What is Domestic Violence?

Historically, domestic violence has been framed and understood exclusively as a women’s issue. Domestic abuse affects women, but also has devastating consequences for other populations and societal institutions. Men also can be victims of abuse, children are affected by exposure to domestic violence, and formal institutions face enormous challenges responding to domestic violence in their communities. The effects of domestic violence on victims are more typically recognized, but perpetrators also are impacted by their abusive behavior as they stand to lose children, damage relationships, and face legal consequences. Domestic violence cuts across every segment of society and occurs in all age, racial, ethnic, socio-economic, sexual orientation, and religious groups. Domestic violence is a social, economic, and health concern that does not discriminate. As a result, communities across the country are developing strategies to stop the violence and provide safe solutions for victims of domestic violence.

Domestic Violence: How to Get Help

If you are being abused, get help. The longer the abuse goes on, the more damage it can cause. You are not alone. There are people who will believe you and who want to help. In the United States, victims of crime, regardless of their immigration or citizenship status, can access help provided by government or non-governmental agencies, which may include counseling, interpreters, safety planning, emergency housing and even monetary assistance. If you cannot afford to pay a lawyer you may qualify for a free or low-cost legal aid program for immigrant crime or domestic violence victims. Consider these steps if you are in an abusive situation:

If you are in immediate danger, call 911 or leave.

If you are hurt, go to a local hospital emergency room. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233). The hotline offers help in many languages 24 hours a day, every day. Hotline staff can give you the phone numbers of local shelters and other resources.

Plan ahead. Violence sometimes gets worse right after leaving, so think about a safe place to go. You can get advice from the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Look up state resources for a list of local places to get help.

Contact your family court (or domestic violence court, if offered by your state) for information about getting a court order of protection.

Reach out to someone you trust – a family member, friend, co-worker, or spiritual leader. Look into ways to get emotional help, like a support group or mental health professional.

Note: This information was adapted from material available atwww.womenshealth.gov provided by the Office on Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Defining Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is a “pattern of coercive and assaultive behaviors that include physical, sexual, verbal, and psychological attacks and economic coercion that adults or adolescents use against their intimate partner.”1 Domestic violence is not typically a singular event and is not limited to only physical aggression. Rather, it is the pervasive and methodical use of threats, intimidation, manipulation, and physical violence by someone who seeks power and control over their intimate partner. Abusers use a specific tactic or a combination of tactics to instill fear in and dominance over their partners. The strategies used by abusers are intended to establish a pattern of desired behaviors from their victims. Certain behaviors often are cited by the perpetrator as the reason or cause of the abusive behavior, therefore, abusive verbal and physical actions are often intended to alter or control that behavior.

Evolving Societal Responses to Domestic Violence

Many believe the historical inequality of women and gender socialization of females and males contribute to the root causes of domestic violence.2 Until the 1970s, women who were raped or suffered violence in their homes had no formal place to go for help or support. Shelters and services for victims of domestic violence did not exist and there was little, if any, response from criminal or civil courts, law enforcement, hospitals, and social service agencies. Society and its formal institutions viewed domestic violence as a “private matter.” As awareness and recognition of this problem grew, groups of women organized an advocacy movement that focused on addressing the safety needs of victims and the systemic barriers and social attitudes that contributed to domestic violence. Volunteers established safe havens and crisis services for victims of domestic violence in their homes and held meetings where they began to define violence against women as a political issue. This grass roots effort, commonly referred to as the “Battered Women’s Movement,” revolutionized the responses to injustices against women into a social movement that forms the foundation of existing domestic violence advocacy and community-based programs throughout the country.3

The need for safe alternatives for victims of domestic violence called for a major social transformation and the Battered Women’s Movement was an essential part of that struggle. Feminists, community activists, and survivors of rape and domestic violence responded with three primary goals: (1) securing shelter and support for victims and their children, (2) improving legal and criminal justice responses, and (3) changing the public consciousness about domestic violence.4

Through a collective vision, the Battered Women’s Movement was guided by a set of inherent principles that continue to direct the current network of community-based domestic violence programs and advocacy efforts. These principles include:


    • Safety for victims and their children


    • Victims’ rights to self-determination, which includes their decision to either remain with or leave their abusive partner


    • Accountability for perpetrators of domestic violence through societal and criminal sanctions


    • Systemic change to combat social oppression of victims and to promote victims’ rights.


Today, community-based domestic violence programs throughout the country provide an array of services, including:


    • Shelter and safe houses


    • National, State, and local emergency hotlines


    • Crisis counseling and intervention


    • Support groups


    • Medical and mental health referrals


    • Legal advocacy


    • Vocational counseling, job training, and economic support referrals


    • Housing and relocation services


    • Transportation


    • Safety planning


    • Children’s services.


Domestic violence programs also engage in continuous advocacy efforts that include developing public awareness campaigns, collaborating with community service providers, and being active in political lobbying efforts aimed at improving safety for victims and their children. One of the benefits of the increased awareness of the problem garnered by these activities is the greater recognition that many sectors of society-beyond shelters, law enforcement, and the judicial system-have important roles to play in identifying and addressing this problem. These sectors include child welfare, health care, mental health, substance abuse treatment, business, and faith communities. Along with the recognition that legal sanctions are not always the best response, there is a growing awareness that communities themselves must take responsibility for preventing and aiding victims of domestic violence by establishing programs and services that meet the needs of their citizens. One example is a community-based approach that involves combining the efforts of law enforcement, domestic violence victim advocates, social service providers, faith-based communities, and community members.

Society’s recognition that domestic violence is no longer a private matter, but a widespread social problem, is evidenced in the establishment of approximately 2,000 shelters and domestic violence programs, legislation in every State identifying domestic violence as a criminal act, legal rights to civil protection orders, and Federal legislation that provides funding and national recognition regarding its seriousness.5 The following chart outlines Federal legislation that addresses domestic violence and provides a legal framework and guidance for providing services and intervention.

Federal Domestic Violence Legislation

Family Violence Prevention and Services Act of 1984 (P.L. 98-457)

The Family Violence Prevention and Services Act of 1984 (FVPSA) was Congress’ first attempt to address domestic violence in the country. This legislation was intended to assist States with their efforts to increase public awareness about domestic violence and to provide Federal funding for domestic violence shelters and victim services. States and nonprofit organizations also were awarded grants to develop domestic violence and child maltreatment programs and to provide training and technical assistance for law enforcement officers and community service providers.6

Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), Title IV of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (P.L. 103-322)

In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, which marked a turning point in Federal recognition of the extent and seriousness of domestic violence. This legislation demonstrated the Federal government’s commitment to address domestic violence. There are four titles within the Act-the Safe Street Act, Safe Homes for Women, Civil Rights for Women and Equal Justice for Women in the Courts, and Protections for Battered Immigrant Women and Children-and each act addresses domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and protection against gender-motivated violence. The provisions of VAWA call for improving law enforcement and criminal justice responses, creating new criminal offenses and tougher penalties, mandating victim restitution, and requiring system reform geared towards protecting victims of domestic violence during prosecution of the perpetrator. VAWA also authorized support for increased prevention and education programs, victim services, domestic violence training of community professionals, and protections from deportation for battered immigrant women.7

Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) – Wellstone/Murray Amendment (P.L. 104-193)

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program with the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. The Wellstone/Murray Amendment of PRWORA includes a provision entitled the Family Violence Option, which addresses the safety and economic barriers faced by victims of domestic violence. Through this amendment, each State has the option to enact procedures that temporarily exempt identified victims of domestic violence from meeting certain time limit and other work requirements.

End Notes

    1. Ganley, A. L., & Schechter, S. (1996). Domestic violence: A national curriculum for children’s protective services. San Francisco, CA: Family Violence Prevention Fund.

    1. Pence, E., & Paymar, M. (1993). Education groups for men who batter: The Duluth model. New York: Springer; Schechter, S. (1982).Women and male violence. The visions and struggle of the battered women’s movement. Boston, MA: Southbend Press; Ganley, A. L., & Schechter, S. (1996).

    1. Schechter, S. (1982).

    1. Schechter, S. (2000). New challenges for the battered women’s movement: Building collaboration and improving public policy [PDF – 40KB].

    1. Saathoff, A. J., & Stoffel, E. A. (1999). Community-based domestic violence services. Future of Children, 9(3), 97-110; Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, P.L. 98-457, amended P.L. 103-322, 42 U.S.C. §§ 10401; Violence Against Women Act of 1994, P.L. 103-322, 108 Stat. 1796.

    1. Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, 42 U.S.C §§ 10402.

    1. Violence Against Women Act of 1994, P.L.103-322, 108 Stat. 1796.


Note: This article was adapted from Child Protection in Families Experiencing Domestic Violence by the Office on Child Abuse and Neglect and H. Lien Bragg of Caliber Associates. The complete publication is available at the Child Welfare Information Gateway, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.