False allegations of domestic violence are rampant … or are they?
Google “false allegations of domestic violence” and a litany of defense attorneys and men’s rights groups would have you believe that nearly every person who reports domestic violence is lying.
One site even suggests some 70 percent of restraining orders are trivial or false. The article cites a study that concludes 60 percent (not 70 percent as the article proclaimed) of restraining orders are unnecessary or based on false allegations of abuse. But how the “study” got to that number is by discarding any petition for a restraining order that didn’t include actual or threatened physical violence. As any domestic violence advocate or prosecutor will tell you, domestic violence doesn’t only include physical abuse. Other forms of abuse are often predecessors of physical violence, such as stalking, threats or coercive control.
Meanwhile, other sources report the rate of false allegations of domestic violence is low and in line with the rate of false reports of other crimes, such as theft and burglary.
So, why the discrepancy?
Without Physical Proof, Some Survivors Are Labeled Liars
“A lot of it has to do with studies’ biases and methodologies,” says Melissa Hamilton, J.D., Ph.D., visiting criminal law scholar with the University of Houston Law Center. “From a methodological perspective, if you were to count cases that are marked ‘unfounded’ as lies, that’s not sound logic.”
And yet, that’s exactly what some studies on false allegations of domestic violence rely on, according to Hamilton. Just because a case had insufficient evidence to make an arrest or was turned down for prosecution, that doesn’t mean the reporting party made up the abuse.
“A lot of times police are looking for a physical sign of assault, but not all injuries show up right away,” Hamilton says. “So police might close it out as ‘unfounded,’ but it would not be fair to say it’s a false report.”
Police will sometimes mark cases unfounded if they suspect the highly contentious idea of mutual abuse, where its thought that both parties played equal parts in the violence. In reality, self-defense can be incorrectly labeled as mutual abuse when both parties have injuries or both parties admit to using physical violence.
Survivors More Likely to Lie That Abuse Didn’t Occur
According to a 2008 study by law professor Nicholas Bala and three other researchers, in the context of custody disputes, mothers make deliberate false reports less than 2 percent of the time. Fathers are 16 times more likely to make deliberate false reports which contributes to disbelieving true reports made by mothers.
“It is critical to emphasize that the making of false allegations of spousal abuse is much less common than the problem of genuine victims who fail to report abuse,” reads the study.
Deputy district attorney in Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Family Violence Division, Miji J. Vellakkatel, agrees—it’s far more likely for survivors to lie and say they were not abused when, in fact, they were.
“People do sometimes change their statements from the initial report to preliminary hearing or trial,” Vellakkatel says. “But in most cases, it’s minimization. We tend to get victims saying, ‘It was my fault,’ or they no longer wish to participate. When a person decides not to participate in a case, I think people jump to assume that they were lying.”
But Vellakkatel says he doesn’t think that’s the case.
“In my experience, false reports of domestic violence are very rare,” he says, adding he’s only come across one case in his career that was dismissed because the incident was fabricated.
Vellakkatel encourages survivors to report abuse, even when they’re concerned they might not be believed.
“Do not be concerned about being believed or not. Be concerned about your personal safety or your children’s safety,” he says. “If we do not file a case, it’s not because we didn’t believe you. It’s because there’s insufficient evidence to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Read more about the importance of evidence in criminal and family court and what exactly you should document in “Why You Should Document Abuse.”