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January 21, 2004

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Richard Davis, ALM Understanding Domestic Violence
with Richard Davis, ALM

The many different faces of domestic violence

The lack of agreement in defining family violence has led to confusion and disarray in attempts to determine factors that cause or contribute to family violence.
    -- Harvey Wallace

The recent murder/suicide of Tacoma Chief David Brame and his wife Crystal have stimulated many diverse views of just what domestic violence is, what causes it, and what police departments should do about it.

Public policy is often driven by dramatic events such as the above murder/suicide or the “battered” victim that officers too often discover when they respond to a domestic violence call. However, for law enforcement officers domestic violence has many different faces.

Many deliberations about contemporary domestic violence interventions are so contentious they actually hinder not help progress. These contentious deliberations are most often the result of the fact that domestic violence remains different things to different people. Research professionals, domestic violence advocates, and police office continue to view domestic violence in dramatically diverse ways.

In early 1960, Dr. C. H. Kempe coined the term “battered child syndrome.” Society, after many failed attempts, began to accept that the majority of child abuse was not committed by strangers nor was it a problem only for “those at the lower end of the socioeconomic educational strata.” Many guilty of abusing children were their parents or other caretakers in the home.

It is universally agreed and unbiased data document that, concerning physical child abuse, males and females perpetrate equal levels of nonsexual abuse. This generally accepted accord allows a consensus that has helped facilitate progress.

The majority of contemporary domestic violence advocates who work with battered women assert that 95% of the victims are women and 5% men. Data from the National Institute of Justice document that 85% of the victims who report domestic violence incidents are women and 15% men. The National Violence against Women Survey reports that approximately two thirds of victims are women and one third men. The National Family Violence Surveys report that men and women abuse each other at approximately the same rate.

Harvey Wallace in his book, Family Violence: Legal, Medical, and Social Perspectives, writes on page 3, “How does one accurately study or research a phenomenon if a definition cannot be agreed on because the definition of any act both sets limits and focuses research with certain boundaries.”

None of the above data concerning percentage differences are indisputable facts nor are those who hold them to be true, wrong to do so. They are simply reflections of the reality that the majority of researchers, professionals, and advocates do not acknowledge a universal definition of domestic violence.

Regardless of this lack of agreement by researchers, professionals and advocates there is a universal definition of domestic violence. Domestic violence by civil and criminal statute law in all fifty states is child, sibling, spousal, intimate partner, and elder abuse. Domestic violence is not singularly and specifically violence against women nor is it only and exclusively “battering” behavior between adult heterosexual males and females. Too often contemporary domestic violence training does not reflect that reality.

The majority of contemporary domestic violence educational and training programs sponsored by the National Institute of Justice and/or the Violence Against Women Office are often limited to “battering behavior.” It is in the best interest of our public policy makers, the criminal justice system, advocates and victims to recognize that the majority of domestic violence calls officers respond to do not involve “battering behavior.”

The majority of researchers and professionals agree that multifaceted causes require different and distinct interventions. Research into the cause and consequences of domestic violence should not and cannot be limited by any “single ideological theory” or any “one label fits all” intervention.

Most researchers and professionals agree there are three principal models, each containing many sub groupings, that attempt to explain the reason why many who profess to love and care for each other often choose to neglect, abuse and batter their spouse, partner, or child.

The Feminist or Cognitive-Behavioral model
This approach explains that domestic violence mirrors the patriarchal organization of society and because of misogyny (the hatred of women by men) it is men alone or primarily who use violence to maintain their traditional dominate role in the family. It is proffered that the behavior of the male batterer is a result of sexism and culturally learned masculine mores and norms.

This training prepares law enforcement officers and others in the criminal justice system for battering behavior at the expense of ignoring all other forms of family violence. The message is quite clear, domestic violence is battering.

The Family Conflict model
The abuse is the result of family stresses or the acceptance of conflict to resolve disputes both in the family and the neighborhood. Abusers strive for an important or predominant role in the family. In this view any family member may contribute to the escalation of violence.


The Psychotherapeutic model
This model proffers that personality disorders, early traumatic life experiences, or other individual dysfunctions predispose some people to use violence in family relationships.

The Red Herring
While the vast majority of professionals agree that domestic violence is not a single model phenomenon, the majority of public policy, contemporary criminal justice intervention and batterer intervention programs are almost exclusively predicated upon the feminist model. This model often includes inflammatory rhetoric of sexism and misogyny that carries with it the assumption that all “domestic violence” is “battering” and that “battering” is not distinct from other “familial styled conflict.”

Biased, confrontational and adversarial styled training raises questions concerning objectivity and creditability. Almost universally law enforcement officers and others in the criminal justice system agree that the issue of domestic violence is far more complex than this contemporary “one label fits all” training.

Never the less, in many states the offenders regardless of age or gender, must be arrested or charged with domestic violence offenses because of mandatory arrest policies. The majority of males arrested, regardless of the behavior they exhibit, are placed in a Duluth or feminist styled batterer intervention programs.

This “one label fits all” approach of creates problems for female offenders who are arrested. In Colorado approximately 25% of those arrested for domestic violence are women and in some cities in New Hampshire it is as high as 33 percent.

Many advocates and domestic violence trainers argue those figures are far too high. However, these women and in fact many men are arrested because of mandatory arrest policies and the arrests are not for “battering” they are for “family conflict” violations.

Mandatory or preferred arrest policies remove the ability of responding officer’s to use reason and logic. The “one label fits all” approach also eliminates the time honored primacy of victim preference. Mandatory or preferred arrest policies do have some validity concerning battering behavior. However, they make little to no sense involving minor family conflict that also falls under the parameters of contemporary domestic violence mandatory or preferred arrest laws.

Impediments to progress have been created because the majority of domestic violence agencies and many public policy makers view domestic violence as a problem first, foremost, and primarily for adult heterosexual women. Some professionals conclude that violence against women is distinct and different from many other forms of familial styled violence.

It is generally recognized that the issue of unequal power and control influences all family violence, not only violence against women. The issue of unequal power, control and resources effects child, sibling, spousal, intimate partner, and elder abuse. The reasons for violence within the family most often reflect the various theories concerning violence in general.

Rather than contemporary “one label fits all” policies, procedures, and programs, there should be intervention, sanctions and programs that will educate the criminal justice system and batterer intervention programs about all the diverse forms of family violence. Both should then focus sanctions and programs towards the violent and chronic offenders. And because of limited resources, assistance should be provided first and foremost to victims who are marginalized by their socioeconomic and educational status and/or their lack of public, private, and familial resources and support.

Batterers and Their Victims
Most researchers and professionals agree that a “battered victim” is a victim whose life is thoroughly, extensively, and completely controlled by an abuser. The victim’s behavior is purposely altered to satisfy the abusers desires while they live in a familial or intimate partner styled relationship. The batterer manipulatively uses psychological methods, physical violence, economic subordination, threats, isolation, and a variety of other behavioral and controlling tactics to ensure the victim does what the abuser wants.

Sociologist and researcher Michael P. Johnson, in his many papers concerning “Conflict and Control,” labels this behavior “intimate terrorism.” At times only one partner is violent and controlling and the other is violent only while resisting an assault. There are other couples where both partners “mutual violent control” are both violent and controlling. Often this mutually violent behavior is fueled, not caused by, the abuse of alcohol and/or drugs.

It is important to understand that most victims do not rationally choose to stay in violent relationships. They often stay because they do not understand their problem is outside the mores and norms of society and/or why the relationship has gone wrong.

Some victims remain because they were raised in a violent home and/or neighborhood, thus the violence they face is not viewed as aberrant or abnormal. Some do not realize or understand they can leave. Some lack the education or economic resources to survive on their own. Some have little to no community support. Some will be ridiculed by their own family for leaving. Some believe that leaving will publicly document the shame they privately feel. Some mistakenly view the failure of the relationship as their failure. Some are concerned that the physical and emotional harm their children suffer may increase if they attempt to leave. And some, rightly so, fear greater physical abuse or death.

Unconditional love can keep some victims in relationships far too long. Some confuse sexually acts with acts of love and jealously and possessiveness with romantic behavior. Many who are used and abused believe that their abuser needs their help. Many learn that their abuser has been physically or sexually abused as a child.

Other victims remember that their family was loving and caring and they believe they must make their chosen relationships succeed. Some victims believe that their abuser is the person suffering and their abuser wants to, can and will change. Many being abused believe that if they can demonstrate to their abuser what unconditional love is, their abuser will stop the abuse. Many victims believe that their abuser, given unconditional love, will return that love.

Familial Styled Conflict Abuse
It is a fact that the majority of people who are married or who live in a familial or intimate partner styled relationship will occasionally struggle with individual or family problems. A lack of education and economic resources often create or exacerbate stress and conflict.

There are many types of psychological and physical tactics employed by family members or intimate partners, regardless of age or gender, who attempt to “get their way” in a specific or general disagreement. Too often in contemporary society, many family members accept this type of behavior as “normal.”

Johnson documents that this family styled conflict is the most common form of domestic violence and labels it “situational couple violence.” Johnson believes that this style of familial violence is most often documented in family violence surveys.

While the National Institute of Justice report the Full Report of the Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women, documents that most familial or intimate partner assaults are relatively minor it also concludes that “violence is more widespread and injurious to women’s and men’s health than previously thought.”

Family conflict does not always involve violent assaults or is family conflict always the result of a specific, long term, carefully crafted, well thought out pattern of controlling behavior. Data documents many minor forms of family conflict can be mutual behavior, regardless of age or gender.

The majority of adults, regardless of gender, still believe that it is appropriate to hit children in an attempt to change or alter their behavior. Other legal and socially accepted acts of abuse are hitting children with belts or other objects, corporal punishment in schools, and the subtle condoning of sibling violence as only the acts of children.

Family conflict can evolve from or be exacerbated by anger, anxiety, grief, abusive alcohol or drug use, stress, work issues, difficult medical decisions, and depression. Abusers are often people who are narcissistic, self-centered, lack self-control, and tend to seek self-gratification with little concern for the feelings of others.

Verbal abuse can hurt just as much as physical assault. Verbal abuse can escalate to physical assault. However, family conflict is not always frequent and does not specifically and constantly escalate to more serious and injurious physical assaults. Family conflict does not always involve a battered women and a male batterer. Family conflict is often the face of domestic violence presented to law enforcement officers and others in the criminal justice system.

Civil and criminal laws in all fifty states fail to distinguish between “battering behavior” and “family conflict.”

An Objective View
It is indisputable that both males and females can initiate domestic violence. However, most professionals and researchers agree that males, often because of their physicality, commit more injurious abuse and perhaps because of their mentality and physicality, males commit more sexual abuse. Data document that female victims are more likely to report or to suffer from some acts of family conflict than males.

Many offenders, regardless of gender, have been victims of physical or sexual violence and/or live in a violent home or neighborhood. These facts have rightfully been accepted as a reason for the behavior of some female offenders and continue to be commonly ignored concerning the behavior of male offenders. This does not mean that anyone who has been a victim or was raised in a violent home or neighborhood will become violent; it simply raises their risk factors of violence as either offenders, victims, or both.

Studies clearly note that more women than men suffer physically, emotionally and economically. However, all data document that women are not the only and exclusive victims nor are men the only and exclusive perpetrators. Intervention must be proactive, positive and inclusive, not reactive, negative and exclusive. It is time to agree that domestic violence occurs in a variety of forms and contexts.

About the author

Richard L. Davis completed studies in criminal justice management at LaSalle University. He has a graduate degree in criminal justice from Anna Maria College, and another in liberal arts with a concentration in history from Harvard University.

Contact Richard Davis.






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