Facing Up to Family Violence

By Chalk, Rosemary; King, Patricia A. | Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Facing Up to Family Violence


Chalk, Rosemary, King, Patricia A., Issues in Science and Technology


A concerted effort to understand the complexities of abuse and the effectiveness of treatments is essential to making homes safe.

For an alarming number of Americans, the family is a source of fear and physical violence. The 1996 National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect found 2.8 million reported cases of child maltreatment, a rate of 41.9 per 1,000 children. The rate of domestic violence, according to the most recent National Crime Victims Survey, was 9.3 cases per 1,000 adults. These cases involve both physical and psychological injuries that can extend long beyond the violent events themselves; family violence also contributes to the development of other social problems such as alcoholism, drug abuse, delinquency, crime, teenage pregnancy, and homelessness.

Society's traditional unwillingness to intervene in family matters has given way in the past few decades to a host of efforts to support and protect victims and to deter and rehabilitate offenders. We have witnessed the birth of shelters for battered women, special police units focused on domestic violence, victim advocates in the court system, guidelines for health care providers who see evidence of family violence, and a wide range of other services.

Many of these programs deal with the acute injuries and crisis nature of family violence, when the victim's needs are clearly visible. More recently, however, service providers and policymakers have been exploring how to develop prevention programs or treatment approaches that can address the long-term consequences of family violence. This shift from acute response to problem prevention and treatment is difficult, especially because the state of research knowledge about family violence and the effectiveness of interventions is not well developed, and service providers seek to balance multiple goals in meeting the needs of children and adults.

As society comes to understand the complex nature of family violence, it is becoming increasingly clear that simply identifying problems and responding to crises will not solve the problem. Many aspects of family violence need more attention. Parenting practices have proven to be highly resistant to change. When alerted to reports of child abuse or neglect, for example, social service and law enforcement agencies must struggle with how to respond to the safety and developmental needs of the child, maintain and support families challenged by instability and stress, and keep their services efficient and inexpensive. In addressing domestic violence, law enforcement agencies and others are looking closely at the comparative benefits of treatment and deterrence, and are often uncertain about how to balance victim safety, fairness for the accused, and community support. Elder abuse has also raised difficult questions about the benefits of separating family members when abuse or neglect has been reported, especially when the abused person is dependent on the relationship for important benefits.

But although serious gaps in our understanding of the origins and causes of family violence still exist, opportunities now exist to improve the nature and effectiveness of interventions in health care, social service, and law enforcement settings. As program sponsors, policy officials, and service providers move forward in building victim support and offender deterrence efforts, a series of challenges needs to be overcome to create an effective service delivery system and an adequate knowledge base that can guide policy and practice.

Problem discovery and crisis response

The origin of many of the current shortcomings in research can be traced to the way in which the problems of child maltreatment, domestic violence, and elder abuse emerged as a source of social concern. Traditionally defined as a social and legal problem, the issue of child abuse emerged as a topic of major medical concern in the early 1960s, when health professionals became aware that they could detect signs of chronic and traumatic abuse in young children in the form of healed injuries that were no longer visible. …

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