THE many incidents of domestic violence in the United States, like frayed parts of a fabric, continue to challenge the viability of hundreds of thousands of families and relationships.
In an effort to stop more unraveling, Congress approved a plan in October to create a model antistalking law. The objective is to help states deal effectively with the estimated 200,000 people, mostly men, who stalk someone each year - usually an estranged wife or girlfriend.
Since 1990, when California passed the first antistalking law after actress Rebecca Schaeffer was shot and killed by a stalker, 29 states have followed suit - despite claims that some of the laws are not constitutional. Five more states are preparing such legislation. Studies indicate that the leading cause of injury today for American women is the result of being beaten by a man.
According to Sen. William Cohen (R) of Maine, the sponsor of the congressional bill, each year in the US an estimated 4 million men kill or violently attack women they live with, date, or were formerly intimate with. "Women who seek protection," he said when the bill was passed, "often face a judicial system that has traditionally viewed such violence as `domestic dis-putes.' "
Some argue that a pervasive male attitude that women should be subservient, and a judiciary inclined to see domestic violence not as a crime, but rather as a domestic issue, place many women in peril. Of all those women murdered by their ex-husbands or boyfriends, studies indicate that 90 percent had called the police at least once for protection, and more than half had called five times or more. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that 30 percent of female murder victims in 1990 were slain by hu sbands or boyfriends.
The congressional bill, signed by President Bush, directs the National Institute of Justice - a government criminal-justice research agency - to develop a statute against stalking that will be constitutional and based on recommendations from a number of law enforcement agencies and governmental public interest groups. Many law enforcement agencies could not take action against stalkers until now because they had not committed a crime.
The growing awareness of stalking as a crime is the product of recent, well-publicized deaths of several women. In suburban Boston, 21-year-old Kristin Lardner was shot to death by her ex-boyfriend on the street recently. Last week, two more women were slain here by stalkers.
Earlier this year in Elmhurst, Ill., a couple was shot to death in their driveway by a man who had been stalking the woman.
In Maine, a man who has been in and out of mental hospitals, and repeatedly violated restraining orders, has been stalking Kimberly Poland for eight years. He first saw her photo in a newspaper and continues to stalk her. (In most cases, the men do not have mental disorders.)
In Massachusetts, officials say at least 40 women have been killed this year because of domestic violence, with several deaths preceded by stalking. In Minnesota last year 26 women were killed in domestic violence incidents. Half of the Minnesota women had sought help from the state. "Whenever the woman takes a step to end an abusive relationship," says Janet Fine, chief of the Victim Witness Service in the Suffolk County, Mass., district attorney's office, "she is potentially at greater risk."
Typically, after being regularly battered, a woman obtains a restraining order against her abuser and tries to separate herself from him. In Massachusetts since September, when a new state record-keeping system went into effect, of the 2,000 restraining orders issued, more than a third had been violated in the first few days. Often the order triggers men to stalk and harass the women.
Michael Paymar, training coordinator with the Duluth, Minn., Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, says: "There are a certain percentage of men who are extremely afraid of the law."
A battered and frightened woman seeking to end such a relationhsip needs help and support. In Massachusetts, the legislature has earmarked funds for support necessitated by domestic violence.
"In the courts here where the greatest number of restraining orders are issued," Ms. Fine says, "we have a program to assist women and assess their level of risk. We can help them get to a shelter or figure out another safe plan for them and provide other kinds of services. But there are so many victims here, and nationally, too, that we are nowhere near where we should be in terms of services."
In Minnesota, Mr. Paymar says, "the state has committed a lot of money to shelters and legal advocacy for women." Transitional housing is provided to abused women. For some women a two-year program in an apartment style complex helps them reorient their lives. Duluth also has programs to try to reform perpetrators of violence.
Paymar says: "It has been sanctioned in society for a thousand years that a man has control over his woman.... We confront those beliefs and ask him where does he get the right to do it? What do you want a woman in your life for? You are depersonalizing her, humiliating and injuring her, yet you say you love her. It doesn't make sense. We help them learn how to live differently."