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Domestic violence advocates alarmed by fallout from Johnny Depp allegations

Advocates for victims of domestic violence are troubled by what they consider the victim blaming of actress Amber Heard.
Johnny Depp arrives at the premiere of \"Alice Through the Looking Glass\" at the El Capitan Theatre on May 23, 2016, in Los Angeles, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
Johnny Depp arrives at the premiere of \"Alice Through the Looking Glass\" at the El Capitan Theatre on May 23, 2016, in Los Angeles, Calif.

Actress Amber Heard's allegations of domestic abuse against her estranged superstar husband Johnny Depp have captured headlines, but the tone of the coverage and the response from much of the public has been troubling from the perspective of victim's advocates.

Heard, who has alleged violent attacks perpetrated by the Oscar-nominated actor throughout the course of their 1-year-marriage, has filed for divorce and was granted a restraining order against him. "I endured excessive emotional, verbal and physical abuse from Johnny, which has included angry, hostile, humiliating and threatening assaults to me whenever I questioned his authority or disagreed with him," she said in court documents. Since then, photos have surfaced that appear to show Heard with bruises allegedly caused by Depp.

However, the Los Angeles police has said they are currently not pursuing a criminal investigation into the matter. According to Heard's attorney, the actress did not initially file a report against Depp following a 911 call on May 21 to “protect her privacy and Johnny’s career.”

“As the result of Amber’s decision to decline giving an initial statement to the LAPD, her silence has been used against her by Johnny’s team,” Heard’s attorney, Samantha F. Spector, and her co-counsel, Joseph P. Koenig, said in the statement

RELATED: Amber Heard Suffered 'Years' of Abuse by Johnny Depp, Lawyers Say

Meanwhile, Depp's representatives have said in a statement: "Given the brevity of this marriage and the most recent and tragic loss of his mother, Johnny will not respond to any of the salacious false stories, gossip, misinformation and lies about his personal life. Hopefully the dissolution of this short marriage will be resolved quickly."

While this case currently amounts to an extremely high-profile version of "he said, she said," that hasn't stopped rabid speculation about how and what must have transpired between the Hollywood couple, with a startling array of commentators willing to perpetuate the notion that Heard's allegations are a hoax.

"Because of his celebrity in this particular instance, there is an enormous amount of victim blaming occurring," Ruth Glenn, executive director of National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told MSNBC on Wednesday. "People have a difficult time understanding that an adult woman can be a victim of domestic abuse. We are still a society which marginalizes women ... and where women and children in this society are not as valued as men. Men who are accused of or charged with domestic violence are just not held as accountable."

A kneejerk empathy for the accused in these cases, especially when the alleged perpetrator is a male celebrity, is nothing new. Even with photographic evidence, Ray Rice and Chris Brown still have their fare share of defenders. In fact, some could argue that the latter's popularity has increased in the wake of his domestic violence charges. And these are just two of the more than 80 celebrities who have not just been accused, but charged with this kind of crime in recent years. Few, if any, appear to have suffered any long-term repercussions as far as their careers are concerned.

"We got calls from Chris Brown’s fans blaming us for what was happening to him. Even some young girls were quite hateful to our staff," Katie Ray Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline told MSNBC on Wednesday. "When it comes to celebrities, a lot of people take this on like they know the person."

According to Jones, it's simply easier for many people to throw insults like "gold digger" at Heard, than to do the necessary soul searching required to recognize that abusers can be in all facets of our lives.

RELATED: Continuing the campaign to stop domestic violence

That said, there is some anecdotal evidence that Depp's already faltering reputation in the film industry has taken a significant hit. His most recent would-be blockbuster, the big budget sequel "Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass," seriously under-performed on its crucial opening weekend, and some box office prognosticators have suggested that the Heard accusations may have been a factor.

"These allegations, if true, pose a serious threat to the box-office longevity of Johnny Depp. Obviously time heals all wounds, but this is certainly having a toll on Depp and 'Alice,'" analyst Jeff Bock told the Hollywood Reporter on Sunday. "'Alice in Blunderland' is more like it."

Jones, who is about to embark on a vacation to Disneyland with her three young children and husband, anticipates seeing a lot of advertising for the Depp film, which Disney produced along with his upcoming fifth film in the lucrative "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise.

"It’ll be interesting to see what conversations come up if they want to see it," she said. "My 9-year-old knows what I do ... If he wanted to go see [the film] I would say to him we’re not going to see that movie. If he asked me why, I would tell him why."

Of course, as far as many advocates are concerned, the focus should be on what Depp is alleged to have done, instead of his accuser's behavior, which is all too often what gets scrutinized when these kinds of cases come to light. For instance, images of Heard smiling hours after an alleged assault have been presented as proof of her insincerity.

"While I don't know exactly what happened  — we often see clients that face a backlash when they come forward," Kelly Coyne, vice president of domestic violence shelters for Safe Horizon told MSNBC on Wednesday. "They have to choose which abuse is worse: What is happening in their relationship, or what they will receive when they come forward."

And while Heard's allegations have certainly re-opened a national dialogue about domestic violence, it's unclear whether her notoriety will be a net plus for less well-known victims who are vacillating over whether or not to report abuse.

"People are ashamed to talk about it. With someone like Amber Heard getting bashed on social media, [some victims may think], 'What motivation do I have to speak out? Nobody's going to believe me,'" Jones said.

Still, she has been encouraged by an outpouring of support for Heard on social media, manifesting in a #WeAreWithYouAmberHeard hashtag, which she says has come more quickly than it has following other high-profile domestic abuse allegations. 

"We’re seeing change happen," she said. "And I think we are using these media stories to continue the education around the complexities of this issue. Even stories like [the Heard-Depp scandal] look and feel much different than they did seven or eight years ago." 

Nevertheless, Jones is not naive on this front. "We’re not going to end domestic violence overnight," she added.

A particularly daunting challenge for advocates is finding a way to persuade the public that just because a couple (famous or otherwise) presents a certain facade to the public, doesn't mean that's the whole story of what goes on behind closed doors.

"The public needs to remember that these high-profile people are still people," said Glenn. "They eat, they sleep ... and [sometimes] they abuse their wives."

"Society fools itself into thinking that bad things don't happen to successful people," added Coyne. "You can't be too rich, you can't be too famous ... domestic violence really impacts us all."

In the meantime, she says organizations like hers are standing firm behind the message: "We are here, we believe you and there is absolutely hope and healing that is possible."