Domestic violence falls by half

December 29, 2006|By Faye Fiore | Faye Fiore,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- In a sweeping study of crime in the American household, the Justice Department reported yesterday that domestic violence, one of the most common offenses against women, has fallen by more than half since 1993.

Assaults, rapes, homicides and robberies against a current or former partner dropped from about 10 per 1,000 women in 1993 to four per 1,000 in 2004, researchers found.

"It's a substantial decline in the amount of violence between intimates, that's the good news," said Michael Rand, chief of victimization statistics at the Bureau of Justice Statistics in Washington. "The bad news, of course, is there still is a significant amount of violence that occurs."

The downward trend in violence by intimate partners - a current or former spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend or same-sex partner - mirrors a decrease in violent crime nationally since the early 1990s, Justice Department officials said. While the study did not attempt to explain the decline in domestic violence, some experts have credited more vigorous law enforcement, increased education and an expanded network of services for battered partners, said Shannan Catalano, a bureau statistician and the report's author.

But she and others emphasized that the report might not reflect the true level of violence taking place behind closed doors. Indeed, the apparent decline could mean that women are choosing to suffer in silence rather than seek help.

If the rate of domestic violence has fallen, many experts in the field are not seeing it, said Gail E. Wyatt, professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioral sciences at UCLA's Semel Institute. She said shelters are filled and hot lines buzz with pleas for help.

"Are we really seeing a decrease? Or are we seeing that people are more reluctant to reveal these incidents because of the consequences?" Wyatt said. "Many of these intimate partners are still in relationships - they have mortgages, children, a life - and they don't see that incarceration will necessarily resolve the problem. Who's going to pay the bills?"

The two-year study was based on reported and nonreported instances against men and women. Researchers contacted a representative sample of American households identified through census data. Respondents were asked whether they had been the victim of a crime at the hands of a current or former partner, and whether they told the police or anyone else.

The results showed what society has long known - that women are far more likely than men to be battered or assaulted. While crimes at the hands of an intimate partner represented nearly one-quarter of violent assaults against women in the period of the study, they accounted for 3 percent of such incidents against men.

Domestic crimes against men fell, too, though less drastically, from 1.6 per thousand to 1.3 per thousand.

Women who were separated or divorced reported the highest rates of violence, while married women reported the lowest. But the researchers and others warned against presumptions that married women were less vulnerable, because they also might be least inclined to recognize violent behavior as abusive or to report it if they did.

"These women are still in the relationship, there is an emotional love connection; they may need the income. They may not see kicking, punching or beating as domestic violence," Wyatt said.

During the period studied, researchers found 627,400 nonfatal crimes by an intimate partner - nearly 476,000 of them against women. About one-third of those were serious violent crimes - sexual assaults, robberies and aggravated assaults - involving weapons and resulting in serious injury.

Homicides by a close partner fell, although more for male victims than female. The number of men killed by intimate partners dropped 45 percent, compared with a 26 percent decline in female victims.

Still, women were more likely to die at the hands of an intimate partner than any other group, with one-third of such killings attributed to current or former spouses and boyfriends. Women killed their male partners 5 percent of the time, the report found.

Native American and Alaskan Native women were victimized most often by a husband or boyfriend, with 18 assaults per thousand. Asian males, the elderly and white males reported the lowest rates of partner violence.

Poor women and those ages 20 to 24 were most vulnerable to violence by a partner or former partner.

An increase in nonfatal assaults against black women and white men in 2003 to 2004, the last year of the study, came as a surprise, Catalano said. The rate of nonfatal violence for black females increased 3.8, to 6.6 per 1,000 people. For white men, it nearly doubled, from 0.7 to 1.3.

"It's too soon to tell whether that represents an upward trend or an anomaly," she said, adding that the 2005 figures could shed more light in the coming year.

Esta Soler, president of the Family Violence Prevention Fund, called the overall decline in violence "positive and encouraging news" but added that three women a day on average were killed by their husbands or boyfriends.

"It is clear that violence against women remains a costly and devastating problem in this country. There is no question that we have a lot more work to do to keep families safe."

Faye Fiore writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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