Flawed data on domestic violence Domestic violence: Incomplete data make prevention, response more difficult.

January 13, 1996

THE PROBLEM OF domestic violence has gotten an increasing amount of attention in recent years. But efforts to prevent abuse and craft appropriate public policies in response to it are hampered by a simple fact: Because of inconsistent and incomplete data, nobody really knows how extensive the problem in this country really is, or what responses are most effective.

Anecdotal evidence is important in grasping the peculiar nature of this problem -- from the insidious psychological effects on those who watch such behavior, particularly children, to the horrendous physical toll it can take on direct victims. But hard data are crucial to good policy responses. In how many households does this violence occur? How often are arrests made after the police are called or complaints are logged? Are there trends or patterns in these complaints, such as an average ages or income levels? How often is abuse of drugs or alcohol a factor? These are the kinds of questions for which policy makers need better answers.

Unfortunately, a patchwork of policy responses around the country is matched by helter-skelter reporting patterns in the states. A recent national survey of domestic violence statistics found that, of 44 states responding to the survey, 33 complained of poor participation from police departments in reporting statistics, while 39 said they often got incomplete reports. The report, commissioned by the Department of Justice, comes as federal funds are being made available to the states for efforts to counter domestic violence.

But, as the survey suggests, until states know the extent of the problem -- and agree on ways to track their various initiatives -- it will be difficult to know what works and what doesn't work. In an era when government funding is becoming a scarce commodity, it would be tragic for a lack of dependable data to undermine efforts to do something about a problem that remained hidden for too many years.

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