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Domestic Violence

Re-Traumatizing Domestic Violence Victims

A no-drop prosecutorial policy disempowers victims while re-abusing them.

Key points

  • Domestic violence is trauma and victims may suffer mental health disorders including PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
  • The legal system could re-traumatize domestic violence victims.
  • A no-drop prosecutorial policy strips away the victim's self-agency and power of choice.
Kat Smith/Pexels
Source: Kat Smith/Pexels

As a former domestic violence prosecutor who was trained in an office that maintained a mandatory no-drop policy, I often wondered if this rigid stance was intensifying the pain the victims were already suffering from being beaten.

A prosecutorial no-drop policy in domestic abuse cases indicates that a victim does not have the power to withdraw the complaint once the charges are filed. Instead, the district attorney has the sole freedom to pursue a case, even if the victim is no longer on board. The abused may have even stated that they refuse to testify in the event the prosecution doesn’t dismiss the case, or that they will fabricate what happened to them on the stand, making sure to defend the perpetrator. In this scenario, which is very typical, prosecutors are often encouraged to become increasingly aggressive and coercive with uncooperative victims, threatening retaliation against them and even suggesting that the same police that arrested their abuser will now bring them to court in handcuffs to ensure they will testify.

Mandatory arrest platforms often coincide with jurisdictions that employ a no-drop ideology. Namely, once the police receive a 911 call of domestic violence, the alleged perpetrator will be taken into custody regardless of whether the victim wants them incarcerated. Mandatory arrest laws are designed to protect victims of abuse. The argument is that perpetrators of domestic violence should be arrested immediately because this type of abuse is cyclical and will likely escalate in the future. Perhaps, by the defendant being arrested on the scene, they will be less likely to offend again in the future. However, this argument completely ignores the mental health factors that play into an abuser’s issues of control and rage. Moreover, while we try to figure out what message is relayed to the abuser for a no-drop or mandatory arrest policy, what is the takeaway for the abused? It’s likely disempowerment and experiencing a loss of agency; isn’t this what the battered feels in the abusive relationship? Indeed, with both no-drop and mandatory arrest policies, the victim’s voice is irrelevant and unheard by the legal system. This is true despite the abused being the focal point of the system’s protection. Thus, the question arises, is the unwilling victim being protected under these facts or re-traumatized and assaulted by the legal system?

The justification for prosecutorial no-drop policies and mandatory arrests is that domestic abuse, in all its forms, cannot be tolerated by society. It is an incredibly prevalent phenomenon and often leads to the death of the abused. If the physical violence doesn’t turn lethal for the victim, the scars of the aftermath of the trauma can remain in their psyche for a lifetime, greatly affecting their mental health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that on average, 20 people per minute are victims of intimate partner violence, or 10 million individuals over the course of a year. Legally, the definition of domestic violence includes physical abuse, emotional abuse, assault and battery, verbal threats, and stalking. Further, it affects individuals of all ages, races, occupations, social classes, and genders, although female victims are more likely to report and are still more typically the target of abuse.

The no-drop and mandatory arrest policies are a jurisdiction’s best attempt to protect those who have succumbed to being beaten, physically and emotionally. Advocates of these laws suggest that there is an immediate reduction in the dismissal of domestic violence cases compared to those states that don’t maintain these policies. Also, when the defendant realizes that the victim has no control over the dismissal of a case and that only the prosecutor holds this power, the perpetrator is more likely to plead guilty and receive a conviction.

However, convictions aside, domestic violence victims have been traumatized. Their mental health is constantly under siege. They live in a state of fear and hypervigilance. Their brain has been hijacked by the perpetrator’s abuse. This stress is in their amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. The amygdala specifically accompanies trauma, as it is largely responsible for the flight, fight, or freeze mode. When a victim is exposed to a fearful stimulus, such as being attacked, information about that scary event is sent to the amygdala, which in turn releases signals to areas of the brain like the hippocampus to trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response. Abuse victims often freeze when being battered out of the brain’s attempt to reboot for survival. Domestic violence victims may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), characterized by the symptomatology of intrusive thoughts, hyperarousal, flashbacks, nightmares, sleep disturbances, changes in memory, and startle responses. In addition to PTSD, victims experience depression, anxiety, loss of agency, decreased self-esteem, and typically a sense of shame that the abuse is their fault.

When police arrive on the scene or the abuse charges are placed on the prosecutor’s desk, the only thing left that the victim owns is their voice. It may be quiet from years of being oppressed, but it still exists if provided validation. In a no-drop and mandatory arrest jurisdiction, the abused are stripped of their ability to object to the charges and prosecution of the case. This is disempowering and infantilizing for an individual who has been repeatedly controlled and dominated by their abuser. Their brain has been assaulted, their body battered, and it cannot be sound precedent to have the legal system follow suit by ignoring their attempt at self-agency. The courts represent the victim’s first opportunity to have a say toward their healing; to threaten or coerce them to cooperate with the prosecution is tantamount to re-traumatizing and abusing them all over again.