Seven years ago, police in Torrington, Conn., told Tracy Motuzick they could not arrest her husband on charges of abuse unless they saw it happen.
Eventually, he stabbed her 13 times and broke her neck, inflicting injuries that hospitalized Motuzick for eight months and left her paralyzed on her left side.Only then was her husband arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison. Only after she won a $1.9 million settlement from a lawsuit against Torrington police did Connecticut adopt a law requiring law officers to treat domestic violence cases like other assaults.
But such state laws are not enough. Last week Motuzick, whose terrible experience reflects a growing pattern of violence against women, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee as it considered tough new federal legislation to help protect women.
For the first time, the measure would define rape and sexual assault as violations of a woman's civil rights. It would also double the minimum federal penalties for rape and aggravated assault, triple federal funding for shelters for battered women and their children, make it a federal crime to cross state lines to continue spousal abuse and make "stay-away" orders enforceable in states other than the one where the order originated.
Though there's room for arguing over some of the details, the need for tougher action should be beyond dispute. Just look at the dimensions of the abuse problem:
- In the past 15 years, assaults against women have increased twice as fast as assaults against men.
- Somewhere in the United States a woman is raped every six minutes, while a woman is beaten every 15 seconds.
- Between now and Christmas, 30 women will be killed by their husbands.
- Between Thanksgiving and New Year's, an estimated 450,000 women will be violently abused.
- Each year, between 3 million and 4 million women will be violently abused. The victims come from all social and economic categories.
- An abusive spouse is arrested in less than 15 percent of the cases where the victim is bleeding.
This outrage will persist as long as police and judges treat violence more leniently when it is committed by a spouse than they do when the same kind of offense is committed by a stranger. Though tough new laws can help, they are no substitute for clearer thinking and stiffer spines throughout the criminal justice system. In the words of Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, sponsor of the proposed new law in the Senate:
"Only when attitudes begin to change are things going to change. Only when we begin to value women more than we do."