The Criminalization of Domestic Violence: What Social Workers Need to Know

By Danis, Fran S. | Social Work, April 2003 | Go to article overview
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The Criminalization of Domestic Violence: What Social Workers Need to Know


Danis, Fran S., Social Work


Domestic violence is a crosscutting issue that affects the daily lives of people seeking social work services. During the past 20 years, the social science and criminal justice fields developed interventions designed to deter abuse and rehabilitate abusers so they will not abuse again. Central to these interventions has been the increasing role of the criminal justice system to enforce laws that regard the use of violence against one's intimate partner as a criminal act. Thus, domestic violence is viewed as not only a social problem, but a criminal justice problem. The criminalization of domestic violence (Fagan, 1996) refers to efforts to address the issue of domestic violence through the passage and enforcement of criminal and civil laws.

Based on a literature review from social science, legal, and criminal justice fields, this article provides an overview of criminal justice interventions to deter male batterers from abusing their female partners and to rehabilitate batterers found guilty of abuse. It reviews the effectiveness of police arrest, protective orders, prosecution, victim advocacy, court responses, batterer's intervention programs as a condition of probation, and domestic violence coordinated community responses. It also provides practical suggestions for practice with victims of domestic violence. Although same-sex and female-to-male violence does occur, interventions reviewed in this article focus on male-to-female violence.

Overview of Domestic Violence

Definitions of domestic violence usually are worded broadly to encompass a pattern of behaviors used by people who abuse their intimate partners, including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. However, from the criminal justice perspective, domestic abuse is more narrowly defined as "an act by a member of a family or household against another member that is intended to result in physical harm, bodily injury, assault, or a threat that reasonably places the member in fear of imminent physical harm" (Texas Department of Public Safety, 1998, p. 47). People who commit domestic abuse may be arrested and charged with numerous offenses, including homicide, assault and battery, criminal trespass, terroristic threats, stalking, and sexual assault (Miller, 1998). Depending on the severity of injuries or the use of a weapon, charges can be at either misdemeanors or felonies. Research on the characteristics of batterers is focused on developing typologies so that interventions and resources can be matched appropriately to offenders (see Gondolf, 1988 and Jacobson & Gottman, 1998). Risk factors for men who batter their partners include prior domestic violence or assault and battery arrests, prior arrests involving the same victim, and drug involvement (Healey, Smith, & O'Sullivan, 1998).

Official estimates of the incidence and prevalence of domestic violence have yielded consistent and troubling results. The National Violence Against Women Survey (Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998) estimated 5.9 million incidents of physical assaults against women annually, with approximately 76 percent of those incidents perpetrated by current or former husbands, cohabiting partners, or dates. Women's lifetime prevalence rate of male-to-female partner abuse is estimated at 14 percent to 50 percent (Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980). The National Crime Victimization Survey (Bachman & Saltzman, 1995) found that nearly 30 percent of all female homicide victims were killed by their husbands, former husbands, or boyfriends in contrast with just over 3 percent of male homicide victims killed by their wives, former wives, or girlfriends. Women of all races were equally vulnerable to attacks by intimates (Bachman & Saltzman). Domestic violence incidents needing emergency room treatment were four times higher than the estima tes of domestic violence that come to the attention of law enforcement agencies (Rand, 1997).

Links between domestic violence and public assistance (Brandwein, 1998) and child welfare (Bennett, 1999; Edleson, 1999) have been established.

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