Sen. Leland Yee: Protecting violence victims

For many survivors of domestic violence, one of the most difficult decisions they will face is whether or not to testify against their abusers in a court of law. It is easy to assume that survivors would want to testify against their abusers in order to bolster a vigorous prosecution, so that the abusers will be incarcerated.

But for survivors, this can be a terrifying prospect. In addition to having to relive their abuse, survivors must weigh the possibility that if the prosecution fails, or the sentence given to an abuser requires a limited amount of jail time - which is frequently the case - the abuser may seek revenge.

Survivors of domestic violence face many challenges and dangers even after they have taken steps to remove themselves from abusive and sometimes life-threatening situations. Fleeing an abusive relationship requires survivors to start a new life, sometimes with little or no financial support, and often while trying to maintain a stable environment for their children.

Beyond the practical challenges, survivors must also contend with the possibility that their abusers will remain in arm's reach of them and their children. Some choose to go into hiding or to enroll in programs to veil their identities and location. If they are employed, their workplaces must be alerted to potential dangers and children's schools must also take steps to prevent an abusive and/or dangerous parent from coming into contact with them. For many survivors, there is little real protection, as no police department or court can ensure their safety.

Since 1991, sexual assault victims have not faced imprisonment if they decide not to testify in a criminal case. Domestic violence survivors do, and have been subject to incarceration for their refusal to testify. This is despite the fact that many domestic violence survivors are also victims of sexual assault. This law was tested in 2005, when the district attorney in San Mateo County pursued and a judge ordered jail time for a survivor for refusing to testify against her abuser.

   The victim in the case, Katina Britt, was fortunate that her abuser was convicted of a variety of charges without her testimony. In her case there was ample corroborating evidence for prosecutors to obtain a conviction. Very rarely will an abuser be convicted simply on the testimony of a survivor alone.

 But survivors take a risk in refusing to testify. Regardless of the reason for refusal, whether it is because the retelling of the abuse and confronting the abuser is simply too terrifying, or whether they know that to do so may endanger their lives, survivors can and do face the possibility of being prosecuted for their refusal.

 As a result, survivors who have been brutalized by domestic violence can be tossed into a cell by a district attorney, and their children placed in foster homes.

For survivors, ending the cycle of abuse is not about a victory in court, it is a focused and lengthy effort to heal themselves and their families, and to build a new life free of violence.

I introduced Senate Bill 1356 to help protect domestic violence survivors. The bill will change the law in California so that survivors will no longer be punished for choosing to protect their own lives, rather than testify against their abusers. On March 25 the Senate Public Safety Committee approved the legislation.

Senate Bill 1356 makes it clear that when a domestic violence victim fears for his or her safety, statements must be taken seriously by both the district attorney and the judge. Our criminal justice system must ensure that victims are treated with dignity, and evidence must be obtained in a way that does not involve intimidation or the threat of incarceration.

Leland Yee is a California Senator.