Family violence has a level of complexity other violence doesn’t

Compared with many other violent crimes, the legal and social dimensions of domestic violence present several complications for effective legal control and intervention. Domestic violence differs significantly from other forms of violence in several important ways.

First, there are strong emotional ties between victims and perpetrators. The parties often love one another, or at least the victim may love the perpetrator. The bond may be traumatic, complicating victim resolve to enter into a lengthy adversarial proceeding to invoke punishments and creating internal conflict regarding separation. You and I know well the challenges of heading to court with a woman who wants to withdraw charges.

The victim may be financially dependent on the assailant or may face a severely diminished standard of living if separated. Arguably, she faces an economic life at or below the official threshold of poverty upon leaving the relationship. In times of recession it is worth pondering the restricted choices many victims of family violence might perceive having.

These ties to perpetrators may lead victims toward what they might consider more rational objectives. The bottom line for many victims of family violence are wanting guarantees for the safety for their children and themselves, to survive economically, or get counselling help for the person who is abusing them. This still ranks high on the hopes of those victimised, despite evidence at times that this is not a safe or realistic aim.  For example, the victim may feel calling in the Police may jeopardise what they are wanting achieved.

Secondly, domestic violence often is a recurring event between individuals in daily contact, usually without the forms of guardianship and surveillance that are available in public spaces. Unlike robberies, in which victims and offenders often are unacquainted, or other assaults involving acquaintances, victims and assailants often occupy the same space, share and compete for resources, and have emotional ties. In other words they have to go to bed together as well as get up the next day and face each other.

In this context, threats are readily conveyed and quite believable. On the other hand, it is extremely difficult to mount and maintain a deterrent threat within a context of ongoing and unsupervised contact between victim and the abusive person. One way that family violence courts have attempted to achieve this aim is by having perpetrators report back on progress. This develops a sense of ongoing accountability for behaviour.

Thirdly, the scale of domestic violence makes it difficult to control solely through legal sanctions and deterrent threats. The base rates remain quite high relative to other violent crimes, with self-reported domestic assault prevalence rates of at least 10 percent for both men and women. Prevalence rates exceed 30 percent for some subgroups. Domestic violence rates are highest among subgroups who also have high rates of stranger violence, further burdening limited police resources within spatial areas where assaults are concentrated. It has always been my view that if someone has an attitude that is supportive of violence within the public sphere, then these attitudes will carry through into the personal sphere of the home.

If we take just the New Zealand male population in the 15 – 34 age group from the 2006 New Zealand census the number of males equals 568,270. If the 10 percent base rate applies, then we are talking about 56,827 men who are being abusive. Or to put it another way, 56,827 women will have been on the receiving end of abusive behaviour. This is a frightening thought. We might need to take off several thousand women and replace these with men who are in same sex relationships. The rates of abusive behaviour are equally high within this population as well.

Many cases are unreported, and estimates of the extent of reporting to the police are as low as 20 percent. However, those who do report appear to be individuals who have few non-legal resources for protection or deterrence. Even if reporting were not increased, the high rates of domestic violence make it difficult for police to arrest every man who commits an assault against his partner, much less to arrest him every time he does it, without paralyzing their own agencies and the courts. In the face of a high base crime rate, police are challenged to maintain a credible deterrent threat in cases where arrests do not occur.

Finally, the deterrence logic of criminalization assumes a rational offender-actor who weighs the costs of offending—costs associated both with the act itself and the legal actions that ensue—against whatever benefits that may accrue from the behaviour. I see the Tui advert now – ‘I need to stop and consider the costs and benefits of my behaviour – yeah right.’

This logic is strained in the context of domestic violence. Although domestic violence has been interpreted as a goal-oriented and implicitly rational behaviour, episodes of high arousal during more serious assaults often obviate rational calculations and perceptions of costs. Studies with perpetrators in treatment suggest conditions of impaired cognition or mental disorder. The logic of deterrence is compromised among men who use violence whose behaviour is patterned over time and for whom rational calculations are not possible during the arousal of a violent assault. In the men I have worked with much of the violent and abusive behaviour has become habitual.

Domestic violence is unique in the concentration of risk factors and absence of formal controls for violence. Among violent men whose behaviours are increasingly spiralling out of control, the threat of punishment may be remote and inconsequential under conditions of arousal and cognitive distortion. Only the partnership and reciprocity between legal and informal social controls makes possible the control of domestic violence in general.

So what does this all mean? In summary, the importance of the sanction of arrest is important. However for some sub-populations of perpetrators, the deterrent of arrest will not be a significant factor. Reinforcement theory says that if I get away with the behaviour intermittently, then the behaviour is likely to remain. Any parent will tell the wisdom of this point. No, no, no, yes, no, no, yes – the child has won and will continue the behaviour because twice out of five times the behaviour has got them the desired outcomes. Family violence has desired outcomes – it gets you what you want.

Finally, there are outside (exogenous) influences on the effectiveness of sanctions that often are not addressed in research on domestic violence. For example, subcultural influences may overwhelm the effects of legal sanctions or treatments in motivating domestic violence. That is, high divorce rates may devalue marriage or coupling, weakening the informal controls on violence that work reciprocally with legal sanctions. Residential mobility, high rates of poverty, and weak social cohesion are dimensions of social disorganization that weaken informal social controls on violence generally and undermine motivations for compliance with the law.

Published on Friday, November 27th, 2009, under Family violence

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