Title

Stories Absent from the Courtroom: Responding to Domestic Violence in the Context of HIV and AIDS

Abstract

The presence of HIV or AIDS in domestic violence can change how someone experiences abuse. HIV/AIDS may influence the nature of violent acts and the type of power and control exerted, and it can transform the effect of violence by elevating the level of danger and the consequences of violent acts. Based on public health studies and my clients’ experiences, I have identified eight categories of ways HIV/AIDS is used in domestic violence, including threats to publicize a survivor’s HIV-positive status to others as a way of exerting control; an abusive partner’s interference with an HIV-positive partner’s medical care; escalated violence following partner notification; and HIV infection resulting from sexual assault, the inability to negotiate condom use, or intentional infection by an abusive partner.

The primary legal tool for addressing domestic violence is the civil protection order. The remedy of the civil protection order, however, was created without an understanding of HIV, and HIV/AIDS creates new circumstances for the laws of domestic violence. Furthermore, the role of HIV/AIDS in domestic violence is not revealed in civil protection order cases because of the public nature of the proceedings and clients’ concerns about discrimination. With the absence of these stories from the courtroom, litigants lose the therapeutic benefits of storytelling and receive less effective relief than appropriate because judges do not understand the events and are not able to award remedies tailored to the actual experiences of violence.

The previously unrecognized voices of those who suffer at the intersection of HIV/AIDS and domestic violence can serve to inspire procedural and substantive legal changes as well as specific response mechanisms. Procedural changes would make courtrooms safer places for revealing highly sensitive, socially stigmatizing, and otherwise confidential information. Substantive changes in domestic violence protection order laws would address complex situations of intimate partner violence, and judicial remedies could target HIV-related domestic violence. Through greater understanding of HIV/AIDS-related domestic violence, lawyers would serve as better advocates for their clients and would address their multiple needs. Finally, domestic violence response mechanisms need to employ coordinated interventions to provide lifesaving medical and legal care to survivors with HIV/AIDS and to those whose abusive partners have HIV/AIDS.

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