Abuse within the family is a growing issue in Tennessee. Whether it originates from drug or alcohol addictions or anger and rage, family abuse needs to be more boldly addressed. As your District Attorney, I am acutely aware of the suffering of victims that have encountered some form of abuse. My staff works tirelessly to prosecute abusers and help to find safety for victims. This week we are looking at the statistics of abuse and the measures that have been placed in action to address these crimes.
So, how bad is the problem of abuse? More than half of all violent crime in Tennessee is family violence related. This is a staggering tally which makes family violence deadlier than gang and drug violence, racially motivated violence, and death or injury from impaired driving…combined.
Children: The types of family abuse inflicted on children include physical and sexual abuse, and well as neglect. Neglect is the most common form of child abuse, comprising 60% of all child abuse cases. Our worst neglect cases involve children kept in locked cages in appalling conditions. If you have ever been to the scene of one of these cases, it is hard to forget.
Physical abuse encompasses a wide variety of assault-type behavior, such as “Shaken Baby” assault which, itself, accounts for almost half of all child abuse fatalities. These deaths are more than just statistics. At least three babies have been shaken to death in the five counties during my six years as your District Attorney. These cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute and even though, by the grace of God, none of them has ever escaped earthly justice, the sentences given are scant solace after the death of a child.
Sexual abuse of children is perhaps the most disturbing. Approximately one in 25 children will be sexually abused by a member of their own family. Victims of child sexual abuse suffer lifelong effects. Some go on to abuse children themselves. And although the vast majority of child abuse claims are well founded, approximately 6-8 percent of all claims made are fabricated (usually in the context of a child custody dispute). Separating out each and every false claim is one of the most challenging aspects of law enforcement, especially since abusers are aware of this fact and may deliberately target children in a custody dispute so that their claims will be viewed with suspicion.
Combined, these three forms of abuse are commonplace. Nationwide, a child is abused or neglected every 47 seconds. Approximately 2,000 children die each year as a result of abuse.
Spouses/Partners: The majority of adult domestic abuse victims are women, who account for 85% of cases. It is estimated that at least one out of four women will be a victim of domestic abuse during their lifetimes. More than 50% of homeless women report domestic abuse as the cause of their homelessness. National statistics show a woman is beaten by her spouse or partner every 9 seconds.
Elderly or Differently Abled Adults: At least 10% of adults age 65 and older will experience some form of elder abuse each year. Abuse of elderly or vulnerable adults consists of five basic categories: Caregiver Neglect, Financial Exploitation, Psychological Abuse, Sexual Abuse, and Physical Abuse. The trauma of elder abuse may result in health issues such as a deterioration in health, hospitalization and increased mortality, clinical issues such as depression and suicide, and financial loss.
Pets/Animals: Every year, more than 10 million animals die from abuse in the USA alone. Nationwide an animal suffers abuse every 60 seconds, and approximately 65% of all abused animals are dogs.
Pet abuse is also the “canary in the coal mine” with respect to other major issues. Pet abuse is usually the first outward sign that abuse is occurring in the home. Research has shown that 71% of domestic violence survivors reported that their abuser also targeted pets. Another study found that pet abuse occurred in 88% of families under supervision for physical abuse of their children. Serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer, The Boston Strangler, The Son of Sam Killer, and Carroll Edward Cole, all recounted animal abuse and torture as their first violent act.
HOW DID THINGS GET THIS BAD?
Those of us working in the Criminal Justice System know that the problem began with inadequate laws. Issues such as a lack of inter-agency cooperation and barriers in reporting suspect abuses have impeded timely corrective action. The financial problems resulting in insufficient investigative resources, a lack of tracking and monitoring of past offenders, warnings to victims, etc. has made intervention difficult in both urban and rural communities.
In court systems, we have been hampered in issuing justice and curbing abuse by inadequate criminal penalties. These are some of the reasons that Tennessee’s District Attorneys General have fought to create better systems and more comprehensive laws. We have already had a great deal of success in recent years.
New Measures to Address Abuse
In working with the Tennessee General Assembly, we have seen remarkable progress in addressing Family Abuse laws.
Lawmakers have recently passed numerous laws protecting children:
• Passing legislation that strengthened Tennessee’s statutes against the “worst of the worst” child sex offenders;
• Raising the cutoff age from age 3 to age 8 for aggravated rape of a child;• Removing the statute of limitations for felony sex crimes against children in certain circumstances;• Requiring offenders convicted of aggravated rape of a child, who is three years of age or less, to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
• Strengthening penalties against offenders who commit a new sexual offense while on the sex offender registry.
• Ensuring that undercover human trafficking operations conducted by law enforcement officials to catch offenders who promote or patronize minors are prosecutable in Tennessee courts of law; and,
• Passing numerous other pieces of legislation to keep children safe.
Elders and Vulnerable Adults
We have made great strides protecting the elderly as well. As Chairman of the District Attorney Generals’ Conference Elder Abuse Committee, I am proud to have helped draft and lobby for passage of many new laws to protect elderly and vulnerable adults during my tenure:
• The Elderly and Vulnerable Adult Protection Act of 2017, which modernized and strengthened laws relating to elder financial abuse.
• The Elderly and Vulnerable Adult Protection Act of 2018, which modernized and strengthened laws relating to elder neglect.
• The Elderly and Vulnerable Adult Protection Act of 2019, which modernized and strengthened laws relating to elder physical and sexual abuse, and
• Several other bills to help ensure seniors stay safe at home.
• Lawmakers have passed laws to protect spouses and partners: third parties who intimidate or deter their victims from testifying.
• Making it easier for domestic abuse survivors to regain control over their cell phone accounts;
• Allowing judges to issue No-Contact-Orders as a mandatory condition of a perpetrator’s bond, providing an extra layer of protection to victims; and,
• Passing other bills to help ensure spouses and intimate partners stay safe at home.
To protect animals, the General Assembly has:
• Created an animal abuse registry in 2015; and
• Allowed courts to prevent convicted animal abusers from owning pets for 2 years to life; and,
• Enacted other measures to help prevent animal cruelty, protect defenseless creatures, and instituted more stringent punishments.
Thanks to the efforts of the Tennessee General Assembly and District Attorneys General throughout Tennessee, government agencies communicate better, there are fewer barriers to reporting abuse, penalties are tougher in some areas, and we do a better job of warning victims and the public.
Next week, we will discuss possible action that can be taken to better assist in combating Family Abuse.