Martin Chitwood Not Liable
In the July edition, Scrubs ran a story about the obligations of healthcare providers in treating suspected victims of domestic abuse, while also noting that healthcare providers often encounter false claims of abuse, typically used for leverage in divorce proceedings. The story spotlighted a case that was about to be tried in the Superior Court of San Diego County in which Carol Chitwood accused her ex-husband, high-profile Atlanta attorney Martin Chitwood, of domestic abuse under dubious circumstances which suggested that her claims might not be true. On August 31, 2017, after a five-week trial, a twelve-person jury composed of seven men and five women determined that, as the dubious circumstances had suggested, Mr. Chitwood had committed no domestic violence whatsoever.
What Martin Chitwood Means For Nurses. When Domestic Violence Claims Might Not Be True
Domestic violence is a subject that continues to be at the forefront of news in various capacities around the world, after first emerging as a significant issue about 30 years ago. From the acid attacks on women in various countries to high-profile domestic battery claims in California to unreported abuses suffered in low-income households on the East Coast, domestic violence remains a global hot topic.
For nurses who are often the first caretakers to come in contact with a victim of domestic violence, the encounter is often one of apprehension, sympathy, and a desire to help the victim feel safe and protected. It is the duty of emergency room staff to question patients who present with injuries that may resemble those of domestic violence – even if an injury is nothing more than a minor bruise or a light laceration. In fact, in 47 states, there are mandatory reporting requirements for domestic violence. There are five core questions 1 for patients that are to be asked by nurses if domestic abuse is even a remote possibility:
- Do you feel safe with the people in your home?
- Have you felt controlled or forced to do something you did not want to do by someone close to you?
- Within the past year, have you been hit, slapped, kicked, pushed, or otherwise physically hurt by someone in your home?
- Within the past year, has anyone forced you to have unwanted sexual activity?
- Are you afraid of your partner or anyone in the home?
Emergency departments provide care for those who have visible evidence of abuse, as well as invisible evidence. Routine screening of patients by nurses and sensitivity to the needs of those who may be victims are integral to further abuse prevention and victim safety. But what about HIPAA and patient privacy? In such scenarios, protected health information is not protected if a crime may be involved 2, which is why medical personnel are able to report suspected abuse, with or without a victim’s permission. Taking it a step further, in California for example, the state can even take over as the plaintiff when abuse is suspected 2.
Nurses and Instinct: What Triggers Suspicion of Domestic Violence?
In California, along with most other states, the law requires that healthcare providers send in a report to law officials if they reasonably suspect that a patient has been injured because of abuse. Some of the injuries listed might include injury from a firearm, incest, stabbing, battery, spousal abuse, torture, rape, and more. Unfortunately, many victims of domestic abuse are reluctant to admit to any violence occurring in the home; many are afraid of being punished by their abusers. They may claim that injuries resulted from their own clumsiness – such as a fall down a flight of stairs or a simple loss of footing that resulted in hitting their head on a table.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that an average of 20 people are abused by intimate partners every minute in the United States3; on a typical day, domestic violence hotlines receive 20,800 calls 3. Sadly, only 34% of people who are injured by their partners receive medical care 3, and only about half of cases are ever reported to authorities 4, often because of the fear of the backlash once the violent partner discovers he or she has been exposed.
There is another side to the epidemic of domestic violence that turns abusers into victims and victims into abusers: when false allegations of abuse are claimed. But why would anyone falsely accuse another person, usually a loved one or former loved one, of such a serious crime?
When the “Victim” Becomes the Perpetrator
Unfortunately, one of the most common reasons people falsely accuse another is to increase complexity of divorce cases and change the dynamics, allowing the “abused” to gain leverage in divorce proceedings. During false accusations, the wife (most often) will move to file a restraining order, or order of protection, not when the abuse is occurring, but months or years after the fact, only when the false charges are first claimed 5. Following this order comes the husband’s arrest, which inadvertently puts him at a severe disadvantage in several ways.
Very little evidence, if any, is needed to accomplish this because the courts follow a preponderance of evidence standard. The defendant, most often the husband, does not get an opportunity to explain his side before charges are filed. Once false allegations are aired, the “abused victim” gains an immediate advantage and an edge in everything from gaining custody of children to reaping the benefits of altered or voided prenuptial agreements. Even if charges are dismissed eventually, it often negatively impacts the life of the accused for many years.
So how prevalent is the rate of false abuse allegations in divorce proceedings? When custody is involved, up to a whopping 70% of claims 8 of abuse are deemed false. With such a high rate of claims being dismissed, it is also important to note that 95% of those who make false claims are indeed women 6. This misuse of domestic violence laws has become increasingly prevalent throughout the country, and has become a favored divorce tactic of (mainly) women. The consequences of such false claims are not only extremely damaging and unfair to the (mainly) men who are charged, but they also detract attention from those victims who actually are abused. Although currently there are very few states with laws to punish those who falsely accuse others of domestic violence, more and more states are slowly jumping on board to change that.
A Current Case Study: The Chitwood Divorce Case
Currently, there is a civil case pending in the San Diego Superior Court involving allegations of domestic violence made by Carol Chitwood against her former husband, Martin Chitwood. The case was originally filed on May 2, 2015, during which time the husband’s suit for divorce was pending. As of today, it still has not been resolved. Why? Because Mr. Chitwood claims the allegations are false and created by Carol Chitwood in order to break their prenuptial agreement, with which she had consistently expressed her unhappiness. Is she now playing the preponderance of evidence card for economic gain?
There are several points that stand out in this case:
- Despite Martin Chitwood, a distinguished Atlanta attorney, having been a veteran who served as a Green Beret commander in Vietnam, there is no record of him ever being subject to any emotional or legal troubles.
- An article 9 in the San Diego Reader about the case never claimed that there was any proof of Ms. Chitwood’s allegations. After remaining quiet on the subject for a long time, she allegedly claimed that injuries she had been treated for years earlier had been the result of domestic violence.
- San Diego police Lt. Misty Cedrun has stated that she was not aware that the wife had sustained any injuries, and she isn’t the only one; Spokesman Gerry Braun has also stated his office was unaware that Carol Chitwood had sustained any serious injury 7.
- Recent documents have come to light showing that several of Ms. Chitwood’s claims have been either voluntarily dismissed or dismissed by the court. Both the San Diego County District Attorney’s offices and the San Diego City Attorney’s office had declined to pursue prosecution of her claims. In March of 2015, the GA court also rejected Ms. Chitwood’s claims, and decided the prenuptial agreement would be enforced. She did not appeal.
- In early 2015, Ms. Chitwood filed an affidavit claiming new allegations of acts of violence that she did not mention during a previous deposition in late 2014. Mr. Chitwood’s attorneys alleged that while his ex-wife could at first only vaguely testify to a few odd instances of alleged abuse, by January of 2015, she had “amazingly” created new memories and could describe dozens of instances of abuse in lurid detail.
- Mr. Chitwood was not home when his then wife called 911 on August 13, 2014, making claims of domestic violence. It is documented that Ms. Chitwood allegedly initially pleaded not to have him arrested. The Daily Report, an Atlanta legal publication, noted that “A supervisor at the San Diego police unit (said) Carol Swanson Chitwood’s 911 call ‘looked to us like part of their divorce’ and that Carol Chitwood may have been ‘posturing for money.’” 7
- Ms. Chitwood did not ever file a restraining order against Martin Chitwood until years after the alleged abuse, and not until after Mr. Chitwood filed for divorce and moved to enforce their prenuptial agreement, which is in line with what commonly happens in false accusation instances.
So, is Mr. Chitwood guilty of domestic violence, or is Carol Chitwood simply fabricating a damaging story in order to fit her current allegations for benefit? While the case is still under investigation, it remains to be seen how the courts will render its decision. With the case garnering such a level of publicity around the country, it further brings to light the issues that surround allegations of domestic violence – both the true, as well as the false. Each type brings with it a host of dilemmas, conflicts, emotional trauma, physical effects, and multidimensional costs. Perhaps the next 30 years will bring more comprehensive awareness and efforts to curb domestic violence – as well as those claims which stem from it. The key may lie in the ability of nurses and medical personnel to recognize potential abuse and help victims report it right away – not years after the fact.
- Journal of the National Medical Association – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2594378/pdf/jnma00323-0094.pdf
- www.ncdsv.org – When is it Okay Under HIPAA to Report Domestic Violence?
- NCADV. (2015). Domestic violence national statistics. Retrieved from www.ncadv.org
- U.S. News & World Report – https://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/data-mine/2015/10/09/sobering-stats-for-domestic-violence-awareness-month
- The Huffington Post – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-e-cordell/false-allegations-of-abus_b_8578086.html
- San Diego Reader – https://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2015/sep/04/ticker-martin-chitwood-la-jolla-atlanta-lawyer/
See also: Martin Chitwood related stories