Reports of Domestic violence on the rise in Iowa City

Illustration by Jacob Yeates
Illustration by Jacob Yeates

It can happen with any couple, in any relationship, to persons of any gender. And lately it’s been happening in overwhelming numbers to those in Iowa City.

From Jan. 1 to July 14 of this year, there were 301 domestic violence-related calls and 133 associated arrests reported by the Iowa City Police Department (ICPD). To put those numbers in perspective, in just over six months, the department is already nearing its yearly average.

According to ICPD detective and domestic violence investigator Scott Stevens, a traditional year yields between 300 and 450 domestic violence calls and 90 to 130 corresponding arrests. But the cause for the recent increases in intimate partner violence reports is unclear.

For Stevens, it is an indication that his department is getting “better at recognizing situations where it is beneficial to victims’ safety to make an arrest.” He also notes that it is possible friends, neighbors and the victims themselves are becoming less reluctant to call and report physical and verbal abuse.

And while that may well be, licensed master of social work Annie Ventullo, a family child therapist based in Iowa City, points to a different theory. “Most studies show that when the economy isn’t doing well, individuals encounter more stressors and are more likely to lash out at others in their lives,” she said.

Ventullo explains that when a poor economy results in a job loss or decrease in income, it can cause family providers to feel a sense of helplessness as they are no longer able to put food on the table or continue in their role as caretaker. That can accentuate existing pressures, and bring an already volatile situation to the boiling point.

“Oppressing someone can make you feel in control when other parts of your life are severely out of control. You can’t take it out on the economy, so you turn to the person closest to you,” Ventullo explains.

In many cases, that happens to be a woman or child. ICPD statistics indicate that of all domestic violence-related arrests to date, 123 suspects, or around 92 percent, were categorized as male. However, domestic violence advocates are quick to point out that anyone can be a victim or abuser.

“Intimate partner violence happens across the board,” said locally based Rape Victim Advocacy Program education coordinator Mary Perdermo. “It can happen in relationships between same sex couples. It can be verbal or emotional. And anyone can be a perpetrator.”

Indeed, ICPD reports indicate officers were dispatched to seven same-sex domestic disputes this year.  And of all domestic violence related calls, police officers categorized 26 females as suspects. Still, intimate partner violence is overwhelmingly characterized by male abusers.

“We don’t often talk about how gender impacts violent crime,” said Kristie Doser, executive director of the Domestic Violence Intervention Program (DVIP) in Iowa City. “But our society teaches men and women very different lessons when it comes to problem solving. We tend to teach violence as a tool that’s acceptable for men.”

Ventullo adds that this issue can be particularly salient for immigrant families, whose culture may condone violence as a socially appropriate response or view women as possessions. And along with Doser, she notes that income also plays a role.

Though specific income and demographic information was not available for Iowa City domestic violence incidents, as Stevens does not currently keep those statistics, by Ventullo’s estimates the crime is reported more often in lower income families.

Lower income victims are more likely to be referred to services, simply due to the fact they are already receiving unrelated assistance, she says. Unlike a middle or upper class person, they may be sitting in the Department of Human Services office, where they are exposed to signs or pamphlets about domestic violence, or have the opportunity to disclose their abuse to a social worker.

“Oftentimes, it is harder for higher income persons to come forward and admit they are not part of a picture-perfect family,” Ventullo notes. Furthermore, those in higher income brackets can be prone to increased financial or emotional abuse, rendering it more difficult for others to notice.

But why don’t victims just leave? “That question is so prevalent in the national conversation,” said Doser, “and it is so inappropriate to ask.”

Say your wallet was stolen, or a bank was robbed, she explains. We blame the thief, not the unsuspecting pedestrian or the teller. But when it comes to domestic violence, society puts the onus on the victim, asking “why didn’t they do x, y or z and escape or prevent what happened?”

This type of thinking implies that victims should leave and embraces the idea that this is the only way to solve the problem, Doser said. “In reality, we should be holding perpetrators accountable and in a way that creates safety for the victim.”

But until that becomes common practice, safety for victims rarely goes hand in hand with running from their abuser. According to Doser, victims are stalked by their batterer for an average of 21 months—or nearly two years—after they leave. And often their departure only serves to escalate the level of abuse, as perpetrators emotionally cripple, intimidate and even kill their partners who have fled.

Victims often face racial, physical, geographical and class barriers that can also complicate matters. For example, if they live and work in rural Johnson County and the closest shelter is in Iowa City, how will they provide for their children or elderly parents? Will they be able to find affordable housing? Can kids handle the upheaval of transferring schools?

Regardless of victim demographics, one trend is clear: Cases of domestic violence in Iowa City are becoming more lethal. Doser reports that her agency has seen a surge in physical injuries to victims and the use of weapons by batterers for around the past five years.

Though she can’t pinpoint the reasons behind the troubling trend, she does note that perpetrators typically escalate their abusive actions and resort to violence when other tools—like put-downs, guilt trips, sexual pressure, isolation and threats—don’t work to help gain control of the relationship.

Since January, ICPD has handled 54 serious misdemeanors, five aggravated misdemeanors and 20 felonies related to intimate partner violence, numbers that are up from previous years.

According to the Iowa Code, a serious misdemeanor in connection with domestic abuse is one that causes bodily injury or mental illness. An aggravated misdemeanor involves intent to inflict serious injury, the display of a weapon or prior convictions on the part of the abuser. A felony can include choking or strangulation that causes injury and three or more prior convictions.

These definitions are important because in 2012, the Iowa Code changed to require mandatory arrests in cases involving strangulation. While such instances were previously classified as simple misdemeanors if no bruising or trauma was evident, they can now be reported as aggravated misdemeanors.

This change is critical, says Assistant Johnson County Attorney Kristin Parks, because many times when someone is strangled, the injuries are internal and not visible. Thus, the new law helps recognize that not all victims show outward signs of abuse.

Parks believes this amendment may be contributing to the apparent rise in more serious domestic abuse charges. However, she emphasizes that in all cases, her office takes a two-fold approach. “We want to hold the defendant accountable, but also assist the victim,” she said.

“It takes a woman, on average, seven times to leave her abuser. We tell police to treat each time like it’s the seventh.”

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