Violence, in basic terms, as defined by Lauer (1998) "refers to the use of force to kill, injure, or abuse others" (pg. 205). It can range from a "schoolyard scuffle" to a drug deal murder. Either act is violent in nature. Domestic violence refers, more specifically, to violence between people involved in an intimate relationship. This relationship can be a husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, or children and their parents.
It can take many forms, such as verbal abuse - threats, name calling, insults, emotional and psychological abuse: isolating partners from friends and family, threatening, stalking; and physical abuse - hitting, pushing, beating or other harmful acts (The Partnership Against Domestic Violence). Recent reports from the United States Surgeon General state that domestic violence is the most significant social problem threatening the lives of United States citizens today. Violence in families is the number one health concern. There is no problem more insidious, pervasive, or damaging. According to Business Journal (1998), domestic violence has become more than just a family matter, it is a serious "public epidemic with far reaching consequences to individuals and society" (pg. 5). Americans are becoming more aware and less tolerant of abuse.
More than 4 million incidents (Family Resource Coalition) of domestic abuse occur each year, and evidence indicates that an equal number go unreported. FBI statistics indicate that a man batters a woman in her own home every 15 seconds. In 50% of the homes where women are physically abused, the children are beaten as well. It is estimated that 25% of all couples living together in the United States are involved in physically violent relationships. The damage done by domestic violence cannot be measured in dollars, but financial statistics are revealing in the amount of money spent on medical expenses, lost income, sick leave and other forms of non-productivity. More importantly, the abused partner often loses financial stability by leaving the perpetrator for safety.
As Reaves (1997) suggests, "this leaves them dependent upon welfare as their only potential means of escape" (pg. 27). One senator recognizes this obstacle to this assistance as a way of simply ensuring that they remain trapped. Causes and solutions of domestic violence lie in societal view, laws, and police handling of domestic violence cases. As the twenty-first century approaches, it is important for society to look at these causes and solutions, learn from them, act on them, and improve the quality of life for the millions of men, women and children who suffer the repercussions. In the past, domestic violence was not recognized as a social problem as much as an individual one. The prevailing attitude by neighbors, friends, and law enforcement was "what goes on in someone else's home is none of our business".
While this statement has some validity and everyone has a right to privacy, it is also important to recognize that the children who are witnessing this in their home are suffering from severe psychological distress and are at an increased risk of developing behavioral and emotional problems and even worse may become perpetrators as adults. Clearly, the lack of awareness of the significance of this problem is one of the reasons it is so pervasive. According to Feder (1998), domestic violence "has a checkered legal history in America" (pg. 336). As societal views have changed from the husbands' rights to control their wives during the early part of this century, to a more equal role in the relationship, during the latter part of this century, society has had to recognize domestic violence as a contemporary social problem.
Antiquated stereotypes about the role of men and women still persist. Women continue to be objectified in the media which is saturating the lives of impressionable children and leading to unrealistic expectations in society. As two parent household increase and divorce rates continue to rise, children rely on music, television and media personalities to develop their beliefs about how to function in American culture. They do not learn how to effectively resolve conflicts, communicate, or manage stress. They are not able to problem-solve which traditionally should come from observing parents interact and resolve issues in a relationship.
Unfortunately, many of their parents never learned healthy styles of communication and the cycle continues. Many are victims of abuse and never exposed to any alternative. We need to realize that every choice we make sends a message about what we view is socially acceptable. Laws to protect victims of domestic violence are a relatively recent development. Up until shortly after the Civil War, domestic law was loosely interpreted to allow the "man of the house" to beat his wife and children. Old-English common laws called "spousal privilege" allowed spouses to use "moderate correction" to maintain domestic tranquility.
The restraining order process was created to give the police a weapon to force the abuser to leave the victim alone. Before that the choices were assault and battery charges or a civil lawsuit against the offender. Restraining orders, which are supposed to be more accessible and serve as a chief weapon in the battle to halt domestic violence, are becoming weapons of a different sort in the hands of people involved in divorce and custody battles. Emergency restraining orders are being used to punish one party in the divorce to gain a legal advantage. This is damaging for true victims of domestic violence as it may lead judges to be suspicious even when there is a legitimate case.
Evidence suggest this largely developed after 1992 when judges were allowed to issue restraining orders when the perpetrator and victim did not live together. It would be more beneficial if judges could be made aware of any probate cases pending, such as a divorce or custody issue, when a restraining order request is made. Any abuse of this system is one step back in the struggle to resolve domestic violence. Some states offer great legal protection for victims of domestic violence by giving 24-hour access to restraining orders and police power to arrest the batterer, even if authorities don't witness the blows.
For instance in Massachussetts, the Chapter 209-A law allows victims to obtain emergency porte ctive orders when courts are closed and allows police to make arrests with probable cause to beleive an assault occured. Ten years ago it would have been mandatory to see the "fight" in action, that is if there was a police response at all. With this shift in law also comes a shift in attitude, making domestic violence a criminal, not family, offense. Even with the emergence of restraining orders another obstacle surfaces. Research shows under enforcement of the laws by police against domestic violence. Feder's study shows while surveys revealed a large problem in 1985 with "8.7 million domestic assault victims yearly... police were not responding as seriously to domestic assault cases as to comparable nondomestic assault cases: (pg. 335).
Other studies revealed that factors such as gender of the victim, severity of the offense, and victim's cooperation entered in the police's decision on arrest. While these studies led concerned citizens to lobby for changes in the law, other factors were developing around these issues. New studies suggested that arrest led to lower rates of recidivism among domestic violence offenders and litigation was leading police to respond more proactively when dealing with domestic violence. In one instance a police officer was held liable for injuries sustained by a battered wife "when the police failed to respond vigorously to her requests for help". Given this inconsistency, it's hardly surprising to see the difficulty in eradicating this social problem. Domestic violence does not discriminate.
It is not limited to a certain group. As Groves (1997) puts it, domestic violence is an "equal opportunity phenomenon" (pg. 20). It occurs in every class, race, and level of education and in every part of the country. Although some may be more vulnerable than others, it has risen, according to James Ptacek (1997), "not simply out of a desire to dominate women, but out of a fearful ambivalence over femininity in general, an ambivalence that has long been a staple of mainstream masculine culture"J (pg. 358). Individuals should be held accountable for their behavior, but as batterers are driven by impulses and lack of control, society must be driven by the desire to change societal views so that women are viewed as people instead of objects, laws that serve the victims rather than the perpetrators, and police responses so that we can provide a safer environment for our children. By providing social forces that enable and encourage children and families to have healthy communication, anger management, and realistic expectations, we can reduce the incidence of domestic violence.
In the words of Ross Anderson (1998) "We incarcerate a greater percentage of our population every year, spend more money on jails and prisons, and contribute to the destruction of families and individual lives - all without coming anywhere close to winning the 'war on drugs', clearing gangs out of our cities, or reducing the incidence of domestic violence" (pg. 18).
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