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'Psychological’ or `Mental’ Violence and Domestic Violence Laws: Problems and Solutions

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Psychological harm is a devastating component of domestic violence. Decades of experience and research has shown that batterers often use tactics other than physical assault to frighten, isolate, control, intimidate, embarrass, shame and subjugate their victims. Thus, many advocates have worked to include this kind of harm in their new or amended law’s definition of domestic violence. They use the terms ‘psychological’ or ‘mental’ violence to identify this abuse. However these terms have proven problematic and even dangerous for victims. In some cases these terms have created opportunities for perpetrators to counter-claim psychological or economic abuse against those they have abused for many years in many ways — physical, verbal or otherwise. 

Another problem with the terms `psychological’ or `mental’ violence is that it is difficult to prove and may result in harm to victims who claim such abuse. In many jurisdictions, a victim’s claims of `psychological’ violence may be dismissed unless she can provide expert testimony of harm such as ongoing depression or instability. This may negatively affect her in child custody considerations.

This presentation explores these problems with the language of domestic violence laws and their implementation and discusses possible solutions that may work to better promote victim safety and offender accountability.