Boston Globe

Domestic abuse groups dispute status of claims by men

By Farah Stockman, Globe Staff, 10/28/2002
Boston Globe

Once a year, advocates for battered women gather in the October chill to hold white placards bearing the names of those killed by spouses or former lovers. This year, for the first time, three of the names belonged to men.

Bernard Harfield, Jeffrey Smith, and William Oullette were all allegedly killed by their female partners in unprovoked attacks in late 2001. Twelve women were also killed in ''intimate partner'' homicides in this state in 2001 - the lowest number on record.

The men's deaths come at time when both gay and heterosexual groups are raising concern nationally about the plight of battered men.

Yet, male victims pose a delicate problem for battered women's groups who say they are too rare a phenomenon to warrant drastic change in the core beliefs of the movement against domestic abuse.

''Men are sometimes victims of domestic violence,'' said Nancy Scannell, legislative director of Jane Doe Inc., a Massachusetts-based domestic violence coalition. ''But the attempt to be inclusive [of male victims] should never be interpreted to mean that the issue is gender-neutral. It does not change our mind about why [domestic violence] happens. It happens because of sexism and power and control of men over women in our society.''

The dispute touched off a public policy battle of the sexes, sparking outrage from men's groups who insist that men are often abused - both by their female partners and the court system.

''Where was the state when these men needed protection?'' said Mark Charalambous, spokesman for the Fatherhood Coalition, a nonprofit group that seeks greater legal protection for men involved in abusive relationships. ''The domestic violence industry failed these men, because they are men.''

Just how many men are victims and just how many women are abusers has been at the center of an ongoing battle between Jane Doe and the Fatherhood Coalition. Jane Doe points to statistics from the Department of Justice showing that women were victims in 85 percent of the nearly 800,000 intimate partner violent incidents nationwide in 1999. The Fatherhood Coalition points to studies conducted in the 1980s that suggest men and women hit each other at equal rates during domestic disputes.

Further complicating the issue is the belief that many men killed by their wives or girlfriends are in fact batterers killed in self-defense. That theory arose from a Justice Department chart showing that, before the domestic violence movement began, men and women killed their partners in nearly equal numbers, with male deaths in 1976 at 1,357 and female deaths at 1,600. But after decades of increased services for battered women, male deaths dropped significantly each year - to 512 in 1998, while female deaths dipped only slightly, to 1,317.

As services for women gave them an outlet for their anger and a way out of abusive relationships, the number of homicides committed by women fell, according to Laura Dugan, assistant professor of criminology at the University of Maryland. But the number of female victims remained high, she said, because men got back at their newly liberated spouses. ''We call that the retaliation effect,'' Dugan said.

But advocates for battered men bristle at the assumption that most male homicide victims are simply abusers killed in self-defense. ''Unquestionably, there has been a very powerful effort to deny the existence of battered men, starting back in the '70s with the beginning of the battered women's movement,'' said Arlington resident Mark Rosenthal, adding that his father was a battered husband.

This spring, Rosenthal helped launch the Maine-based Battered Men's Helpline, the nation's first hotline focused on heterosexual battered men.

Jane Doe and the Fatherhood Coalition have repeatedly sparred at the State House over bills filed by the Fatherhood Coalition that would have changed laws governing restraining orders, child custody, and child support. The Fatherhood Coalition says the ultimately unsuccessful bills were meant to make it harder for abusive women to take out frivolous restraining orders that gave them the upper hand in custody and divorce proceedings. Advocates for battered women say changing the laws would have made it harder for a woman to escape abuse and protect her children from danger.

''Virtually all batterers claim that they are victims of abuse,'' said David Adams, executive director of Emerge, a Cambridge-based batterer's intervention program.

Adams said that the Fatherhood Coalition recruits members from courthouses where restraining orders are being issued.

Scannell said the Fatherhood Coalition is not really about helping abused men, but rather turning back the clock on the battered women's movement.

''They're not looking to build a shelter,'' she said. ''They are not looking for the traditional network of support. It's about dismantling the existing system.''

But Charalambous said the attempted legislation is a response to men being abused by both their partners and the court system.

''Women are just as violent as men,'' said Charalambous. ''The apparatus which is set up to protect victims from abuse is not designed to be used by men and it doesn't work for men, especially men with children. And men are not going to talk about it with their buddies. They are not going to form support groups. Men don't do that. It's not a manly thing to do.''

Jane Doe and the Fatherhood Coalition also clashed over a Fatherhood Coalition study meant to examine the gender of batterers and whether the court favors women. Fatherhood Coalition member Steve Basile, who says he joined the group after his wife filed a frivolous restraining order against him during a bitter divorce, sifted through nearly 400 restraining orders at the District Court in Gardner. ''A lot of men who have children are locked into violent relationships because they fear the court response,'' said Basile, who eventually won primary custody of his two children.

When Jane Doe found out that Basile intended to contact women who had filed restraining orders, the group quickly won legislation removing the women's addresses and phone numbers from the public record.

In the background of this debate are the slayings of the three Massachusetts men - whose deaths, in many ways, mirror those of women who have been killed in far greater numbers over the last decade.

According to prosecutors, Bernard Harfield, 72, a retired insurance clerk from Framingham, had been stabbed and threatened by his wife, Claire, for years before she repeatedly plunged a 5-inch kitchen knife into his chest, back, and arms, last year.

''It's a battered husband case,'' said Brian Bixby, a lawyer for Alise Janson, the Harfields' adult daughter. ''This fellow, despite obviously being in a position where he should have left the relationship, remained in it and was continuously subjected to physical and psychological abuse. ... She wanted to control everything, for the benefit of herself.''

Harfield died from the stab wounds months later, and Claire Harfield, 65, awaits trial for his murder. Months after her husband's death, she filed claims on more than $100,000 in life insurance and retirement funds he left her in his will. Her lawyer, Frederick Busconi, could not be reached for comment, but indicated in court papers she suffered from delusions.

''There are a surprising number of domestic relations cases that involve battering of husbands by wives,'' said Bixby. ''But it does not become a major factor in the case because the husband is generally embarrassed that they are battered by their wives, or the husbands' concerns that they will not be believed by the judge.''

Katherine Greene, Jane Doe's public affairs director, said cases of battered men - true victims of one-sided abuse - are too rare to warrant a massive change in the domestic violence agenda.

''Sometimes it snows in Florida,'' she said, quoting a Jane Doe board member's comment on male victims at an annual board meeting last week. ''We can't ignore it, but we don't make public policy around it.''

Alcohol is believed to have been a factor in the slaying of William Oullette, 53, a divorced Danvers postman found lying in blood on his kitchen floor. He had been beaten with an aluminum bat, allegedly by Barbara Norris - a married woman with whom he was having an affair - after an argument about money. Both struggled with alcoholism, friends said.

Norris's lawyer, John Andrews, said Oullette had been abusive toward Norris. ''He did his share of battering,'' Andrews said.

Jealousy apparently sparked the killing of Jeffrey Smith, 38, of Brockton. Smith had just broken up with Amanda DaCosta, 22, and was in bed with another girlfriend when DaCosta burst in and killed him with ''one stab wound to the heart,'' prosecutors said.

DaCosta's defense lawyer, James H. Fagan, initially planned to use a battered woman's defense. Smith was far older, had allegedly fathered 11 children with seven women, and had a lengthy criminal record that included assault and battery and restraining orders. But ultimately, Fagan said, there was no evidence that Smith had ever abused DaCosta, and the restraining orders taken out by an ex-girlfriend appeared to have been filed to punish him for his relationship with DaCosta.

''The fact of the matter is ... Jeffrey Smith did not deserve to come to his death in that fashion,'' Fagan said.

DaCosta pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole.

Although Fagan agreed that Smith's case is an ''abberation'' in the annals of domestic violence, he still says it should prompt the domestic violence movement to revise the assumption that women are the victims of abuse, not the perpetrators.

''Notwithstanding the accident of biology that makes us male or female, our intent, desires or actions are generally the same,'' Fagan said.

''Would anyone in the state disagree that women are capable of being as intelligent as men? That they are as capable of being CEOs as men or holding high political office? Why do we then question that women are equally capable of acting in an abusive and violent fashion?''

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 10/28/2002.

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