Black Women, domestic violence and the criminal justice system.

In the wake of back-to-back incidents in which multiple shooting deaths were reported to be the tragic culmination of domestic disputes with the Black women intimate partners of the men who pulled the triggers, conversations about domestic violence against Black women are emerging from the margins of generalized discussions surrounding Black-on-Black crime, gun violence and domestic violence.                      

Black women are killed by men at more than twice the rate of white women, and according to a recent study issued by the Violence Policy Center, the man who kills a Black woman is very likely to be her spouse, intimate partner or family member. He is also likely to be Black.

These statistics are staggering, but the disproportionality of the numbers gets lost when the rate of domestic violence against Black women is lumped in with other forms of Black-on-Black violence or when domestic violence rates do not contemplate race — a factor that significantly complicates the burden carried by Black women victims and survivors of domestic violence.

This burden is all-too-familiar to Sophie Ford, executive director of a crisis center that services a majority-black population of domestic violence victims in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Ford’s clients come to her seeking refuge from emotional and financial manipulations, threats and physical violence perpetrated against them by the intimate partners they once trusted with their hearts. “Incidents of domestic violence are traumatic events, and it’s important to understand that when you’re dealing with someone seeking protection from an abuser with whom they have or had an intimate relationship,” says Ford.

The process often begins with a call to the police and petition for a temporary protective order — two steps that require the victim to recount (and re-live) the traumatic event. The anxiety of re-traumatization alone can be discouraging, but for many Black women, the idea of calling the police also triggers concerns ranging from how (and whether) she will be treated as the alleged victim to whether the police encounter could escalate to a point where she or the man from whom she seeks protection could end up injured or dead.

“The first thing I do when Black women confide their fears of engaging the criminal justice system for protection is to acknowledge those fears as stemming from real, unimagined considerations,” says Ford. She then offers her clients perspective on their long-term goal: “If your goal is to be physically, emotionally and financially free from the abuse, this is part of the process.”

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby agrees. “For survivors of crime, the criminal justice process can be frustrating, often leaving survivors to feel re-victimized as they navigate the process. However, it's critically vital that all victims and witnesses, as well as others, remain engaged, vigilant and visible throughout the process,” says Mosby, whose office recently secured $6.4 million in federal and state grants to expand its victim support unit (which includes two advocates dedicated to special victims and domestic violence cases).

Support systems matter. Research shared by the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community revealed that battered Black women who could point to systems of emotional and practical support were less likely to be re-abused and showed less psychological distress.

However, even when supported, Black women also carry the added burden of wariness in subjecting their abusers to a criminal justice system that is seen as unfairly biased against Black people. Black people are 13 percent of the population but compose 1 million of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in this country. “Domestic violence between partners is never OK, and there should be a mechanism for victims to seek refuge and safety — but calling law enforcement could lead to more trauma for victims,” says Carmen Berkley, human rights strategist and co-founder of the cultural and political strategy firm Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. The consideration that calling the police could add to the over-incarceration of Black people is carried in the consciences of black women who see themselves as partners in the struggle for racial equality and protectors of their extended Black family.

Even with these considerations, however, Berkley, does not suggest that Black women suffer domestic violence in silence. She also encourages people to organize congressional lobby visits with their churches and Greek-lettered organizations to preserve programs like the Department of Justice’s Violence Against Women grant.

Karen Elaine Smith did not get a chance to voice her concerns about her husband’s threatening behavior before he walked into the elementary school where she worked as a teacher and opened fire, killing Smith and 8-year-old Jonathan Martinez and wounding an unidentified 9-year-old student before turning the gun on himself. The two had been married for less than 90 days.

Six days later, Joy Lane’s then-boyfriend uploaded a video to his Facebook page depicting a gun pointed at the head of 74-year-old Robert Godwin Sr., selected randomly. In the moments preceding his death, Goodwin’s murderer demanded that he say the name of his then-girlfriend right before he was shot, telling Godwin that “she is the reason this is about to happen to you.” The speaking of Joy Lane’s name has since ignited a long-overdue awareness campaign to end the cycle of domestic violence that has taken a disproportionate toll on Black women.


If you are in need of emergency assistance to get out of an abusive relationship, you can call 1-800-656-4673 or go to for more information.

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