The tragic toll of domestic violence

“Everyone underestimates the extent to which we seek information that conforms to our beliefs and dismiss as cognitive dissonance information that doesn’t.”
— Dean Miller

On the last day of each year since 1992, the Boston Globe has had an editorial that, until this year, was titled “In Memoriam.” Each year the editorial lists the numbers of domestic violence homicides as presented to the Globe by the advocacy group Jane Doe Inc. Every year except for 2011, this editorial had been printed above the fold. Below are those numbers.

1992 – 44

1996 – 26

2000 – 19

2004 – 28

2008 – 21

1993 – 25

1997 – 22

2001 – 15

2005 – 14

2009 – 23

1994 – 31

1998 – 16

2002 – 20

2006 – 24

2010 – 30

1995 – 54

1999 – 27

2003 – 15

2007 – 39

2011 – ?

Although recent data provided by the National Violent Death Reporting System documents that more females and males die at their own hands from domestic-violence-precipitated incidents, these domestic violence related deaths are rarely mentioned by Jane Doe or the Globe on the last day of each year.

Law enforcement officers do not need researchers or surveys to explain to them that males commit more injurious or lethal assaults than females. Men continue to commit more injurious and lethal assaults than women and this has held true throughout the history of all societies

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) online report, “Homicide Trends in the U.S.” documents that serious and lethal assaults are a problem for males far more than they are for females. Males are approximately ten times more likely to murder and be murdered than females. Males are far more likely to kill themselves than to kill females. There is no question that males display injurious and lethal violence inside and outside the familial setting more than females.

What is also true is that females kill males far more often than females kill other females. Females commit more assaults against children than do men. Females kill males in family or intimate partner relationships more than they kill acquaintances or strangers. And females are more assaultive in the home than outside the home.

If the intent of researchers, interveners, and public policy makers is to prevent domestic violence deaths, they need to accept the fact that the causal factors of domestic violence are complex and multifaceted. Remaining fixated on a single silver bullet answer — arresting all the offenders regardless of severity will save lives - or myopic ideology for cause – the intent of these murders is to oppress women’s rights – can be more harmful than helpful.

The 2003 Massachusetts Domestic Violence Homicide Report (DVHR) documents some causal factors of domestic violence homicides and the homicide/suicides. These horrific homicides should demonstrate to the DVHR authors that there is little well reasoned or carefully thought out misogynistic behavior occurring that actually caused a single one of these homicides.

There is also a lack of any empirical evidence-based data in the DVHR that documents social norms are a primary cause of violence against women and that generalized social norms are a causal for intimate partner homicides. And oddly, the above homicide report calls for the transformation of these generalized “social norms, without noting in their report what any of these causal generalized social norm[s] are.

The authors, despite the lack of any empirical evidence-based data in their own study, continue to profess that domestic violence homicides are primarily caused by the above unnamed social norms. The DVHR demonstrates that remaining fixated on a single belief can create a cognitive dissonance that prevents interveners and researchers from discovering, recognizing or understanding the empirical evidence their own studies document.

Criminal data documents that while murder is the most serious form of criminal behavior, it is by far, the least common. In 1999 only 15,530 out of a total 11.6 million index offenses known to law enforcement were murders or non-negligent manslaughter. Hence, homicides amount to approximately only one-tenth of 1 percent of all crimes.

Criminologists and sociologists do not study murderers, familial or otherwise, to understand why misdemeanor crimes are committed. And criminologists and sociologists know full well it is improbable to impossible to study the behavior of a small subgroup of a population and then claim that the specific behavior of that specific subgroup is applicable to the entire population.

Domestic Violence Homicide
In the above BJS report, in the section, “The proportion of all homicides involving intimates by gender of victim, 1976-2005,” the data documents that prior to the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) from 1976 to 1993 the number of female intimate partner homicides decreased from 34.5 percent to 28.2 percent.

However, after the passage of VAWA and the implementation of federal and state sponsored “one-size-fits-all” intervention policies from 1994 to 2005 the same homicide report documents that the percent of non-intimate or unknown homicides of women continued to decrease from 72.0 percent to 66.7 percent while the number of intimate partner homicides of women during that same period increased from 28.0 percent to 33.3 percent.

This data seems to indicate that rather than being helpful, some of the reactive contemporary policies and one-size-fits-all law enforcement domestic violence interventions may be harmful for some families and hinder progress for others.

Another important study that seems to have been ignored by interveners, public policy makers and the media is the, “Exposure reduction or backlash? The effects of domestic resources on intimate partner homicide, final report.” This report documents that the increased number of domestic violence prosecutions have resulted in an increase in homicides for white married intimates, black unmarried intimates and white unmarried females.

This increase in homicides for some demographics certainly was not the intent of policies put in place by interveners or public policy makers. And the astonishing decrease of homicide victimization of 87 percent for black men between 20-44 years old was totally unexpected. There also is no explanation why the decrease is so different for white men. Despite the fact that this data should be used to shed some light on homicides in specific groups, neighborhoods or communities, it has been minimized or ignored.

There should be little doubt that the dramatic differences in the data clearly refutes the claim by interveners that everyone across the socioeconomic educational strata of society is equally affected by domestic violence and hence can be equally helped by contemporary one-size-fits-all domestic violence resources and intervention efforts. For all homicides the data demonstrates that as the socioeconomic educational demographics go up, the numbers of homicides go down.

Another study, “Does the Certainty of Arrest Reduce Domestic Violence? Evidence from Mandatory and Recommended Arrest Laws,” is often ignored or minimized by interveners, public policy makers and the media. This study documents that the homicides in states that have laws that mandate arrest for intimate partner incidents have increased by 54 percent. Those results are important and need to be understood if the intent of interventions is to save lives.

Homicide and Suicide
A recent report by the CDC “Surveillance for Violent Deaths — National Violent Death Reporting System, 16 States, 2005,” documents that 51.9 percent of female homicides and 8.8 percent of male homicides were precipitated by intimate partner violence. It also notes approximately 30 percent of suicides are precipitated by a problem with an intimate partner violence.

The above CDC report also documents a tragedy that remains under the radar of interveners, pubic policy makers and the media. Table 9 of the above report notes that of the 16 states reporting intimate partner violence that precipitated suicides, 2,031 of them were male and 439 female.

In the 1990’s approximately 30,000 people per year took their own lives. The CDC report suggests that it is possible that each year there are approximately 6,750 male and 2,250 female suicides that are precipitated by a problem with intimate partner violence. These deaths should be considered domestic violence related deaths and these deaths far exceed the number of domestic violence homicides.

Most domestic violence interveners and public policy makers provide little to no proactive intervention concerning domestic violence precipitated homicide/suicides. Perhaps it is time to consider more proactive interventions to prevent these types of homicide/suicides for potential victims and victim/offenders.

A report, “Reviewing Domestic Violence Deaths,” sponsored by the NIJ appears in the November 2003 issue of the NIJ Journal. This report notes that fatality reviews might lead to changes that could prevent future domestic violence related deaths.

Apparently, whoever edited the NIJ report did not notice that the author of the “Reviewing Domestic Violence Deaths” unwilling to mention a single male domestic violence related death by either homicide or suicide.

Approximately one of every three domestic violence homicides includes the intimate partner related suicide of the offender and that offender is most always male. Perhaps interveners and public policy makers might recognize that if they provide funding for studies concerning risk factors for suicide/homicides and resources for screening for the threat of suicide in intimate partner relationships, some of these homicide/suicides might be prevented.

The Globe editorial is correct and actions must be taken. However, those actions cannot be the same old actions that have taken place over the last 35 years that document little effect on the rise or fall of domestic violence homicides. Are not the homicides in Massachusetts alone enough to demonstrate contemporary reactive based criminal justice policies are not proactive nor preventative interventions?

There is not now nor has there ever been a scientific empirical evidence-based study that documents that reactive criminal justice policies are preventative in nature. Regardless of the severity of punishment intimate partner, family, acquaintance and stranger murders continue.

History is not simply an exploration of the past. The importance of history is that it helps explain the present and sometimes predict the future. One only needs to recognize and understand the failure of alcohol prohibition policies and the war on drugs to realize that we are not going to arrest and incarcerate our way out of our domestic violence quagmire.

Recommended Actions
Interveners, public policy makers and the media need to recognize there is no "bright line" that separate child, sibling, spousal, intimate partner, and elder abuse. The majority of violence both inside and outside the home is often linked by similar characteristics.

Recent research documents that coercive behavior or physical assaults do not spontaneously appear the first day children attend school. Nor does dating violence mysteriously arrive when young adults date. Intimate partner violence does not suddenly occur when dating couples reach adulthood or marry. Elder abuse does not inexplicably emerge when adults become elders. All of these behaviors occur across the lifespan between family members, intimate partners, peers, acquaintances and sometimes strangers, inside our homes and on the streets of our communities.

A National Research Council (NRC) report documents that too often research on familial violence against women has been isolated from the research of violence in general and the NRC urges an end to this almost total separation of research that can hinder, not help, the exploration of proactive solutions for all forms of violent and abusive behavior regardless of age, gender or sexual orientation.

Empirical research about violent behavior documents there are far more similarities than differences linking family, intimate partner, acquaintance, stranger violence and bullying behavior. One use of family violence often begets another. The cycle of violence will not end by breaking the middle or last link. Fragmented research, differing research methodologies and ideologically rather than empirical held beliefs have created as much confusion as clarity.

The Globe is right that the tragic toll of domestic violence deaths should spur action, however, that action needs to begin at the beginning and of course homicide is the worst end result. Interventions must end relying on unproven 20th century hypotheses and theories and a reactive criminal justice system if the goal is to reduce homicide.

Domestic violence is a human rights issue. Societies have a history of setting the rights of one group of people above or against the rights of another group. Domestic violence interveners, public policy makers, and the media need to understand that this “my group is more important than your group,” is a belief that the 20th century feminist movement railed against. There is little positive for us, regardless of age, gender or sexual orientation, in revisiting that 20th century divisive belief.

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