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 is so common for victims of domestic violence to decide to recant their testimony and not follow through on pursuing charges against their intimate partner that some states have passed laws requiring mandatory arrest and prosecution of the cases whether the victim cooperates or not.

If the victim refuses to testify or recants and testifies that the incident did not happen, it makes getting a conviction difficult. The abuser is released from jail, avoids any serious consequences and the cycle of violence is free to repeat itself again in their relationship.

So, what makes these victims change their stories?

Are There Threats of More Violence?

For many years, advocates and counselors working with victims of domestic violence believed that they recanted their stories out of fear of more violence. The thought was that victims changed their mind about pursuing charges because the perpetrators threatened them with more violence.

But recent research has revealed that it is not threats that the abusers use to sway their victims into changing their stories, but 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 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.

Real Abusers, Real Victims

By listening to these exchanges between real abusers and real victims, researchers have identified a five-step process beginning with the victims forcefully defending themselves and ending with them planning with the perpetrator how to change their testimony.

The five stages are as predictable as the cycle of violence that repeats over and over in physically abusive relationships.

The Five Steps of Recantation

Here are the five steps identified by researchers:

Step One: Strong and Resolved - Early telephone conversations usually end up as heated arguments about events that led up to the violence. The victim, in these early calls, is strong and resists the perpetrator's account of events.

The victims are almost always resolved to see the abuser prosecuted for his actions in the first or second telephone calls, but as the calls continue, that resolve begins to erode.

Step Two: Minimizing the Abuse - In later calls, the perpetrator tries to convince the victim that the incident was not that serious. But more importantly in this stage, the abuser tries to gain the sympathy of the victim by casting himself as a victim—suffering in jail, depressed, perhaps suicidal, and missing her and the children.

This is a critical turning point in the process when the real victim begins to see the perpetrator as a victim and begins trying to soothe and comfort her abuser. Once that happens, the next three steps occur relatively quickly.

Step Three: They Don't Understand Us - Once the abuser has gained the sympathy of the victim, they begin to bond over their love for each other and join together to fight against the world that doesn't understand.

Step Four: Lie for Me - Now that it's them against the system or the state, or an uncaring society, the abuser simply asks the victim to recant her accusations and she agrees.

Step Five: Developing the Plan - After the victim agrees to change her story, they work together to come up with a plan and develop their stories.

Amy Bonomi, lead author and associate professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University, conducted this first-of-its-kind analysis of actual conversations between abusers and their victims. She believes these findings will give advocates and counselors a new model for how to work with victims of intimate partner violence.

Preparation Could Be the Key

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

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

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Article Sources

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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.