A bruised cheek. A broken bone. Verbal battering. A window
shattered in an effort to intimidate. The rate of such violence or
abuse between husband and wife or any two intimate partners has
been on the wane in America, falling by a stunning 64 percent
between 1994 and 2010.
That finding, from a recent report by the US Department of
Justice on intimate partner violence (IPV), parallels the overall
drop in violent crime during that period. Many in the field cite a
broad shift in attitudes that began in the 1980s and '90s, crediting
public awareness campaigns, national legislation protecting victims,
and subsequent training of police and prosecutors to recognize
intimate partner violence as a crime, rather than as a private
There has been an enormous shift in public awareness about
domestic violence the message [to victims] being you are not alone
and you can report what is happening to you to law enforcement, says
law professor Suzanne Goldberg, director of Columbia University's
Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. The message to perpetrators,
meanwhile, is that violence against an intimate partner is not a
badge of manhood, she adds.
But even as they celebrate the progress, most analysts warn that
more needs to be done to prevent such abuse, which encompasses
recurring verbal, physical, psychological, and sexual mistreatment
between partners of all ages and sexual orientations. Not enough
analysis has been done to know the precise cause of the decrease,
says Janet Lauritsen, professor of criminology and criminal justice
at the University of Missouri - St. Louis. Moreover, IPV rates have
been stabilizing since 2001, a sign that it's not time to rest easy.
A breakout law?
When Joan Meier, professor of clinical law at George Washington
University, looks at the data, she cant help but notice a certain
time stamp: 1994. Thats the year the United States passed the
Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), legislation that is now up for
renewal in Congress.
Im willing to speculate [that] VAWA had a direct impact" on
reducing intimate partner violence, says Ms. Meier, who also directs
the universitys Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals
Project. Because of VAWA it became more widely understood that this
violence is a crime and is unacceptable.
VAWA funds police IPV sensitivity trainings, as well as legal
services such as issuing restraining orders and representing
victims. Perhaps more important, some say, VAWA provided momentum
for states to adopt mandatory arrest laws governing cases in which
police suspect domestic violence, based upon evidence and probable
cause. These laws now exist in 22 states and the District of
Others, though, are not so sure about mandatory arrest laws. They
say the laws may cause victims of intimate partner violence to be
reluctant to report the abuse, perhaps because the victim or the
abuser is in the US illegally or because they do not want to see
their partner go to jail, despite the risks at home.
There's also mounting evidence that the risk of domestic violence
is reduced in communities where per-capita levels of police and
social services are relatively high, whether or not those places
have mandatory arrest laws, according to a November 2012 study in
the journal Criminology. As cities and states confront budget
pressures amid a lackluster economy, cuts to police departments and
social services could result in more IPV victims, some say. …