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Progress Watch

In US, big strides in reducing domestic violence

The rate of partner-to-partner violence dropped 64 percent between 1994 and 2010, a Justice Department report has found. The trend, almost unnoticed, stems from a broad shift in attitude toward domestic violence. 

By Staff writer / February 13, 2013

College students, dressed in wedding dresses, hold photos of domestic violence victims, on Feb. 8 in Miami, before marching in the annual 'Brides Walk.' Barry University hosted its third annual 'Brides Walk,' an event to raise awareness about domestic and dating violence among college and high school students.

J Pat Carter/AP

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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.

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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 matter.

“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 can’t help but notice a certain time stamp: 1994. That’s the year the United States passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), legislation that is now up for renewal in Congress.

“I’m willing to speculate [that] VAWA had a direct impact" on reducing intimate partner violence, says Ms. Meier, who also directs the university’s 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 Columbia.

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.

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