"Take a walk around the block and cool off." Before domestic violence became a national priority in the 1970s and '80s, this was the typical law-enforcement response to men who beat their wives or girlfriends. A woman would get attacked by her partner, neighbors would call the police, and the cops would arrive and leave without making an arrest. Domestic violence was viewed as a private matter. Thanks in large part to the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which was reauthorized by Congress in late February and signed by President Obama on March 7, much has changed. The law has allocated millions of dollars to train police and beef up state responses to intimate-partner violence. Arrests and prosecutions are much more common now.
This photo essay by Sara Naomi Lewkowicz illustrates the value of such responses. In late 2012, Lewkowicz, a graduate student in photography at Ohio University, was documenting a couple, Maggie and Shane, for a project about the stigma of being an ex-convict. Shane had spent many years incarcerated but had recently begun a relationship with Maggie, then a 19-year-old mother of two who was separated from her husband. One night, while Lewkowicz was present, Maggie and Shane began arguing. The fight quickly escalated, and suddenly Lewkowicz found herself witnessing an enraged Shane beating and choking Maggie and pinning her against a kitchen counter. After another adult on the scene called 911 and while Maggie's daughter Memphis briefly looked on, Lewkowicz documented the abuse.
When TIME published Lewkowicz's photo essay online on Feb. 27, the day before the House passed the Violence Against Women Act, the photographs drew thousands of comments, many expressing sympathy and support for Maggie. Others blamed the young Ohio mother for getting involved with Shane in the first place. And some faulted Lewkowicz for not directly intervening to stop Shane. Lewkowicz, who reached into Shane's pocket as he was berating Maggie and retrieved the cell phone that was later used to call 911, says this criticism is misplaced. "Physically intervening would have likely only made the situation worse, endangering me and further endangering Maggie," she says, citing law-enforcement officials.
Eventually the police arrived. They arrested Shane and persuaded Maggie to give a statement saying he had beaten her. Lewkowicz would have been subpoenaed had Shane not pleaded guilty to domestic violence, drawing a nine-month prison sentence but avoiding trial. (The photos were a deciding factor in his sentencing.) Since then, Maggie has tried to move on. She has moved to another state and reunited with her estranged husband, her children's father. Lewkowicz has continued to document Maggie's life, making the private public. Maggie says she hopes this will raise awareness of the issue of domestic violence, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-quarter of American women will experience in their lifetime.
TO SEE A VIDEO ABOUT MAGGIE'S LIFE SINCE THE ASSAULT, GO TO time.com/lightbox
National Domestic Violence Hotline Readers who feel they--or people they know--need assistance can call 1-800-799-SAFE