Oklahoma has many small towns where everyone knows everyone else, which is often a point of pride. But that can also mean domestic-violence victims feel isolated. They may not report abuse to police or seek help out of fear their story will become public or no one will believe them, prosecutors and advocates say. It’s not uncommon for a family member to work in law enforcement or at the local hospital where a victim would seek treatment for injuries.
District Attorney Chris Boring, who represents Alfalfa, Dewey, Major, Woods and Woodward counties near the panhandle, says there remains a deep stigma around domestic abuse, especially in rural areas. But many small-town jurors still don’t understand why a victim wouldn’t speak up. That makes it difficult to win a trial without the victim’s testimony, even when there are photographs, medical records, and witnesses, he said. The reasons for the silence are multifaceted and complex, says Liz Vaughn, executive director of McCurtain County’s domestic violence shelter.
Victims of intimate partner violence are isolated from friends and family, she said. Many don’t have jobs and can’t afford to move. They don’t have a way to support themselves or their children if they leave. They worry no one will believe them and speaking out will only make things worse. They’re afraid for their own life and the lives of their children. What if their kids are taken away? They feel powerless and don’t know where to turn. Some victims still care for their abuser and don’t want them punished, advocates say.
But police and prosecutors want to hold domestic abusers accountable. Otherwise, the violence can escalate and lead to homicide. And in Oklahoma, the problem is severe. Newly released data shows that in 2018, Oklahoma’s rate of domestic-abuse incidents reached the highest level since 2012; there were 25,864 reported abuses. In 2007, the state Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board issued a report recommending that district attorneys and police increase the “evidence-based” prosecution of abusers when victims won’t cooperate. The District Attorneys Council began training its members on the approach. Allie Spears Buckholts, a domestic-violence prosecutor who advises Oklahoma’s district attorneys, said the practice has become accepted.
But what is considered sufficient evidence to move forward, and how hard prosecutors are willing to push, varies greatly from one district attorney to another.