ON A WARM DAY IN 2001, Patty Prickett sat in her office in the West Los Angeles police station, trying not to cry. With her were a five-year-old boy and his younger sister, a week shy of her fourth birthday. The children did not know yet that their mother was dead. Six months earlier the woman had come to the station seeking safety. Her husband, she said, was unemployed and had been drinking heavily. When she refused to have sex with him he had attacked her, prevented her from calling for help, and held her captive in their home, blocking the bedroom doorway when she tried to flee.
Prickett, then head of the domestic abuse response team at the station, had accompanied the woman to court to secure a restraining order and advised her to quit her job, pull the children out of school, and leave home. The woman agreed, and Prickett located a scarce spot for the family in a shelter. "That is a very hard thing for a woman to do," she says. "To go into hiding while her batterer is running around free."
The woman was grateful for a respite from the constant threat of violence. But cut off from work and the emotional support of family and friends, she and the children soon became depressed. They left to stay at a relative's, where her husband quickly found her. She moved repeatedly, but he always tracked her down. Over the next six months her husband violated the court order many timesthe woman filed at least six police reports recounting escalating incidents of death threats, stalking, and harassment. Prickett pressed the police and the Los Angeles city attorney's office to take action. Nothing happened. "One day he came and got her," Prickett says. "The kids saw them leave." Later that day the woman was found strangled to death with a belt. "She did everything right and the system wouldn't protect her," says Prickett. "They just wouldn't take it seriously. He kept saying he was going to kill her, and by God he did."
The murder that confronted Prickett in 2001 bears an eerie resemblance to the crime at the heart of Castle Rock v. Gonzales, a bellwether domestic violence case recently considered by the U.S. Supreme Court. In that case, a husband abducted three children from his estranged wife's custody, but when his wife, who had obtained a protection order for herself and the children, alerted police, they repeatedly put her off, telling her to call back later. That night the husband arrived at the police station and opened fire. He was shot and killed by police, who then discovered the children, dead in his truck. The question before the Court was what action, if any, the police are obligated to take when confronted with the violation of a restraining order. Every state now provides such civil protection orders to victims of domestic violence, and they are considered a basic tool in shielding victims from their batterers. But in both the West Los Angeles murder and the case before the Supreme Court, as well as in numerous cases across the country each year, the orders fail to fulfill their promise, and victims are subjected to harassment, beatings, and death.
For Prickett, the 2001 murder in West Los Angeles marked the nadir of her career as an advocate. For 15 years she has been on the front lines of the battle against domestic violence, counseling both batterers and victims, fighting to find funding for programs that lock up abusers and keep victims safe, and growing increasingly frustrated with a legal system ill-equipped to handle the problem's complexity. Over the years she has shifted her focus several times, in each instance retrenching from burnout and from an approach she felt wasn't working. Her trajectory parallels that of the battered women's movement, as the euphoria of identifying a seemingly simple goal of safety succumbed to the realization that neither the end, nor the means of achieving it, was going to be easy. "The whole battered women's movement is set up to get women to leave their abusers," she says. "When they leave, we tell them we'll protect them, so what happens when we don't?"
Each year between 1 and 4 million women in the United States are victims of domestic violence, and 31 percent of women slain in this country are murdered by husbands, boyfriends, or exesthe majority killed after attempting to leave an abusive relationship. The fact that such statistics are routinely compiled and readily available is a testament to the mainstreaming of an issue that was barely acknowledged in the popular consciousness three decades ago. Since the 1970s, when domestic violence activism first emerged as an outgrowth of the women's movement, proponents have won dramatic changes in policy, leaps in social awareness, and major infusions of cash from state and federal government.
But sustained institutional change requires vigilance, and the police indifference that greeted the murder in West Los Angeles illustrates a larger flaw in the evolution of the movement itself. What began as a scrappy, grassroots effort has become a bureaucratized entity allied so closely with the criminal justice system that it has sacrificed much of its ability to effectively critique that system and push for reform. "Twenty-five years ago we had a notion that we were organizing to change the system," says Ellen Pence, a founder of the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, Minnesota, a leader of the national movement. "Then this funny change happened, where instead of us advocating for what women needed from the system, we started advocating the system to women. There has to be a new confrontation of what's going on."
Prickett believes that lack of confrontation, and of any larger consequence for police inaction, enabled officers to brush off her warnings about the homicidal batterer in 2001. "What they will say, what they always say, is you never know which ones are going to wind up killing someone," she says. "But there are signs, and once you see them, you have to act, and you have to be aggressive. Otherwise women are going to keep on getting hurt and getting killed." After the woman's death, Prickett heard that the husband had been seen hanging out at a bar near the scene of the crime. She begged the cops to stake it out. They refused. He was never apprehended.