FOR several million American women, the hidden message in the framed cross-stitch motto on the wall might be: "Home Dangerous Home." Instead of being a refuge, home for them is a prison - a place where they endure verbal and physical abuse from husbands and boyfriends.
Domestic violence results in more than 1 million arrests each year. Three times that many violent domestic crimes - assaults, rapes, and murders - may go unreported. No wonder US Surgeon General Antonia Novello has stated that violence represents the biggest threat to women's health.
Amid these grim statistics, hopeful signs are emerging. After years of failing to take the problem seriously, lawmakers, courts, and police officers are devising ways to help battered women.
As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware has promised to make the proposed Violence Against Women Act his "No. 1 priority" next year. The bill calls for stiffer laws against domestic abuse and permits women to bring civil cases for these attacks.
In Massachusetts, where court orders restraining abusers from contacting their victims have reached record numbers, a new computerized registry enables judges and police to tell whether a restraining order has already been filed. If an abuser ignores a restraining order, a judge can immediately issue an arrest warrant.
In Sussex County, N.J., charges of spouse abuse cannot be dropped once filed. Cases must be resolved in Family Court by a judge and must continue until one or both parties get help.
In Tampa, Fla., a program called Aware (Abused Women's Active Response Emergency) gives battered women a pendant with a silent alarm. Pressing the button signals security dispatchers, who then call the police.
Other needs, such as more shelters for battered women, remain urgent. Shelters, sophisticated technology, and monitoring efforts must continue to expand. But they can never solve the underlying problem: the need to change attitudes and behavior.
When abusers have been willing to enter rehabilitation programs, the results have been encouraging. But too often abuse is regarded fatalistically as a closed circle, a cycle doomed to repeat itself, sometimes from generation to generation.
In each troubled relationship it should be remembered that before abuse there was - to some degree - love, or at least a relationship undertaken as a mutual support. If lost respect for another can be even partially regained, both the abuser and the abused will be released from their domestic prisons.