Jailhouse Phone Calls Reveal Why Domestic Violence Victims Recant

COLUMBUS, Ohio – A new study uses – for the first time – recorded jailhouse telephone conversations between men charged with felony domestic violence and their victims to help reveal why some victims decide not to follow through on the charges.

Researchers listened to telephone conversations between 17 accused male abusers in a Washington state detention facility and their female victims, all of whom decided to withdraw their accusations of abuse.  For each of the couples, the researchers analyzed up to about three hours of phone conversations…

…“The existing belief is that victims recant because the perpetrator threatens her with more violence.  But our results suggest something very different,” said Amy Bonomi, lead author of the study and associate professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University.

“Perpetrators are not threatening the victim, but are using more sophisticated emotional appeals designed to minimize their actions and gain the sympathy of the victim.  That should change how we work with victims.”

The study appears online in the journal Social Science & Medicine and will appear in a future print edition….

…The couples were aware they were being recorded through an automated message at the beginning of each call.  Such recordings have been approved by the state Supreme Court, and the researchers gained approval from the county prosecutor’s office to use the recordings.  All the recordings involved cases that had already been resolved.

The researchers chose to study victims who had decided to recant….

…After analyzing the calls, the researchers identified a five-step process that went from the victims vigorously defending themselves in the phone calls to agreeing to a plan to recant their testimony against the accused abuser.

Typically, in the first and second conversations there is a heated argument between the couple, revolving around the event leading to the abuse charge.  In these early conversations, the victim is strong, and resists the accused perpetrator’s account of what happens.

“The victim starts out with a sense of determination and is eager to advocate for herself, but gradually that erodes as the phone calls continue,” said Bonomi…

…“The tipping point for most victims occurs when the perpetrator appeals to her sympathy, by describing how much he is suffering in jail, how depressed he is, and how much he misses her and their children,” Bonomi said.

“The perpetrator casts himself as the victim, and quite often the real victim responds by trying to soothe and comfort the abuser.”…

…“They often exchange very specific instructions about what should be done and said in court.  They seal their bond as a couple and see themselves as fighting together against the state, which they view as trying to keep them apart,” Bonomi said…

…Bonomi said the results of this study could help prosecutors and other victim advocates as they work with abuse victims in the criminal justice system.

“These results provide a new model for how to work with victims.  Advocates can counsel victims up front and let them know the sympathy appeals and minimization techniques that their husband or boyfriend is likely to use on them.

“If the victims are prepared, they may be less likely to fall for these techniques and would be more likely to follow through with the prosecution.”…

Read more at Ohio State University.