Domestic violence programs have hidden beneficiary: men As services increase, fewer women retaliate

August 31, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

As a Baltimore judge handed a three-year prison sentence to her longtime boyfriend for the latest in a series of assaults against her, Denice Ringgold stood next to the prosecution table in Room 5 of the Eastside District Court. For a second, she smiled.

She thanked District Judge Alan J. Karlin and Assistant State's Attorney Bobbie Dickens, who both told her that bringing charges against Lawrence T. Bell -- 43 and no relation to the politician of similar name -- may have saved her life. But Ringgold, 39, knew better: It was Bell's life, not her own, that likely had been saved.

"I bought a gun recently," Ringgold said in the courthouse hallway, "and I was prepared to defend myself if the judge let him out and he hit me again."

Ringgold's case underscores a little-noticed result of programs designed to protect women from domestic violence: a precipitous drop in the number of men killed by their wives or girlfriends. The decline is so great that it has driven down the total number of domestic slayings nationwide, including male and female victims, by 36 percent over the past 20 years, government figures show.

Recent academic studies and a Justice Department report, released this spring with little fanfare, detail the phenomenon. In 1976, the numbers of women and men killed by their "intimates" -- the government's term for spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends and same-sex partners -- were fairly close: about 1,600 women and 1,400 men. By 1996, the number of female victims nationwide had slipped to about 1,300 a year, a 19 percent decrease.

But the number of men killed by their partners nationally had nose-dived to about 400 a year in 1996 -- a 70 percent fall. Police say the figures for Maryland and Baltimore City reflect the decline across America.

"As the society makes progress in violence against women, we've provided women with more services and resources," says James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. "And the biggest beneficiaries are men."

"That is a tremendous irony," says University of Missouri-St. Louis Professor Richard Rosenfeld, "that does not get all that much attention."

Women more aware

Rosenfeld and other scholars say the steeper decline in wife-kills-husband homicides shows, paradoxically, that efforts to raise awareness of domestic violence have been more effective in reaching women than men.

More than two-thirds of domestic slayings of men are, in fact, confrontations precipitated by violence from the victim, surveys show. In most parts of the country, police reports on domestic assaults against women are at or near all-time highs. But with more shelters, more domestic violence hot lines, and more responsive police, America's estimated 3 million battered women now have alternatives to striking back at their abusers, scholars say.

Contributing factors

Lawrence W. Sherman, chairman of the criminology department at the University of Maryland, College Park, cautions that there are contributing factors to the decline, besides increased domestic violence services. These include:

Gun control laws and public awareness of gun safety seem to have slightly reduced the risk of domestic homicide, according to Fox and the Justice Department study. The percentage of domestic slayings committed with guns has dropped from 71 percent to 61 percent in the past 20 years.

The slowing marriage rate, combined with changes in dating patterns, have reduced the number of intimate relationships, on average, in which young men and women are involved.

With more women in the work force, wives and girlfriends have the financial independence to leave abusive partners.

But recent research suggests that even when controlling for the above factors, the decline in domestic homicides represents an important success story for those American cities which have led the way in dedicating services and police to domestic violence.

Rosenfeld, the Missouri professor, and Carnegie Mellon University researchers recently completed a study of domestic violence in the 25 largest U.S. cities. Those with the longest-running and most extensive services for battered women saw the steepest decline in domestic slayings. Says Rosenfeld: "Cities have made enormous progress on this issue in just 20 years."

Baltimore's history of dealing with domestic violence encapsulates the progress American cities have made in the last generation, and the challenges that remain, researchers say.

When Charm City's shelter for battered women, the House of Ruth, opened in 1977, it was one of the first in the country. The Baltimore City state's attorney's office, under Kurt L. Schmoke's leadership, established a domestic violence unit in January 1983. But police and city officials acknowledge that they were slow to follow up.

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