Why Do Domestic Violence Victims Recant?

Why It's More Complicated Than Fear of More Violence

A Distraught Woman

Photography by Elvira Kalviste/Getty Images

It's surprisingly common for victims of domestic violence to decide to recant their testimony and not follow through on pursuing charges against an intimate partner. In some states, laws have been passed requiring mandatory arrest and prosecution of the cases whether the victim cooperates or not.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

If a victim of domestic violence refuses to testify, or recants and testifies that the incident did not happen, it makes it harder to get a conviction. Instead, the abuser is released from jail, avoids consequences, and the cycle of violence is free to repeat itself.

Here are some of the reasons a victim of domestic violence may recant their story.

Threats of More Violence

Advocates and counselors working with people who have experienced domestic violence used to believe that victims recanted their stories because they were afraid of more violence. The thought was that victims changed their minds about pursuing charges because the perpetrators threatened them.

However, recent research has revealed that it is not threats that the abusers use to sway their victims into changing their stories; rather, it's a sophisticated emotional appeal that typically progresses through five distinct stages designed to minimize their actions and gain the sympathy of the victim.

The Recantation Process

For security reasons, many jails and detention centers record conversations of telephone calls placed by inmates. The participants know that their conversation is being recorded because an announcement is made at the beginning of the call.

By studying many hours of recorded conversations between male inmates facing felony charges of domestic violence and their female victims who later decided to recant researchers were able to gain insight into the recantation process.

The Five Steps of Recantation

Researchers have identified a five-step process of recantation. It begins with victims forcefully defending themselves and ends with them uniting with the perpetrator and planning on how they will change their testimony.

The five stages of recantation are as predictable as the cycle of violence that repeats in a physically abusive relationship.

Step 1: Strong and Resolved

Early telephone conversations are often heated arguments about the events leading up to the acts of violence. In these initial calls, the victim is strong and resists the perpetrator's account of events.

In the first or second calls, the victims are almost always resolved to see the abuser prosecuted for their actions. As the calls continue, that resolve begins to erode.

Step 2: Minimizing the Abuse

In later calls, the perpetrator tries to convince the victim that the incident was not that serious. More importantly, it is during this stage that the abuser tries to gain the sympathy of the victim by casting themselves as a victim (e.g. suffering in jail, miss the family, etc.)

This is a critical turning point in the process when the real victim begins to see the perpetrator as a victim. Once the victim begins soothing and comforting the abuser, the next three steps of the process tend to occur relatively quickly.

Step 3: "They don't understand us."

Once the abuser has gained the victim's sympathy, the pair begins to bond over their love for each other. The couple becomes united in a fight against a world that "doesn't understand" their relationship.

Step 4: Lie for Me

Now that it's them against the system, the state, or an uncaring society, the abuser will simply ask the victim to recant their accusations. Once the victim agrees, they move into the last stage.

Step 5: Developing the Plan

When the victim agrees to change their story, the couple then works together to develop (and corroborate) their stories.

Preparation Could Be Key

Amy Bonomi, associate professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University, conducted a first-of-its-kind analysis of actual conversations between abusers and their victims.

Bonomi believes the findings will give advocates and counselors a new model for how to work with victims of intimate partner violence.

Specifically, if victims are prepared ahead of time that their abusers are likely to use sympathy appeals and minimization techniques, victims may be less likely fall for the ploy and more apt to follow through with the prosecution.

Bonomi concludes that without such help, it may be difficult for some victims to disentangle themselves from violent relationships.

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  • Bonomi, AE, et al, "Meet Me at the Hill Where We Used to Park": Interpersonal Processes Associated With Victim Recantation." Social Science & Medicine. 28 July 2011.

  • Hirschel, D, at al. "Domestic Violence and Mandatory Arrest Laws: To What Extent Do They Influence Police Arrest Decisions?." The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Fall 2007.