Domestic abuse is a type of violent crime that deals with abuse within the family structure. Almost 95 percent of domestic violence victims are women, although individuals of either gender can be perpetrators of domestic violence. In many states, domestic abuse is categorized as a distinct crime. Accordingly, if a husband strikes his wife or otherwise causes her harm, he could be charged with both domestic abuse and assault and battery.
Cycle of Violence
While some states categorize even isolated instances of violence as domestic abuse, many states consider domestic abuse to arise out of a larger pattern of violence and intimidation. Thus, it is sometimes defined as a pattern of actions where one family member seeks to wield power, authority, and intimidation over someone else in the household in order to control the behavior of other family members. This often results in repetitive actions of psychological or physical abuse that are sometimes described as a “cycle of violence.” Since domestic abuse arises out of an abuse of authority, rather than any specific gender dynamic, it can take many forms in a family. Domestic abuse may be perpetrated by a husband or wife, against children or elderly family members, and may arise in opposite-sex or same-sex relationships.
Forms of Violence
Although domestic abuse is often perceived as resulting in physical harm, such as a man punching or hitting a woman, it has many other insidious forms. Domestic abuse may be psychological or emotional, arising out of continued threats, constant criticism, humiliation, or repeated efforts to undermine another individual’s sense of self-worth. It may also arise in the context of imposed isolation, when a family member is forcefully isolated from others and made psychologically dependent on his or her abuser.
Another common form of domestic abuse is economic abuse. This form of abuse is particularly common in relationships where one family member may not have the authorization to work legally in the United States. The abuser thus places the victim in a position where he or she is entirely financially dependent on the abuser and subject to the abuser’s complete control. If the victim upsets or disobeys the abuser, he or she may be denied access to the money or goods necessary to support basic needs.
Finally, domestic abuse may also take the form of sexual abuse, including control over reproductive strategies and forced sexual contact, such as rape.
Violence Against Women Act
In addition to state laws addressing domestic abuse, in 1994, the federal government passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which makes it a crime for an intimate partner, parent, or guardian to use or attempt to use physical force against a victim, or to threaten the use of physical force. The VAWA provides for the implementation of domestic violence units throughout the country and provides training to law enforcement on how to address incidents of domestic violence. It also sets forth a framework for victims to seek domestic restraining orders against their abusers and requires the recognition and enforcement of these orders in all states.
The VAWA also addresses the unique vulnerabilities of immigrant victims who may face threats or intimidation by their abusers based on their lack of legal status in the United States. Under VAWA, these women may apply for special visas specifically designed to provide undocumented immigrants who are the victims of domestic violence with legal status in exchange for their cooperation in prosecuting their abusers.
Victims of domestic abuse may pursue several types of civil and criminal actions against their abusers, including claims of assault and battery, aggravated assault, or even attempted homicide. One common remedy is the use of a restraining order, which prohibits an abuser from coming within a specified distance of the victim and sometimes the victim’s family members. Restraining orders require the abuser to distance himself or herself from the victim and to cease all contact. They are often an effective method for keeping victims safe from violence. Depending on the context of the abuse, restraining orders may also require that the abuser undergo certain counseling or give up possession of firearms or other deadly weapons.
Have a Safety Plan
If you are a victim of domestic abuse, have a plan BEFORE you leave. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence recommends you create a list of important items to take with you, including:
Medication and other essentials
For more help on leaving an abusive relationship safely, call the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence hotline at 1−800−799−7233.