Since the 1970s significant progress has been made in documenting the nature and extent of different types of woman battering, as well as in the implementation of emergency shelters, 24-hour crisis hotlines, transitional housing, legal aid, criminal justice responses, and social services aimed at reducing the prevalence of this widespread problem. According to recent statistics, these interventions have led to some decreases in the number of reported incidents. However, much work remains to be done if the goal is to eliminate woman battering and intimate partner violence from large segments of American society in future decades.
This research paper traces the historical background and summarizes the key contemporary issues impacting battered wives and other abused partners, such as legislative reforms, emergency shelters and other social services, innovative policies and programs, and criminal justice responses aimed at lessening and eventually eliminating intimate partner abuse.
Battered wives, also known as abused women, beaten women, victims of intimate partner violence, and victims of spousal or partner abuse, have existed for centuries. Historically, in Roman times as well as in the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries in European countries and North America, a wife was viewed as her husband’s property. Husbands were allowed to punish and discipline their wives through corporal punishment and other methods. By 1885 in the United States, one of the first official protective responses for women who were abused came about when the Chicago Protective Agency for Women was established to provide legal assistance for rape victims, and to advocate for and shelter women who were victims of physical abuse at the hands of their husbands. Between 1915 and 1920, twenty-five cities followed Chicago’s pioneering lead in developing agencies for the protection of abused women (Pleck 1987; Roberts 1996).
The point of departure for the battered women’s movement is the mid-1970s, when it became more widely recognized as a social problem in England and the United States. In 1971 the first emergency shelter for battered wives was opened in West London, England, by Erin Pizzey. It was called Chiswick Women’s Aid. In 1972 two shelters were opened in the United States: Women’s Advocates in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Haven House in Pasadena, California. By the mid-1970s, battered wives and feminist advocates began to speak publicly about the physical batterings women endured in their abusive marriages, often from a painful personal perspective, and grassroots and social service organizations such as the Salvation Army began to set up emergency shelters and safe home networks for battered wives.
The services provided included peer counseling, crisis intervention programs, group counseling and social support, legal aid and advocacy of reforms in courtroom procedures, and emergency shelters for battered women and their children (Roberts 1981). By the late 1970s, the first national survey of and services guide to eighty-nine shelters for battered women and their children, Sheltering Battered Women, was completed (Roberts 1981).
In 1974, Judge Marjory D. Fields, a former legal-aid attorney at the Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation, discovered that a large number of her clients had called the police after being battered by their husbands or ex-husbands. However, the police frequently refused to respond to these emergency calls, viewing each situation as a private family conflict rather than an illegal act. Judge Fields was so outraged by the lack of action from police officers that she gave a New York Times reporter her story, which appeared in newspapers across the United States. Shortly after the media attention, the New York City police department (NYPD) created special police crisis intervention teams—which included women police officers and police social workers—to respond to domestic violence complaints.
Four important events occurred in 1976. The first book on the topic was published under the title Battered Wives. In this early publication, the author, Del Martin, one of the founders of the National Organization of Women (NOW), argued that violence against wives is deeply ingrained in societal sexism, and almost all men view woman as their property. At around the same time, MS. magazine published an issue with the cover story ‘‘Battered Wives: Help for the Secret Victim Next Door,’’ with a large cover photo of a battered woman with a black eye. In this same year, Pennsylvania became the first state to establish a statewide coalition against domestic violence and to pass important legislation providing for orders of protection for domestic violence victims. Also in 1976, the first national conference on battered women was held in Milwaukee, sponsored by the Milwaukee Task Force on Battered Women.
Several years later, two significant events led to widespread social, legal, and law enforcement reforms. The first was the 1983 Minneapolis experimental study indicating that arresting batterers deters further family violence; the second was the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Thurman v. Torrington Police Department case, which held the police liable for their negligence in failing to protect Tracy Thurman from severe and repeated injuries inflicted by her husband.
The most far-reaching legislation—the Violence against Women Act (VAWA)—was passed in 1994 as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. This significant legislation authorized $1.2 billion over a five-year period for state and local criminal justice programs and social services to assist battered women and sexual assault victims. The funding was increased substantially in October 2000, when the United States Congress reauthorized VAWA II with $3.3 billion in funding through 2005 for a continuum of services, including concrete social services, crisis intervention and counseling, legal assistance, and training of police, prosecutors, judges, domestic violence advocates, public defenders, and social workers specifically oriented toward victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking (Roberts 2002). VAWA III was reauthorized by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush on January 5, 2006 (National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence against Women 2006).
Scope of the Problem
Every nine seconds somewhere in the United States, a woman is assaulted or abused by an intimate partner. The number-one cause of women’s injuries is abuse at home (Roberts and Roberts 2005, p. 4). Woman battering/intimate partner violence has a lifetime prevalence estimate of 25 percent of American couples. As a result, it is viewed as a pervasive and serious criminal justice and public health problem in American society today (Roberts 2002). The scope of the problem is illustrated by recent national estimates which indicate that approximately eight million women are abused by intimate partners in their homes each year (Roberts 2002). Intimate partner violence causes more injuries to women victims than accidents, muggings, and cancer deaths combined. Pregnancy is a risk factor for battering; as many as 37 percent of obstetrics patients are physically abused during pregnancy. Sixty percent of all female homicides are related to domestic violence.
The human cost of domestic violence is almost impossible to accurately estimate. Woman battering costs society billions of dollars annually in terms of medical bills and lost wages due to absenteeism and disabilities. It is impossible to measure the long-term physical and mental health costs to the children who witness marital violence. Carlson and Lehman (1998) reported that 60 to 75 percent of youths growing up in violent homes suffered from depressive and anxiety disorders and manifested aggression and antisocial behavior, delinquency, and violent acts.
Definition of Domestic Violence Terms
Woman battering, or intimate partner abuse, refers to the intentional abuse of adult women at least eighteen years of age who are involved in a relationship in which they are the victim of abuse by their intimate partners. The most frequent types of physical battering include slapping, grabbing, pushing, shoving, hair pulling, kicking, choking, biting, head banging, throwing objects at, whipping with a belt, and striking with a bat. The most severe abuse usually involves weapons such as knives, cars, bats, guns, and rifles. Recent studies indicate that 90 percent of spouse/partner abuse victims are women (Roberts 1996).
Date abuse refers to unwanted physical abuse and/or a pattern of emotional abuse in dating relationships. Abusive acts include pushing, shoving, slapping, throwing objects at, punching, hair pulling, kicking, biting, scratching, choking, head banging, whipping with a belt, striking with a knife, cutting with a nail file or scissor, and hitting with a heavy object (e.g., a lamp, a baseball bat, a golf club).
A restraining order or order of protection is a court order signed by a judge which usually forbids the alleged batterer from making contact with the victim; in some cases, the court order specifies the distance that the abuser must maintain from the victim who requested the order. Depending on the state law, the restraining order may mandate that the abusive spouse/partner immediately vacate the residence, refrain from terroristic threats or further abusive acts, pay support for the victim and minor children, and/or be court-mandated to participate in a group counseling program aimed at ending the violence (both the abusive partner and the victim may be court-mandated to attend and complete treatment).
The Emergence and Growth of Shelters for Battered Women and Their Children
Since the emergence of the battered women’s movement in the 1970s and the opening of the first emergency shelters for battered women, the movement has come a long way, with several billion dollars in federal funding through the VAWAs I, II, and III; mandatory and warrantless arrest laws in many states of the union; and a network of over 2,000 emergency shelters and victim assistance, crisis intervention, legal aid, and social service programs for battered women. During the past three decades, as a result of increased awareness of the chronic and severe nature of battering relationships, short-term shelters have grown in both numbers and the scope of services provided. In the mid-1970s, there were only a half dozen shelters for battered women; by January 2001 there were over 2,000 such shelters throughout the United States. In the late 1970s, the most frequent types of services available in shelters were twenty-four hour crisis hotlines and emergency housing.
Once a woman was ready to leave the shelter, she was usually given referrals to welfare and/or legal advocacy depending on her individual needs, but little else (Roberts 1998, p. 60). By the 1990s, services had been expanded to include additional components, particularly support groups and legal advocacy for the women, and education, crisis counseling, and trauma treatment for the children. In addition, executive directors of family crisis programs and shelters began hiring clinical social workers and licensed master’s-level counselors to provide mental health treatment to battered women. Outreach has been expanded to include specialized training for police officers and prevention efforts at local middle schools, high schools, and colleges on date abuse and acquaintance rape. Major changes in the staffing of shelters have taken place from the original grassroots movement of former battered women and paraprofessionals to the utilization of trained clinicians and managers, many of whom have bachelor’s and/or master’s degrees (Roche and Sadoski 1996). By 2005, approximately 500 comprehensive family crisis programs had secured funding for transitional second-stage communal housing, usually lasting from six months to one year, as well as vocational training and job placement service.
Advocacy groups and statewide domestic violence coalitions also came a long way in the last decades of the twentieth century. Women’s advocacy groups and statewide domestic violence coalitions emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These highly organized and dedicated advocacy groups/coalitions helped community members, community leaders, and legislators to recognize that domestic violence was a serious public health and social problem. As of 2001, the National Coalition against Domestic Violence and the National Network to End Domestic Violence and its fifty state coalition members had received an annual federal funding appropriation of $90 million (Roberts 2002).
Shelters for battered wives and their children can provide an exit point for ending a battering relationship and a promising entry point to a new beginning for abused women who are determined to break the cycle of violence and change their lives. Moreover, they provide a safe place to stay as well as crisis intervention, advocacy, and a supportive environment (Roberts 2002). Battered women who are successful in ending the abusive relationship usually gain necessary ego strength and self-confidence from domestic violence advocates and clinicians. Crisis intervention is frequently used to help battered women (see Roberts 2006, for further information on the popular seven-stage crisis intervention model).
Although important progress was made during the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, much remains to be done in the twenty-first century. The most underserved groups seem to be children of battered women, abused women living in rural areas, elderly battered women, lesbian battered women, Asian American battered women, Latino battered women, Orthodox Jewish battered women, and poor battered women in dire need of transitional second-stage housing (Roberts 1998).
Most police calls for domestic violence come from women who have been abused by their partners several times before. In most cases, several months or years of abuse pass as the women suffer in silence. Then, as a result of a crisis precipitant (e.g., a life-threatening injury to themselves, an injury to their child, or a specific terroristic threat), they seek help from relatives, neighbors, or friends. At that point, some are helped to leave the batterer permanently. However, in the beginning (following the earliest incidents of abuse), the majority of battered women believe the batterer’s apologies and false promises and remain dependent on the batterer by staying in the relationship, particularly when they have children. However, an acute crisis event usually takes place during the first few months or years of the relationship, resulting in the police being called.
Police responding to incidents of domestic violence are faced with several important decisions with possible hazardous consequences. If an assault occurs in a particular state or jurisdiction, and the police officer called to the scene does not make an arrest, is the officer violating an individual’s right to equal protection under the law? If the officer makes an arrest, will it have a deterrent or escalation effect? With certain types of batterers, will arresting and detaining the batterer in jail lead to an escalation of the number of life-threatening battering incidents?
Throughout the United States, England, and Canada, there has been a major shift in police attitudes and responses to domestic violence calls. Often the batterer is arrested when the abused woman shows visible signs of injuries, the police or neighbors of the victim overhear terroristic threats, or there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. Several research studies have indicated that arrest and prosecution alone are not effective in reducing woman battering by abusive partners. Mandatory arrest seems to reduce future battering by minor offenders, but it has the opposite effect on more serious offenders— resulting in an escalation of violence, particularly when the couple is unmarried and the batterer is unemployed (Roberts 2002). More specifically, the Milwaukee police experimental study of 1,200 domestic violence cases indicated that among individuals with a high stake in conformity (married and employed), arrest reduces the annual rate of subsequent violence by 25.2 percent. Among those with a low stake in conformity (unmarried and unemployed), arrest is associated with a 53.5 percent increase in the annual rate of subsequent violence (Sherman 1992). Arrest alone does not deter domestic violence in the long term. Arrest and protective orders are an important part of a comprehensive approach to lessening and eventually eliminating domestic violence. However, a full continuum of services are necessary, including court-mandated batterers’ counseling, transitional housing, vocational training and placement, mental health treatment, crisis intervention, prosecution, and support groups.
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- ———. ‘‘The Organizational Structure and Function of Shelters for Battered Women and Their Children: A National Survey.’’ In Battered Women and Their Families, edited by A. R. Roberts, 2nd ed. New York: Springer Publishing Co., 1998, pp. 58–75.
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- ———. Ending Intimate Abuse: Practical Guidance and Survival Strategies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
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