June 10, 2019 Feature

How Social Science Can Help Us Understand Why Family Courts May Discount Women’s Testimony in Intimate Partner Violence Cases

Amelia Mindthoff, Deborah Goldfarb, & Kelly Alison Behre

Introduction

Thirty years ago, legal scholars and social scientists began to note the legal systems’ skepticism of women in general and victims of gender-based violence in particular.1 Despite increased public awareness about domestic violence, female victims2 of intimate partner violence (IPV) continue to find their credibility discounted. Deborah Tuerkheimer coined the term “credibility discount” to describe how the criminal legal system responds to women’s reports of sexual violence by discounting their credibility at every step of the process, from initial reports to law enforcement and prosecutorial discretion through judicial and jury decisions.3 Deborah Epstein and Lisa Goodman expanded the dialogue on credibility discounting to include the experiences of female victims of IPV in legal and social service settings.4 IPV victims often access family courts for injunctive relief, child custody and visitation orders, and financial relief following separation from an abusive partner, a time period during which they are at a heightened lethality risk.5 Consequently, credibility discounting by family courts may prove particularly dangerous for victims of IPV.

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