The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) previously defined domestic violence to include a wide range of abuse tactics beyond physical abuse. However, under the Trump administration, the DOJ changed how they define domestic violence on its website.

The former definition included forms of abuse such as emotional, economic, and psychological abuse. In contrast, the new definition has been narrowed to solely acts of physical abuse called “crimes of violence.” The previous and former definitions can be read here.

This shift, while seemingly inconsequential, has major implications for those affected by domestic violence. This article will describe why it is crucial that the DOJ change their definition of domestic violence to reflect a broader understanding of abuse.

The DOJ’s Current Definition Of Domestic Abuse Is Incomplete And Misleading

Defining domestic violence as acts of “felony or misdemeanor crimes of violence,” glazes over important nuances in how victims experience domestic abuse. Natalie Nanasi is a Professor of Law and the Director of the Judge Elmo B. Hunter Legal Center for Victims of Crimes Against Women. She wrote into the Slate as one of the first voices bringing awareness to this issue. In her article, Nanasi explains that “a domestic violence relationship rarely begins with physical violence, much less violence that rises to the level of a crime.”

Instead, abusive relationships more often develop over time and intensify around an imbalance of power and control. For instance, in the beginning stages of an abusive relationship, perpetrators often engage in subtle acts of non-physical aggression. These acts include actions such as name-calling and increased surveillance. To read about these toxic behaviors in more detail, check out my article Sugar Coated Indicators of Intimate Partner Violence. These types of actions fall under the umbrella of psychological and emotional abuse and often escalate into isolating, threatening, or gas-lighting an intimate partner.

Further, forms of non-physical abuse can cause more long-term damage than survivors of physical violence; Yet, the current definition of domestic violence does not include any language that directly acknowledges these abusive actions. In addition, non-physical abuse often precedes life-threatening actions of physical abuse. Individuals should not have to endure physical violence for their abuse to be validated under the DOJ’s definition.

The DOJ’s Semantic Change Could Spur Legal And Social Change

On the surface, the Department of Justice’s semantic change to the definition of domestic violence seems inconsequential— how the Department defines domestic violence on their website does not directly alter federal or state policy. However, the potential for far-reaching impacts shouldn’t be ignored.

Legal Implications

States’ definitions of domestic violence vary widely. The National Conference of State Legislatures describes a state-level policy surrounding domestic violence as follows. “Approximately 38 states place domestic violence definitions and penalties within the criminal code; nearly every state provides a definition within the domestic relations or social services codes. Within this variance are broad definitions that may include stalking, harassment, and, in some instances, nonphysical abuse including intimidation and emotional abuse.” Evidently, many states lack a robust definition of domestic violence.

When states revisit and consider altering their definitions, I fear they will turn to the federal level for guidance. As the DOJ’s definition currently stands, our federal government stands behind a definition of domestic abuse that is significantly less robust than many states, setting a poor precedent for forward-movement.

Social Implications

Additionally, the DOJ’s definition is one of the first results to appear when you google “definition of domestic violence”. Thus, this definition will find its way into research papers and debates, carrying with it the ability to cite the esteemed source of the DOJ.

Beyond citations, my stomach drops at the prospect of a victim of domestic abuse stumbling across this definition. She could very well wrongly conclude that she doesn’t qualify for or deserve legal protection.

Our society is already struggling to conceptualize domestic violence, often settling on this narrowed view of physical violence. A formal definition that confirms these false beliefs will stand to hinder social progress and put lives in danger.

We Must Move Forward, Not Backwards

Our federal government has taken steps backward in the movement to combat domestic abuse. Previously, the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) provided funding and support to investigate and combat domestic violence. This act set a positive precedent for prioritizing the issue of domestic abuse on a federal level. However, this act expired after reauthorization in February of 2019 and has yet to be reauthorized. During this same time, the DOJ restricted their definition of domestic abuse.

We look to the new administration to make up lost progress and begin prioritizing the needs of victims and survivors of domestic abuse. As a first step in doing so, the DOJ should restore a holistic definition of domestic abuse on their website. Next, we can turn our energy to the Senate for action on the House-passed VAWA reauthorization.

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