Domestic violence in the United States is rising, and the recession may be partly to blame. Before the recession’s effects began to be felt, domestic violence had been falling nationwide. With the jobless rate holding at 10 percent, however, the resultant economic stress on abusive partners has led to dangerous forms of intimate partner violence in situations already marked by a pattern of abuse. In Philadelphia last year, for example, at least 35 women were killed by current or former partners, nearly double the 2008 rate. For victims, home is not a safe haven. Domestic violence affects all members of a household, including the elderly and children. The American Psychological Association reports that the witnessing by a child of abuse of a parent, for example, can be a factor in transmitting violent behavior from one generation to another. But women bear the brunt of domestic violence. The National Census of Domestic Violence Services notes that domestic violence is the number one cause of injury for women between the ages of 15 and 44, at all income levels and educational backgrounds.
In May 2009 the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation released the results of a nationwide survey, which found that since September 2008, three out of four domestic violence shelters reported an increase in the number of women seeking protection. The data cite the economic downturn as a major reason for the increase. Those seeking assistance at the 600 shelters in the survey reported the major reasons: financial stress and job loss. The largest number of women seeking protection was in the South, followed by the Midwest, the Northeast and the West.
It comes as a double blow to women that just when increasing numbers of them are requesting protection and help, the economic downturn has brought cuts in the very programs created to assist them. California, for instance, which has the highest rate of emergency calls of any state, cut from its budget $2 million earmarked for domestic violence. According to the National Organization for Women, legal services for victims of violence have been cut in that state by 62 percent. Such services include obtaining orders of protection, an important component in protecting a woman from an abusive partner. The Illinois legislature has reduced by three-fourths its financing for domestic violence initiatives; shelters, sexual-assault and other social service programs have laid off staff members and reduced their hours of service. On the federal level, a key funding source, the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, saw its budget slashed in 2008 by $2.1 million.
The situation for undocumented immigrant women is particularly difficult because of their heightened vulnerability. These women know that if they contact the police for protection, they risk deportation once their undocumented status becomes known. Male abusers who are citizens sometimes use such fears to their own advantage, to hold their partners in bondage by threatening to denounce them. Although domestic violence cuts across all ethnic, racial, religious and socioeconomic lines, women who are in the United States illegally face added risks. And they can also be easily deterred from reporting the abuse by a limited command of English, isolated living situations and inadequate access to public transportation.
Domestic violence tends to take place behind closed doors, and it is difficult to know its full extent. In their 1992 pastoral letter, “When I Called for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women,” the U.S. Catholic bishops spoke of the abuse as “often shrouded in silence.” As a consequence, many cases of domestic violence go unreported, and it is difficult to collect accurate data. They also point out that women may stay with abusive men from two fears: loss of their children and an inability to support them. The fears are not unfounded, especially in times of high unemployment.
State budget cuts can literally make a life-or-death difference to victims of domestic violence if shelters can no longer offer them space. At the very least, the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act should be re-authorized and given added funding; it is the only federal program that supports local domestic violence shelters and programs nationwide. A related federal law, The Violence Against Women Act, which was first passed in 1994, comes up for reauthorization in September 2011. It is a positive sign that the Senate approved $444 million in funding for the V.A.W.A. for the 2010 fiscal year, which could make up for some local funding shortfalls. Grants are administered by an office within the Justice Department, the Office on Violence Against Women.
Budget struggles notwithstanding, the government should exercise special care before cutting services for victims of domestic violence. Their very lives may depend on them.