Family Violence

Family ViolenceFamily violence has existed for centuries and remains a daunting social problem today. Traditionally, much of what occurred within the home was considered the concern of the family, not the state. The women’s movement focused attention on both domestic violence and child abuse, paving the way for new legislation and social action. Public concern with elder abuse is even more recent. arising primarily in light of a few widely reported cases. Family violence, which is associated with many societal ills (such as delinquency, depression, and substance abuse), occurs in all social classes and ethnicities, although poverty is one risk factor.

Family Violence Definitions

Spousal or partner violence can range from mild physical aggression, such as pushing or slapping, to violent physical assault and homicide. It also includes spousal or partner rape. Child and elder maltreatment are divided into two categories: intentional acts of commission (abuse) or omission (neglect). Physical abuse is defined as non accidental acts of commission by an adult that leave signs of physical harm. Physical abuse can vary from overzealous spanking or hitting to acts that break bones or cause death. Physical neglect consists of failure to provide the proper or necessary care or support for a child or elder person’s well-being. Acts of neglect include inadequate nutrition, abandonment, and refusal of needed medical care. Sexual abuse is defined as sexual interactions with a child or nonconsensual adult for purposes of sexual stimulation. Examples include rape, incest, sodomy, oral copulation, fondling, and exhibitionism. Psychological or emotional maltreatment is especially difficult to define. However, psychological maltreatment of children consists of acts of omission or commission that damage immediately or ultimately behavioral, cognitive, affective, or physical functioning. Examples of psychological maltreatment include acts of rejecting, terrorizing, isolating, exploiting, and promoting antisocial or illegal behavior (gang membership and drug use, for example).

Child Maltreatment

Reports of and responses to maltreatment of children have both changed over time.


Reports to Child Protective Services (CPS) provide one prevalence estimate of child maltreatment. Nationally. in 1997. CPS received nearly 3 million reports. However, on average, only 33% of these cases were “substantiated” (CPS determined that abuse had occurred) , resulting in nearly one million substantiated child victims (approximately 55% reported for neglect, 24’Yo for physical abuse, 1 3% for sexual abuse, 6% for emotional maltreatment, 2% for medical neglect, and I2% for “other” forms of maltreatment, including abandonment and congenital drug addiction). Between three and five children are killed each day in the United States as a result of child abuse. Since the late I 9 70s, reports of child maltreatment to CPS have skyrocketed; nationally, there was a 3 3 1 % increase from 1 9 76 to 1993. Mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse and heightened public awareness probably explain the increase, as opposed to increases in maltreatment itself. However, proportionally, reports to CPS of child sexual abuse declined in 1 995 to 1 9 9 7 compared to preceding years. It may be that growing concerns about false reports are leading people to be either more skeptical of abuse allegations or more hesitant to report their suspicions. Random sample survey studies may provide better prevalence estimates than reports to CPS (because many incidents are not reported to the authorities), although random sample surveys are not without their problems as well. Surveys report mainly physical and sexual abuse. Based on parental self-report, survey studies indicate that about 700,000 children in the United States were subjected to severe violent behavior in 1 9 8 5 , but that these rates decreased somewhat in 1992. Although the lower rates reported for 1992 are encouraging, such statistics may still represent an underestimation because parents were hesitant to report abusive acts. When 10- to I6-year-olds themselves are interviewed, approximately 7.5% report at least one incident of physical assault by a family member. Nonfami1y assaults (22%) were more frequent than family assaults.

Estimates of the prevalence of sexual abuse vary depending on how sexual abuse is defined (for example, if exhibitionism is included). Moreover, retrospective studies, which are common, suffer from cohort effects and respondents’ memory biases and candor. According to community surveys 3 8 to 54% of women report experiencing at least one episode of sexual abuse before age 1 8 ; 12% report experiencing abuse before the age of 1 2 . However, when 1 0- to I 6 -year-olds were interviewed, the lifetime rate of attempted or completed sexual victimization was IO.5’Yo, considerably lower than that indicated in retrospective studies of adults. The retrospective nature of the adults’ reports and the young age of some of the teenagers surveyed, as well as differences in cohorts’ definitions of sexual abuse may account for the age-related differences noted.

Legal Response

Given widespread use of corporal punishment by parents, teachers, and clergy, it is possible that the average child of the past would be considered a child maltreatment victim today. Laws originally focused on nonparental assault or on orphaned or delinquent children. In 1 8 75 , however, a dramatic case of an adopted and abused child named Mary Ellen in New York led to greater state intervention. Under laws intended to protect animals (not children) from abuse by legal caretakers. attorneys were successful in having Mary Ellen removed from the home. Gradually, every state developed a CPS division for handling intrafamilial child maltreatment cases, to which any citizen could report suspected child abuse. Later. in the I 960s, C. Henry Kempe’s paper on “the battered child syndrome,” showing that some children’s injuries would be nearly impossible through accidents, spurred establishment of mandatory reporting laws nationwide. Mandatory reporting laws differ from state to state but generally require professionals who work with children to report suspicions of child abuse to authorities.

Often CPS is the state’s sale public agency for receiving and investigating reports of maltreatment of children within familial, foster care, and daycare settings. If a child is found to be in imminent danger, he or she may be immediately removed from home. Children who are left in abusive homes have a 40 to 70% chance of being reinjured and as much as a 5% chance of being killed. If services (such as substance abuse counseling) are deemed appropriate, they will be offered. If the child is removed or if needed services are refused, the case will be heard in juvenile court. Juvenile court can maintain custody of the child, place the child in foster care, and terminate parental rights, although it cannot directly punish parents.

Assaults on children can also be reported to the police. If extrafamilial abuse has occurred or intrafamilial abuse is severe, prosecution may be initiated within the criminal justice system. Penal codes in each state describe laws covering child abuse. Many more child maltreatment cases are handled by juvenile than criminal courts, but charges of child sexual abuse are particularly likely to result in criminal court action.

Especially in child sexual abuse cases, where physical evidence of assault is often lacking, children may be repeatedly interviewed by authorities or required to testify in juvenile or criminal court. Questions about how to conduct a forensic interview with children and about children’s memory accuracy have sparked debate in recent years. [See Children’s Eyewitness Testimony.] It has also been suggested that involvement in forensic interviews and prosecutions exacerbates the trauma caused by child abuse. In the short-term. involvement as victim/witnesses in the criminal court is associated with prolongment of emotional distress for a subset of children. The possibility of long-term effects into adulthood is just beginning to be studied. Several legal innovations. such as testimony via closed-circuit TV and joint interviews across CPS and police agencies, have been recommended to ease children’ s ordeals.

Spousal/Partner Abuse and Elder Maltreatment

Reports of maltreatment of adults are also significant.


Like estimates of child maltreatment, estimates of partner and elder maltreatment depend on whether official reports or random sample surveys are utilized. The latter suggest that only a fraction of all incidents of domestic violence or elder maltreatment are brought to the attention of authorities, with reports of elder maltreatment being especially low. One well-regarded random sample survey indicated that nonfatal partner abuse occurs in one out of every six households in the United States annually, with violent assaults occurring in 1% of households. Across studies, between 10 and 30% of women indicate they experienced some form of relationship violence. Incidents of spousal or intimate rape range from 1 to 10% of women reporting that their current husband or romantic partner attempted to force them to have sex. Marital rape appears to co-occur with other forms of domestic violence.

Regarding elder maltreatment. one study found that of 1000 elderly persons. approximately 32 had been victims of some form of maltreatment. The abuse was most often perpetrated by a spouse, although elders’ adult children composed one fifth of the perpetrators. Male caregivers were more likely than female caregivers to perpetrate elder abuse. Among elders, cognitive or emotional difficulties, deterioration, and dementia are risk factors for abuse or neglect.

Legal Response

For domestic violence, legal response mainly involves the criminal justice system. Only relatively recently have police and legal professionals taken a firm stance in prosecuting perpetrators of domestic violence. Following horrific stories of domestic abuse and inadequate legal intervention (e.g., Thurman v. City of Torrington, Conn. ) , state and federal legislation was passed to ensure anyone who commits a violent act against another, regardless of their relationship, is prosecuted. For example, states no longer include spousal exceptions in their rape laws. Police are also now able to make arrests when they have probable cause to believe that a person committed a misdemeanor domestic violence crime. Furthermore, many states have enacted mandatory arrest laws for perpetrators of domestic violence and implemented mandatory overnight incarcerations or cooling-off periods so that the perpetrator is not released immediately after being arrested.

Currently, there is considerable debate about the effectiveness of mandatory arrests in preventing further domestic violence. The utility of mandatory arrests was dramatically shown in a Minneapolis study. When police arrested the perpetrator, the recidivism rate was only r o%, whereas when police either implemented a separation period by having one person leave or performed on-sight advice/mediation, the recidivism rate was 25’X,. Although these findings sparked a widespread campaign for mandatory arrest policies, the Minneapolis results have not always replicated. Also, when perpetrators are unemployed or when the violence is severe, mandatory arrests may be associated with an increase in subsequent domestic violence. Mandatory arrest effectiveness also appears to be influenced by ethnicity. Some recommend that police be given both special training to deal with domestic violence calls and “structured discretion” to make warrentless arrests when they believe that it will help resolve a current crisis and prevent further violence.

Other recent legal responses focus on interventions following initial police contact. These reforms include civil protection orders (restraining orders), special prosecution units, and treatment for batterers. However, these responses have met with mixed success. For instance, victims of domestic abuse often report that restraining orders do not help, and despite the existence of special prosecution units for domestic violence, rates of actual prosecution remain fairly low. Among those prosecuted, rates of recidivism are not generally affected, although there appears to be a reduction in recidivism when victims initiate and remain actively involved i n the prosecution. A t times, abused partners resort to violence: Years of enduring domestic violence has been used as a defense when the formerly abused partner kills the abuser, even when no immediate violence co-occurred.

For elder maltreatment, legal response has typically relied on civil litigation. Although both state and federal legislation have addressed problems of elder abuse and mandatory reporting laws exist, to date, much less is known about the effects of legal intervention. Furthermore, social service agencies remain in need of specific training on how to intervene in situations of elder abuse.

Given increasing public attention to family violence, prevalence estimates and legal interventions may continue to change. Prevention of family violence remains a crucial societal goal.


  1. Briere, J., Berliner, L., Bulkley, J., Jenny, Coo & Reid, T. (1995). The APSAC handbook on child maltreatment. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  2. Browne, A. (1993). Violence against women by male partners: Prevalence, outcomes, and policy implications. American Psychologist, 48, 1077-1087.
  3. Buzawa, E. S., & Buzawa, C. G . (Eds.). (1996). Do arrests and restraining orders work? Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  4. Fagen, J. & Browne, A. (1994). Violence between spouses and intimates: Physical aggression between men and women in intimate relationships. In A. J, Reiss Jr. & J, A . Roth (Eds.) , Understanding and preventing violence: Vol. 3. Social influences (pp. 115-292). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  5. Garner, J. & Fagen, J. (1997). Victims of domestic violence. In R. C. Davis. A. J. Lurigio. & w. G. Skogan (Eds.) , Victims of crime (pp. 53-85). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  6. Goodman, G. S., Emery, R., & Haugaard, J. (1997). Developmental psychology and the law: Divorce, child maltreatment, foster care, and adoption. In W. Damon (Series Ed.) & I. Sigel & A. Renninger (Vol. Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Child psychology in practice (pp. 775- 874). New York: Wiley.
  7. Kaplan, S. (Ed.). (1996). Family violence: A clinical and legal guide. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.
  8. Kapp, M. B. (1995). Elder mistreatment: Legal interventions and policy uncertainties. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 13, 365-380.
  9. Kempe, C. H., Silverman, E, Steele, Boo Droegemueller, W. , & Silver. H. (1962). Battered child syndrome. Journal of the American Medical Association, 181, 1 7-24.
  10. Ohlin, L., & Tonry, M. (Eds.). (1989) . Family violence. Crime and justice: A review of research (Vol. II). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  11. Schuller, R. A. , & Hastings, P. A. (1996). Trials of battered women who kill: The impact of alternative forms of expert evidence. Law and Human Behavior, 20, 167-187.
  12. Walker, L. E. A. ( 1996). Assessment of abusive family spousal relationships. In E W. Kaslow (Ed.) , Handbook of relational diagnosis and dysfunctional family patterns (pp. 338-356). New York: Wiley.

Back to Developmental Psychology