The California Senate is considering a bill that will dramatically change how crimes of violence against domestic victims are reported.
The legislation promises to help victims of abuse, but has created a chasm between social service advocates and law enforcement about how to best handle victims’ cases
Assembly Bill 2790 has already been approved by the state Assembly and is due to be heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee in August.
Both sides of the debate agree on what crime 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 AB 2790 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 mandated reporting results in “health providers being reluctant to address domestic and sexual violence with their patients.”
The bill’s co-sponsor, Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks of 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.”
But San Diegan officials involved in the protection of domestic violence victims say the legislation is a step backward, likely to increase the danger for victims of domestic violence. Both 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 concerns.
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, saying, “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.”
Elliott’s office oversees the San Diego Family Justice Center, created by a predecessor of hers, former City Attorney Casey Gwinn. It was the first domestic violence center in the country, providing all the services victims need under one roof. The concept has since expanded to 43 states and 25 countries.
Gwinn said the Family Justice Center has a long and well-documented record showing the value of police involvement during the intake process. He suggests the proposed legislation is broad overreach and will be a mistake.
“It is an anti-law enforcement initiative,” he said. “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. Stover said the legislation is badly needed, based on her experience in running a domestic violence clinic for low-income abuse survivors.
“I see clients afraid of seeking healthcare because of California’s medical mandatory reporting to police of adult domestic violence,” she said. “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 Assembly Bill 118, known as the CRISES Act. AB 2790 is similar in removing law enforcement notification as a mandate for doctors and other medical professionals.
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.”
But Joyce Bilyeu, director of client services at the Sacramento Regional Family Justice Center, disagrees based on her long-time experience.
“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,” she said.
Stover said current law criminalizing medical professionals 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 said 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.”
But those opposed to the legislation point out that the some studies claimed to support the legislation are misleading.
And Gwinn, who remains active in domestic violence issues as president of Alliance for Hope, said reporting clearly saves lives in cases of severe abuse.
“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,” he said.