Perceptions of Domestic Violence: A Dialogue with African American Women

Article excerpt

Domestic violence undermines healthy African American families and communities. Although empirical research has accumulated over the past 20 years regarding African Americans and domestic violence, many questions remain about African American perceptions of domestic violence. Without understanding how African Americans understand domestic violence and perceive its impact, it is impossible to create effective programs and intervention strategies that fully address this critical dilemma. This article explores African American women's perceptions about domestic violence through three focus groups held at a New York social services agency.

Domestic violence poses serious mental and physical health risks. In fact, it is estimated that"more than 1.5 million women nationwide seek medical treatment for injuries related to abuse each year" (Stark, 2001, p. 347). Those who are abused can experience mental health issues, such as anxiety attacks, posttraumatic stress disorder, chronic depression, acute stress disorder, and suicidal thoughts and ideation (Schornstein, 1997; Valentine, Roberts, & Burgess, 1998).

Some physical consequences of abuse include rape, unwanted and aborted pregnancies, stress-related illnesses, increased substance abuse, pregnancy complications, suicide attempts, and homicide (McFarlane, Parker, & Soeken, 1996; Rodriguez, Quiroga, & Bauer, 1996; Stark, 2001; Sugg & Inui, 1992). The medical community has acknowledged the severity of health risks that result from domestic violence (American College of Emergency Physicians, 1995; American College of Physicians, 1986). In fact, "domestic violence is the leading cause of injuries to women between the ages of 15 and 44 and is more common than muggings, auto accidents, and cancer deaths combined" (Boes, 1998, p. 206). One of four women die each year due to domestic violence (Mills, 1998). Of women receiving emergency room services, 37 percent have been injured by an intimate partner (Rand, 1997) and "14% to 28% of women attending primary care clinics [and] 4% to 17% of women attending prenatal clinics" (Rodriguez et al., p. 153) have been identified as experiencing domestic violence. The costs of battering for health care are alarming. Partner abuse is estimated

"in the most severe cases ... [to] cost more than $44 million annually and result[s] in 21,000 hospitalizations with 99,800 patient days, 28,700 emergency department visits, and 39,900 visits to physicians each year" (Stark, p. 347). The general health considerations are staggering and even more alarming for African Americans.

Although domestic violence cuts across race, socioeconomic status, education, and income distinctions (Straus & Gelles, 1986), it has been estimated that African Americans experience a disproportionate amount of domestic violence compared with white Americans (Hampton & Gelles, 1994; Rennison & Welchans, 2000). The National Black Women's Health Project identified domestic violence as the number one health issue for African American women (Avery, 1990). Yet, African Americans do not necessarily perceive domestic violence as an issue of concern (Briggs & Davis, 1994; White, 1994).

In addition to the mental health risks, identity crises have been attributed to African American women experiencing domestic violence (Richie, 1996; West, 1999). African American women are at a greater risk than white women of contracting HIV as a result of domestic violence (Kalichman, Williams, Cherry, Belcher, & Nachimson, 1998; Wyatt et al., 2000). The proportion of deaths and serious injuries resulting from domestic violence is also greater in African American communities (Fagan, 1996). African American women are more likely to kill a partner and are, at the same time, twice as likely to be killed because of domestic violence than white women (Plass, 1993). Two explanations for this reality are that African American women are less likely to seek assistance for domestic violence (Staples, 1986) and they may not perceive themselves to be in danger (Browne, 1987). …