We know what domestic violence is.

As practitioners serving survivors, we know what domestic violence is. We know it from the researchers that study the issue, but most fundamentally, we know it from the lived experiences that survivors share with us every day – in shelter, over our crisis lines, in our legal programs, support groups and counseling sessions. We believe survivors when they tell us that the emotional abuse that they experienced caused the most pain, and required the longest recovery period.

We know from interviews with survivors in Indiana, and also from national data, that nearly all survivors of domestic violence experience economic abuse, and that the economic insecurity caused by that abuse makes it much more difficult for them to separate from the abusive relationship and rebuild their lives. We know that physical, emotional, sexual and economic abuse are all forms of violence that abusers use to gain and maintain power and control over victims.

Yes, The Department of Justice’s definition of domestic violence has changed, but that change does not affect our services to survivors or our understanding of the solutions necessary to promote safe and equitable relationships for all of us. Here is what has been happening and early analysis of the implications for our work.

Last week, Slate published an article headlined “The Trump Administration Quietly Changed the Definition of Domestic Violence and We Have No Idea What For,” in which they highlighted significant changes to the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Violence Against Women definition of domestic violence as listed on their website.

According to the article, the change in the definition of both domestic violence and sexual assault occurred in April, however, the move has only recently attracted media attention.

An archived version of the website from April 2018 defined domestic violence as:

A pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner. Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone.

The current version of that same website only includes acts of physical violence under the definition:

The term “domestic violence” includes felony or misdemeanor crimes of violence committed by a current or former spouse or intimate partner of the victim, by a person with whom the victim shares a child in common, by a person who is cohabitating with or has cohabitated with the victim as a spouse or intimate partner, by a person similarly situated to a spouse of the victim under the domestic or family violence laws of the jurisdiction receiving grant monies, or by any other person against an adult or youth victim who is protected from that person’s acts under the domestic or family violence laws of the jurisdiction.

Experts agree that the exclusion of other forms of domestic violence such as psychological abuse, coercive control and manipulation could have serious consequences for millions of victims of gender-based violence.

Natalie Nanasi – director of the Judge Elmo B Hunter Legal Center for Victims of Crimes Against Women at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law – was the first to write about these changes.

“What is clear is that these seemingly semantic changes, even if not yet embodied in official law or policy, are part of a broader trend toward the devaluation of women by this administration and this president,” Nanasi writes in the Slate article.

For now, the statutory definition of domestic violence has not changed. There is some speculation that the new definition may mean the OVW could focus their funding on agencies that serve victims of crime rather than community efforts to combat domestic and sexual abuse. OVW may also change its education and training resources to include the new definition, excluding survivors of non-physical forms of abuse.

ICADV will continue to advocate for a holistic approach to all forms of intimate partner violence in its training, programs and documents. We encourage our member organizations and all organizations across the country who serves survivors of intimate partner violence, to do the same.

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