Understanding the nature and scope of the problem of family violence has been a daunting task for researchers, government officials, and practitioners. Measuring the extent of a social problem as pervasive as family violence is complicated by a number of different factors. First, there is no uniform definition of what constitutes abuse and neglect or what relationships delineate family. State laws vary in their definitions, as do different research study designs. Second, intervention methods and reporting mechanisms have evolved to handle specific populations of abused persons, creating a very complex and fragmented picture of the overall magnitude of abuse within families. Systemic barriers have created fractionalization in the data, limiting researchers’ ability to understand the interrelationships that may exist within families and across systems. Third, even with appropriate reporting mechanisms in place, family members remain reluctant to report incidents of abuse. Various forms of family mistreatment are especially difficult to quantify, complicating the recall and documentation of acts of abuse. Therefore, reported cases of abuse or neglect represent only a fraction of the actual occurrence of mistreatment.
Research regarding family violence involves different areas of inquiry, including understanding the behavior patterns of family members, the consequences of abuse, the environmental or situational factors associated with maltreatment, and efficacy of various intervention strategies. Estimating the actual prevalence and incidence of family mistreatment has been a particularly arduous task, given the private sanctity of the family. Official estimates of the extent of family maltreatment are garnered utilizing two main categories of measurement: data, which reflect actual reports of mistreatment, and surveys, which attempt to capture incidents of abuse, whether or not they have been reported to authorities.
Official reports, generally prepared by governmental agencies, document cases of abuse and neglect that have come to the attention of officials. The Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) data compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) since 1930 is the official comprehensive measurement of crime in the United States. The UCR comes in the form of an annual nationwide summary of crime incidents known to the police. Crimes are categorized as Part I or Part II offenses. Part I offenses include murder, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson. A crime index is created with these eight offenses, whereby crime rates are calculated that allow for geographical and historical comparison. Part II offenses include twenty-one other less serious crimes and are recorded when the police make an arrest. The UCR system presents limitations in its ability to provide meaningful detailed information regarding family violence incidents, since it provides only summary counts of crime types known to the police.
The National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), developed in 1989 by the FBI, is intended to provide more detailed information about crime incidents. The NIBRS collects data on eight index crimes as well as thirty-eight other offenses, with specific details noted on the offense, victim, offender, and property. As of February 2004, twenty-four states have been certified to report crime statistics to the FBI in this venue. Sample findings suggest that the NIBRS will prove to be a useful tool in measuring family violence as its scope is expanded nationwide (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2000).
Reports of family maltreatment are also compiled periodically to estimate the extent of specific types of family abuse. The National Elder Abuse Incidence Study (NEAIS), conducted in 1996 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, estimates the extent of elder abuse by examining reports of elder mistreatment as documented by adult protective service agencies and other sentinel agencies that work with the elderly (National Center for Elder Abuse 1996). The National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, conducted in 1979–1980, 1986, 1993, and 2005, provides national estimates of the incidence of child abuse and neglect as recorded by child protective agencies and other sentinel agencies (see Administration for Children and Families [ACF] website). In 1994, the Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted a Study of Injured Victims of Violence from data collected from thirty-one hospital emergency rooms in which injured victims of violence sought medical treatment (Rand 1997).
Also, annual reports from various state agencies and local programs provide a reliable measure of reported cases of family maltreatment. For example, Medicaid Fraud Control Units Annual Reports (see Office of Inspector General website), Long-Term Care Ombudsman Reports (see Administration on Aging website), and the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) (see ACF website) compile data from reported cases. In addition, states document data on the number of fatal acts of family violence, criminal prosecutions, family court proceedings, etc.
Social surveys provide an opportunity to measure the occurrence of family violence, regardless of whether or not such acts were reported to the authorities. Self-reports, despite their research limitations, can more fully capture the experiences of victims and perpetrators and explore more unique dynamics of family relationships. Survey results confirm that incidents of family violence occur with much greater frequency than is evidenced by what has been officially reported.
The National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in cooperation with the U.S. Census Bureau, interviews more than 50,000 households, each twice per year, to estimate the occurrence of crime in the United States. Considered a major source of data on crime since 1973, this survey has been redesigned to better account for family-related crimes. The National Family Violence Survey, conducted in 1975 and 1985 by Murray Straus and Richard J. Gelles, provided data on a nationally representative sample and examines different family relationships using the Conflict Tactics Scales (CTS). The CTS tool is intended to measure a continuum of abusive behaviors within relationships, such as reasoning, verbal and nonverbal aggression, and physical violence (Straus and Gelles 1990). The National Violence Against Women Survey, conducted between November 1995 and May 1996, was sponsored by the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The telephone survey interviewed 8,000 women and 8,000 men in the United States regarding their experiences of being victimized by an intimate partner. It also examined victims’ experiences with the police, medical services, and the courts (Tjaden and Thoennes 2000).
- Administration for Children and Families website. Department of Health and Human Services. http://www.acf.hhs.gov/.
- Administration on Aging website. Department of Health and Human Services. http://www.aoa.gov/.
- Bureau of Justice Statistics. National Crime Victimization Survey. http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=dcdetail&iid=245.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation. Uniform Crime Reports and the National Incident-Based Reporting System. http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/ucr.
- ———. ‘‘The Structure of Family Violence: An Analysis of Selected Incidents,’’ 2000. http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/nibrs/nibrs_famvio95.pdf.
- National Center on Elder Abuse. National Elder Abuse Incidence Study, 1998. http://www.aoa.gov/AoARoot/AoA_Programs/Elder_Rights/Elder_Abuse/docs/ABuseReport_Full.pdf (accessed August 24, 2014).
- Office of Inspector General website. Department of Health and Human Services. http://oig.hhs.gov/.
- Rand, Michael. ‘‘Violence-Related Injuries Treated in Hospital Emergency Departments.’’ BJS Special Report. NCJ 156921. August 1997.
- Straus, Murray A., and Richard J. Gelles. ‘‘Societal Changes and Change in Family Violence from 1975 to 1985 as Revealed by Two National Surveys.’’ Journal of Marriage and the Family 48 (1986): 465–479.
- ———, eds. Physical Violence in American Families: Risk Factors and Adaptations to Violence in 8,145 Families. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction. 1990.
- Straus, Murray, Richard Gelles, and Suzanne Steinmetz. Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family. New York: Doubleday, 1980.
- Tjaden, Patricia, and Nancy Thoennes. ‘‘Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence,’’ 2000. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/181867.pdf (NCJ 181867).