, 2011, the city of Topeka has decided to erase the domestic abuse law from its books. In other words, misdemeanor assault towards a partner or family member – including any physical violence without a weapon, threats, intimidation, or estrangement from the home – no longer “exists” in Topeka. The new law makes domestic violence only prosecutable by the state as a felony (and only if a weapon is used). The city says that the state is better equipped to handle these cases anyway, and the state insists that it’s all the city’s domain. As these groups engage in a staring contest over budget funding and responsibility, eighteen jailed suspects awaiting prosecution have been sent home from county jails, free to go back to whatever behavior put them there in the first place.
Call me inappropriately frugal, but when my budget is feeling the squeeze I cut down on ordering take-out or tell Sallie Mae, “Better luck next month.” I don’t let my electricity get cut off because electricity is an essential service, and I don’t ignore the failing breaks on my car because that would put my personal safety at risk. We usually trust our government to do the same; every person or entity with a budget has had to trim the fat in recent years, from basic municipal services to the number of law enforcement officials on the street. But shouldn’t we determine what is eligible for the chopping block based on good sense and public safety, rather than simply saving money?
Domestic violence is defined as any physical, verbal, or sexual harm or threat of harm within an intimate relationship. For this behavior to escalate to a felony level of assault a weapon must be involved; of course for abuse victims, by then it is often too late.
While men are also victims of abuse, the National Organization of Women reports that one-third of murdered women are killed by a spouse or partner. Even in its least extreme forms, domestic violence takes a heavy toll on children, who may or may not be victims of abuse themselves but are often at risk for behavioral and social problems. Statistics also show that family violence most devastatingly affects low-income and minority women.
I don’t ask if your city is next to be alarmist, I ask because it’s entirely possible. When the local protections for abuse victims go away, the idea starts to sound efficient enough to be worthwhile. Every city in this country is looking for the next bright idea in budget management, and it wouldn’t be the first time that politicians allocated resources away from women, minorities, and those living in poverty en masse.
In spite of the fact that October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month and this country has come a long way in recognizing the intricate difficulties surrounding family abuse, we’re still not where we should be. Abuse is still considered a women’s problem, one that may be unpreventable, overblown, or not worth the system’s time. I have a hard time believing that this continued perception of domestic violence, and the demographics of who is affected by it, did not play a role in its decriminalization.
Topeka sent a deeply flawed message by telling its residents that domestic abuse is no longer the city’s problem. It’s a message that says, in plain terms, that there are more important things for city government to worry about than protecting its citizens from the cycle of violence in which many are caught, one that will take the lives of at least a few. The city just told its residents that if you do not feel safe in your home, don’t worry, there is help in the next town over, just not here. The message is clear: if you are powerless against someone who is supposed to love you, you’re pretty much on your own.