Judge jails domestic abuse victim. Are better protections needed?

A Florida judge sent a woman to jail for failing to appear at her accused abuser's trial. Newly released video of the ruling has experts worried it will discourage victims from speaking out.

Sophia Tareen/AP
Advocates for victims of domestic abuse protest outside of state offices in downtown Chicago. They say the state budget impasse has diminished services, including shelters that have closed. They brought small shoes to symbolize children who’ll be affected.

A Florida judge is being criticized for not showing a victim of domestic violence more leniency after she failed to appear at the trial of the man accused of abusing her, instead ordering the victim to three days in jail.

A newly released video circulating the web shows Seminole County Judge Jerri Collins asking the woman why she didn’t show up to testify against Myles Maynard Brennan, the father of her son.

“You had indicated that you were not going to show up, knowing that you were under subpoena,” Judge Collins told the woman. “So now you need to tell the court why I should not hold you in contempt of court.”

The victim is also heard sobbing as she apologizes and tells the judge she has been suffering from anxiety since the incident. According to police records, the woman’s husband choked her in front of their baby, picked up a knife, and pushed her head into a microwave, The Daily Beast reported.

“You think you're going to have anxiety now? You haven't even seen anxiety," Collins says.

“Judge, I’ll do anything. Please,” the woman says. “I have a 1-year-old son, and I’m trying to take care of him by myself. I’m begging you. Please, don’t.”

While the dramatic scene has some calling for an official complaint to be lodged against Collins, local news station WFTV reports that it would be largely redundant. Not only has the victim already served her sentence, but the judge technically did not violate any laws, said legal analyst Bill Sheaffer.

However, some experts argue that the victim should have been issued an attorney before her contempt hearing.

And by taking the woman away from her baby, the judge may have reinforced fears that victims often face when deciding whether or not to speak out, said the CEO of SafeHouse of Seminole, a local domestic-violence victims advocacy group.

“I understand that the state wants to take criminals and get them off the streets,” Jeanne Gold told NBC News. “But you don’t do it by re-victimizing a victim in this manner.”

This balance in wanting to accommodate domestic violence survivors becomes especially blurred when children are involved. Then, according to BuzzFeed News, victims often can – and do – end up being charged under another set of laws, known as failure-to-protect statutes. Penalties range from a probationary write-up to life in prison, depending on where they live.

“In Minnesota the maximum sentence for permitting child abuse is one year. In Oklahoma the sentence can be life. And then, even within a state, it is individual prosecutors who decide whether to press charges and how aggressively to do so,” writes BuzzFeed.

The site’s investigation last year highlighted several cases of mothers across the country suffering from abuse. Some whose children were beaten or even murdered then went to prison for “enabling child abuse.”

“In all but a handful of states, laws allow for one of the victims – the battered mother – to be treated as a perpetrator, guilty not of committing abuse herself but of failing to protect her children from her violent partner,” BuzzFeed reports.

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