Domestic violence makes up 15% of all violent crime nationwide, but that only reflects cases that fit a specific definition, or that law enforcement is aware of. Every day countless survivors are trapped, unable to seek help. It takes an average of seven attempts for a victim to leave an abusive situation for good.
This makes it even more essential that when law enforcement becomes aware of domestic violence, we provide needed support. But because of the exclusionary nature of N.C. law, many same-sex and queer couples are erased from the state’s definition of domestic violence, which means we deny these survivors critical resources.
It is time we put an end to this two-tiered, discriminatory system of justice. I call on the legislature to update this egregiously backwards law.
As a queer woman, this is deeply personal to me. Members of the LGBTQ community are disproportionately victims of violent crime and often face higher levels of domestic violence. Yet state law defines domestic violence according to the relationship between parties, including “persons of opposite-sex who are in a dating relationship or have been.” That outright excludes same-sex and queer couples who are not currently or previously married or in the same household.
Though my office and Durham law enforcement do include these survivors in our definitions of domestic violence, that is not true statewide, which means those cases may not go through the appropriate intake process.
For example, a Lethality Assessment would not be conducted by officers on scene, documenting past abuse. This is crucial for determining the risks survivors may face and the support they need. Defendants would also not be eligible to be held without bond for up to 48 hours while victims get to safety.
If the case is not flagged as a domestic violence incident it is unlikely it would be assigned to a prosecutor with experience in these matters. Furthermore, survivors may not be connected with local nonprofits or advocacy groups that can help with immediate safety planning or shelter.
Last year, an N.C. Appeals Court panel correctly ruled that domestic violence protective orders cannot be denied just because the applicant is in a same-sex relationship. But state law wasn’t updated to reflect the ruling. This means jurisdictions unconcerned with or unaware of the ruling may continue to deny LGBTQ survivors this critical safety provision.
There is a lot of work to do to encourage LGBTQ survivors to report domestic violence in the first place. Many are reluctant to come to law enforcement because of the threat of arrest or further abuse. That is why when my office receives a domestic violence case, it gets assigned to staff members who understand the complex dynamics of these relationships and indications of escalating abuse. We also know that trauma and abuse cannot solely be addressed in the criminal legal system, which is why I have prioritized connecting survivors to the Durham Crisis Response Center, which provides critical support like shelter, counseling, and legal advocacy.
But if we don’t legally recognize that domestic violence can occur between all same-sex, queer and gender non-conforming couples, we cannot even begin to help. Our domestic violence law is stuck in another era, and changing it is an easy, common sense and tremendously impactful way we can honor survivors and provide equal protection to every North Carolinian. The time for action is long overdue.
Satana Deberry is the elected district attorney for Durham County.