For weeks, amid allegations involving several NFL players, domestic violence has been the focus of intense national attention. Does the turmoil reflect a worsening epidemic of domestic violence, or has the U.S. in fact made great strides to curtail it? The answer is complicated.
On one hand, domestic violence committed by intimate partners — current or former spouses, boyfriends or girlfriends — has declined by more than 60 percent since the mid-1990s, according to Justice Department figures.
Yet the dramatic decrease from 1995 through 2004 has largely stalled, with the numbers stabilizing at a level that appalls people in the prevention field. The latest federal figures for “serious” intimate partner violence — sexual assault or aggravated physical assault — showed 360,820 such incidents in 2013, or roughly 1,000 per day.
Meanwhile, many organizations that serve the victims are struggling to meet rising demand, particularly in the past few weeks since a graphic video surfaced of suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking his future wife unconscious in a casino elevator. Shelters are turning away victims for lack of beds and staff; the National Domestic Violence Hotline could handle barely half of the 8,500 calls that came during the eight days after the Rice video appeared.
“Statistically, are we improving?” asked the hotline's president, Katie Ray-Jones. “From a service standpoint, it doesn't feel like it.”
The sharp decline in domestic violence began soon after the 1994 enactment of the federal Violence Against Women Act, which toughened penalties for offenders, expanded training for law enforcement and improved services for victims.
However, that drop in domestic violence coincided with a comparable drop in virtually all types of violent crime. Janet Lauritsen, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said there's been no authoritative research to gauge the role of the federal act in curtailing domestic violence.
Kim Gandy, a former prosecutor who now heads the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said most law enforcement agencies have vastly improved their handling of domestic violence over the past 20 years, while public attitudes and understanding have lagged behind. She hopes awareness will increase as the NFL cases spark a national conversation on domestic violence that she described as unprecedented.
“People who never talked about it before are talking about it now, saying it happened in my family,” Gandy said. “It's an opportunity to begin removing the stigma from domestic violence, so victims will feel more free to tell their stories.”
Clearly, there's been a ripple effect. As debate arose over whether Rice's fiancee, Janay Palmer, should have married him after being slugged, thousands of women took to Twitter, under the hashtags WhyIStayed and WhyILeft, to share their own stories reflecting the sometimes difficult choice of whether or not to leave an abusive partner.
“I stayed because my pastor told me that God hates divorce. It didn't cross my mind that God might hate abuse, too,” tweeted writer Beverly Gooden on Sept. 8 as she called on her followers to join her in breaking the silence.
Even as awareness increases, there's concern as to whether prevention and support programs have adequate resources to meet demand. In many cases, advocates say they don't, due to a tightening of funding from various levels of government and from charitable donors.
In Indiana, for example, domestic-violence prevention advocates have mobilized in recent days to protest moves by the state government to cut or withhold hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for their programs.
Laura Berry, executive director of the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said most shelters in the state were forced to lay off staff because of budget cuts last year and have struggled to meet a surge of demand since the NFL crisis erupted.
At the two shelters in Indianapolis, about 10 people a day are being turned away due to lack of beds and staff, she said.
“If an individual finally decides to take the step to get free of abuse, it's unconscionable for us to say, 'I'm sorry. Maybe we can take you in a week, or five weeks,'” Berry said.
Another barometer: The National Domestic Violence Hotline said it received about 331,000 calls, texts or online contacts in 2013, but a further 77,000 calls went unanswered due to lack of staff.
Two federal agencies have sought to gauge the national scope of domestic violence.
A key document is the National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted annually by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, which collects information on crimes whether they've been reported to police or not. That's important because, according to the bureau, only about 55 percent of domestic violence incidents are reported to the police.
The latest survey tallied 748,000 instances of intimate partner violence in 2013, including about 360,000 classified as serious violence. By comparison, there were more than 1.7 million incidents of intimate partner violence in 1994.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has conducted large-scale surveys on intimate partner violence. It's 2011 survey, based on more than 12,700 interviews, estimated that 22 percent of women and 14 percent of men experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner — including acts such as being hit with something hard, being kicked or beaten, or being burned on purpose — at some point in their lives.
Andra Tharp, a health scientist in the Division of Violence Prevention at the CDC's Injury Center, said variations and inconsistencies in the available national data make it hard to predict future trends. She said a key to further reductions is early intervention with adolescents to cut down on high school dating violence that often is a precursor to domestic violence as adults.
“It's important to start in middle school, before the dating, before the violence, and talk about building healthy relationships,” she said.
Another much-needed step, said Kim Gandy, is for more star athletes to speak out on domestic violence.
“Celebrity athletes hold so much sway,” she said. “They could make a huge difference in young male attitudes toward masculinity and violence.”
The top administrator at the federal Office on Violence Against Women, Bea Hanson, cited the need for prevention efforts “that change social attitudes and break the cycle of violence before it begins.”
She said her office also is working to ensure that support services meet the needs of a diverse range of victims, regardless of age, race and sexual orientation. There's been heightened interest in such efforts amid reports of high domestic-violence rates among Native Americans and some parts of the gay, lesbian and transgender community.