New York Courts Allow Testimony of Battered Women’s Syndrome

At some point in his or her career, every divorce lawyer will encounter a case in which one of the parties exhibits symptoms of battered women’s syndrome. The term, which is sometimes abbreviated BWS, first came into usage in the 1970’s and is used to describe the behavioral pattern of a person who is emotionally, psychologically and/or physically abused by their partner in an intimate relationship. Because 90% of the victims in reported domestic violence cases are female, the phrase is typically used to describe a battered wife or girlfriend. In actuality, both men and women can be victims of domestic violence.

Some skeptics have complained that the term Battered Women’s Syndrome was never empirically validated as a medical condition and that the usage of the term does not have widespread support among psychologists.

In contrast to the skepticism of psychologists, New York courts have not hesitated to embrace battered women’s syndrome, and New York judges in Supreme, Criminal and Family Courts have permitted domestic violence experts to testify that one of the hallmark characteristics of women who suffer from battered women’s syndrome is their tendency to minimize, rationalize, or deny abusive behavior. Sometimes, expert testimony by domestic violence professionals is introduced to explain by a victim failed to take legal action or seek police intervention while they were suffering from egregious abuse.

In the case, New York v. Santiago, 2003 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 829; 2003 NY Slip Op 51034(U) (NY Supreme Crt. 2003), Justice Atlas sets forth an extensive and informative discussion of the three phases that typically characterize domestic violence. These three phases include: (1) tension building; (2) violence; and (3) honeymoon.

Victims of domestic violence tend to suffer from low self-esteem and a sense of helplessness that often inhibits their ability to speak for or defend themselves. As a New York divorce lawyer, I have observed, first hand, the tragic consequences that prolonged domestic violence inflicts upon victims. On at least two occasions, I have dealt with the particularly painful circumstance of a client who has garnered the courage to come forward and seek judicial protection, only to panic and refuse to attend their scheduled court appearance. In the Santiago decision, Justice Atlas describes the common tendency of domestic violence victims to seek police or legal intervention when they are in acute distress or terror, only to subsequently recant their allegations when their abuser promises to change.

Because a victim of domestic violence is frequently unable to effectively speak for herself, and suffers from a complex mixture of fear, self-doubt, shame, and denial, it is essential for an attorney to ensure that their client is provided with counseling by a psychologist or social worker. The family law attorneys at Rapaport Law Firm take particular professional pride in our experience in helping New York and New Jersey victims of domestic violence escape the cycle of abuse that previously dominated their lives.

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