Battered Child/Spouse Syndrome
BATTERED CHILD/SPOUSE SYNDROME
A condition created by sustained physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse, which creates a variety of physical and emotional symptoms.
Violence of any kind is traumatic to victims, and the thought that someone could exert extreme violence against a loved one or a child is repulsive. Battered-child syndrome and battered-spouse syndrome are both the result of repeated violence—beatings, choking, sexual assault, verbal abuse, or any combination. The resulting trauma leaves its victims with physical and emotional scars, which can show up in a variety of symptoms that can come on gradually or suddenly. Often the symptoms are similar to other, less dangerous conditions. Sometimes there are no visible symptoms. From a legal perspective, this makes both syndromes difficult to prove. The fact that there is heated disagreement about these syndromes, what they represent, and in fact whether they are true syndromes at all, only adds to the difficulty.
Although both syndromes stem from the same violent behavior (and in some cases, the same perpetrator), they need to be treated separately.
Children can be subjected to violence at the hands of any adult with whom they have contact. It could be a parent, an older sibling, a babysitter, a day-care provider, a family friend, a parent's romantic partner—in short, anyone. Some children are victimized by several people.
The victimization can come in the form of physical violence, sexual abuse, or verbal abuse. If one of these factors is present, chances are that others are present as well. Physical abuse can go undetected for a long time. A child who suffers repeated falls or broken bones might be considered "clumsy", or the injuries might be brushed off as the kind of bumps and bruises all children get. Sexual abuse might have no outward signs, or the victim might be unusually forward or inappropriately flirtatious with adults.
Even infants are not immune to abuse. In shaken-baby syndrome, a baby is shaken so violently that brain injury can occur; repeated shaking episodes or even just one particularly severe episode can result in death.
A child suffering from battered child syndrome might be quiet and withdrawn, lethargic, depressed, or violent. Someone who does not know the particular child might not immediately spot emotional symptoms, but if the child displays unchildlike behavior, coupled with unexplained chronic physical bruising, chances are the child is a victim of abuse.
Those who investigate child-abuse crimes must be extremely thorough, especially if the child is very young and thus unable to corroborate what the evidence shows. Sometimes a physician will spot signs of abuse or battered-child syndrome when a child is brought into an emergency room for treatment of some injury. A full investigation requires interviews with anyone who has access to the child, including parents, siblings, other relatives, neighbors, day-care providers or babysitters, teachers, and doctors. Even those who are not involved in abuse might have valuable information to provide. Often, those who have committed the abuse will offer vague or conflicting information about what led to a particular injury. If warranted, a child could be placed in temporary protective custody while an investigation proceeds. Depending on the extent and severity of abuse, those who have committed the abuse might benefit from counseling or other forms of treatment (e.g., substance or they might face criminal charges and serve a prison sentence.
Battered-spouse syndrome is more commonly called "battered-women's syndrome" because most of the victims are women, either wives or girlfriends of the perpetrators. In recent years, however, abused husbands and boyfriends have gained increased attention, as have same-sex abuse by gay and lesbian partners. With child abuse, investigators are often at a loss because the child is too young to testify. In cases of battered-spouse syndrome, however, the problem is that often the victim refuses to testify. Guilt and shame are primary reasons, particularly for men who expect they will be ridiculed for being abused by a woman. Fear is an even stronger factor in abuse victims' silence.
Typical symptoms of a battered-spouse syndrome victim include the openly physical ones—bruises, black eyes, broken bones, cuts and scratches. The emotional symptoms include depression, lack of self-esteem, and hopelessness. Sufferers might be "hypervigilant" to any signs of conflict on the part of the spouse. Denial that a problem exists is a common response to questions from concerned friends, loved ones, or even medical professionals.
The phrase "battered-women's syndrome" was first used in the early 1980s; in ensuing years, lawyers began using the "battered woman" defense in homicide cases in which women killed their husbands or boyfriends. Many women claimed self-defense, explaining that the murder victim had been physically abusive for years. As the concept of battered-spouse syndrome became more clearly articulated in the 1980s and 1990s, the syndrome as a self-defense argument gained strength. In fact, it played into the clemency decisions of several governors, beginning with Governor Richard Celeste of Ohio, who in 1990, granted clemency to 25 women who had murdered their spouses. Their trials had been unfair, he concluded, because testimony about their abuse had not been allowed as evidence. Other governors followed suit in the ensuing years, including Maryland governor Donald Schaefer, Massachusetts governor William Weld, and California governors Pete Wilson and Gray Davis. Experts in domestic violence explained to skeptics the reason why many battered women did not simply leave their husbands, either to stay with friends or go to a women's shelter. In some cases, they said, these women had been so emotionally broken that they were too frightened to leave. Some had been abused for so long that they had actually come to believe that they were responsible for their own abuse.
In the 1990s, a new movement emerged to point out that abuse can happen to men as well as women. The number of abused men was estimated at no higher than five percent of the abuse cases, and to a large extent it was not taken seriously. Advocacy groups for women claimed that for a man to claim that his wife or girlfriend physically terrorized him were absurd. Law enforcement officials often took abuse charges less seriously when the complainant was a man. In recent years, statistical evidence about male abuse has been gaining credibility. Moreover, gay and lesbian partner abuse has also begun to be taken more seriously. In 1999, a Brooklyn, N.Y. Supreme Court judge ruled that a gay man who had stabbed his partner to death could invoke battered-spouse syndrome at his trial.
The bottom line from a legal standpoint is that battered-spouse syndrome, like battered-child syndrome, requires solid and substantive evidence if it is to be used as a defense in a murder trial. A woman who has no visible physical signs of abuse might have been abused, but simply claiming to have been abused with no evidence at all at least warrants a thorough investigation. Cases in which women—and men—have claimed that an estranged spouse has been violent, simply to gain custody of their children, are not uncommon. The issue of battered spouses may be clearer in the first years of the twenty-first century than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, but it continues to evolve.
Cook, Philip W. 1997. Abused Men: The Hidden Side of Domestic Violence. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.
U.S. Department of Justice. 2002. Battered Child Syndrome: Investigating Physical Abuse and Homicide. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
Walker, Lenore E. 1979. The Battered Woman. New York: Harper & Row.