California Senate now has bill that will dramatically change how crimes are reported
By J.W. August
Photo: CC via Bing
July 28, 2022 (San Diego) - The crime statistics don’t lie, not when it comes to domestic violence. It remains a “top of the list” top-of-mind crime of concern in California.
Against that backdrop, proposed state legislation that promises a better way to deal with abuse victims has created a chasm between advocates and law enforcement in how to best handle victims’ cases. The bill, AB2790, has already been approved by the state Assembly and is due to be heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee August 1st.
Both sides on the debate agree on what the statistics reveal -- the ugly impact of domestic violence. But where they disagree is on best practices for addressing the issue. In San Diego domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women -- more than muggings, rapes and car accidents combined. Across the country, three women are murdered every day by their intimate partners, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Advocates for the new bill, AB2790, say the existing requirement that medical professionals alert the police when they have a patient they suspect is a victim of domestic violence “can have a chilling effect of preventing domestic and sexual violence survivors from seeking medical care.” The bill would drop that mandated reporting. Supporters say research has shown what results is“health providers being reluctant to address domestic and sexual violence with their patients.”
The bill’s co-sponsor, Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, D- Oakland, notes in the bill’s language that “studies have shown that medical mandatory reporting of adult domestic and sexual violence may increase patient danger and insecurity.”
San Diegans involved in the care and protection of domestic violence victims say the legislation is regressive, likely to increase danger and lethality mortality for victims of domestic violence.
San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliot and San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan oppose the bill as written. Stephan recently spoke to the legislature about her opposition.
Elliot argues that victims are more likely “subject to retaliation from their abuser if they make the police report, as opposed to it coming from a mandated health care professional. By putting the onus of reporting on survivors, AB 2790 puts them in even greater danger.”
Stephan argues that bill benefits abusers while harming victims.
“It allows abusers to continue to harm their victims and potentially lead to their death by silencing the health care professionals who often serve as the first step in the reporting process to support victims of domestic violence and hold abusers accountable,” she said.
Elliott’s office oversees the Family Justice Center, created by a predecessor of hers, Casey Gwinn. It was Gwinn who was responsible for the first domestic violence center in the country, which provides all the services victims need under one roof. That concept has since expanded to 43 states and 25 countries.
He argues that his creation, the Family Justice Center, has a long documented record showing the value of police involvement during intake process. He suggests the legislation as a broad overreach, a mistake he says. “It is an anti-law enforcement initiative. They have a few anecdotes but have no data to back up their claim that women don’t seek medical help after violence for fear that it will be reported to police.”
In support of the legislation are Futures Without Violence, The Alliance of Boys and Men of Color and Professor Jane Stover of the UC Irvine Domestic Law Clinic. She says the legislation is badly needed, given her experience running a domestic violence clinic for low-income abuse survivors.
“I see clients afraid of seeking healthcare,” she said, “because of California’s medical mandatory reporting to police of adult domestic violence. For my clients who do seek medical care, they often don’t disclose the cause of harm due to fear of unwanted police contact.”
This legislation is one of the developments arising from an effort to shift emergency response calls from law enforcement to community-based organizations. In October, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 118, known as the CRISES Act. AB2790 follows that path, removing law enforcement notification as a mandate for doctors and other medical professionals.
Gwinn, San Diego’s former city attorney, remains active in domestic violence issues as president of Alliance for Hope.
Gwinn disputes claims that in severe violence cases, further reporting endangers victims.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “California, and particularly counties with dynamic Family Justice Centers, has one of the lowest domestic violence homicide rates in the country because, historically, we have intervened before violence has escalated.”
Stover counters that “when survivors are able to openly disclose abuse without fear of police involvement and to have trauma-informed conversations with medical providers, abuse survivors are four times more likely to utilize domestic violence resources and agencies.” She believes, as the bill specifies, a doctor should only have to alert “survivor services” to the victim’s condition.
Joyce Bilyeu is Director of Client Services at the Sacramento Regional Family Justice Center, similar to San Diego’s victims center. She said “Since working with survivors for 40 years now as a professional, I have never once encountered a victim not wanting to get the medical treatment they needed out of fear of a report being made to law enforcement.”
Professor Stover says current law criminalizing medical professions for not reporting domestic violence “is contrary to current research showing that mandatory reporting of adult domestic violence doesn’t reduce homicide or assaults, and instead creates barriers to healthcare access for survivors She says current law has a “chilling effect of preventing survivors from seeking medical care, decreasing patient autonomy and trust, and resulting in health providers being reluctant to address domestic violence with their patients."
Detractors say the "current research" referred to by supporters for the proposed law is not as advertised. For instance, the supporters reference the 2020 Lippy Study as proof of the need, but in reviewing the study we note it s not directed specifically at mandated reporting. It’s a study of chat on the National Domestic Violence Hotline for survivors. We also learned that initially the claim was based on 2,322 participants. Later thisfigure was retracted; it was 168 participants. However, the Professor argues that the information is still valid.
J.W. August is an award-winning journalist and freelance producer who has served as investigative producer for NBC 7 San Diego and as managing editor and senior investigative producer at ABC 10 San Diego. His in-depth investigations have included a wide range of topics such as rising seas, hate groups, nuclear fuel storage, stem cell clinic claims, dolphin deaths, and massage parlors as fronts for organized crime.
His 40-year career includes many honors, notably 35 Emmy awards from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the National Press Club award for consumer reporting, the Freedom Foundation award for coverage of hate groups along the border, the National Society of Professional Journalists’ Sunshine Award for fostering open government in San Diego, and the Investigative Reporters and Editors award for outstanding investigative reporting on illegal waste dumping.
August is past president of the Society of Professional Journalists San Diego Chapter, as well as past president of Californians Aware, a public interest group devoted to helping the press and public hold public officials accountable for their actions. He is also an adjunct professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, teaching investigative skills and long-form storytelling to aspiring future journalists.