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LAce Posted Monday, April 17th, 2006
History of Domestic Violence Policy
Sara Plummer

The following is a review of the history of domestic violence policy in America. It outlines the progression of the governmental and societal responses to the issue of domestic violence.

The first known American reform against domestic violence, including child abuse, was written in 1641 in the Massachusetts Body of Liberties (Pleck, 1987). The Puritans believed that family violence threatened the piousness of their town. Therefore, it was each individual’s responsibility in the settlement to watch their neighbors and involve themselves if obvious abuses, drunkenness or other less than saintly behaviors, were occurring (Pleck). Puritans created a code that defied a husband’s blatant use of physical aggression against his wife. Devoutly religious, they also placed family values and family cohesiveness first. Therefore, women were rarely able to divorce even in the face of brutal forms of abuse. Separation was temporarily allowed in certain circumstances, but with a caveat that the couple would reconcile and resume married life after the man acknowledged his wrong doing and offered to reform (Pleck). The emphasis was on the family and maintaining a familial structure that upheld biblical scripture and holy living.

In Chesapeake, Virginia, during the 17th century, marital customs, and laws differed from their Puritan neighbors in Massachusetts. Tradition dictated that women were to obey their husbands, who were deemed the authority of the home. Although outward violence was frowned upon, men were encouraged to discipline their wives when necessary. “Men were expected to exercise moderate “chastisement” from time to time” (Fischer, 1989, p.295). Women were not able to seek protection from violence by leaving the marriage, as divorce did it not exist in Virginia (Fischer). Marriage customs were even more brutal along the southern areas bordering the Appalachian Mountains. Marriages were marked with violence from the inception of the relationship as women were regularly abducted to become brides (Fischer). As in Virginia, men and women traditional gender roles were adopted, and women were treated as subordinates. Violence towards wives was a common occurrence in this territory (Fischer).

The temperance movement catapulted the next reform campaign against domestic violence starting in the 1840s. “Temperance reformers regarded family violence not as a distinct social problem, but as an evil consequence of alcohol” (Pleck, 1987, p. 32). Initially created to abolish alcohol use, women used the temperance movement to generate legislation for equal rights, economic independence, divorce, and protection against physical abuse (Dobash & Dobash, 1979; Pleck). Legislation that passed as a result of temperance conventions focused on the ability to divorce for reasons of cruelty and abuse. By 1850, nineteen states had passed laws allowing women to divorce their husbands on the grounds that they were abusive (Pleck). Although no specific laws were passed against wife beating, the policies regarding divorce provided necessary attention to the issue of family violence.

The changes in marital legislation that occurred during the 19th century were instigated by the push for women’s rights. In 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, the first women’s conference was held. The participants of this conference wrote a list of grievances, which included the recognition that women had been historically oppressed and denied the rights and liberties of their male counterparts. “Women had become a group aware of their collective oppression and oriented toward bringing about far-reaching changes in the society and in the social institutions, especially marriage, that defined and supported the conditions of that oppression and denied them access to the means of ending it” (Dobash & Dobash, 1979, p.66). A social movement that began as a stand against alcohol became the bridge to larger and more significant social justice issues, including family violence and equal rights in marriage, such as the right to divorce, seek child custody, and obtain court-ordered child support. It is important to note the overall perspective from which these women viewed family violence.

Towards the end of the 19th century, governments in England and America began to recognize the issue of wife beating. In 1853, England passed The Act for Better Prevention and Punishment of Aggravated Assaults upon Women and Children (Dobash & Dobash, 1979, p. 63). This act provided women the same protection against abuse previously passed for animals. The punishment for cruelty was up to six months in prison and a fine. In America, Tennessee and Georgia passed laws in 1857, establishing wife beating as a misdemeanor, and punishing such crime with jail time or a fine (Pleck, 1987).

The next change in policy and law in the United States briefly occurred in the late 19th century. Lucy Stone, a temperance pioneer, began to advocate that flogging laws be passed for wife beaters. Maryland, Delaware, and Oregon all passed laws allowing whipping posts as punishment for wife beating. Men were publicly whipped after being convicted of violence against their wives. Public flogging was encouraged by certain legislators who believed public displays of retribution for a crime would discourage further illegal actions. Other crimes were also punished with a whip, including strangling. However, the fervor for corporal punishment died quickly as physical punishment was deemed too brutal. These laws were rarely enforced and quickly lost favor amongst legislators (Pleck, 1987).

By the beginning of the twentieth century, domestic relations courts were being instituted nationwide. Family violence issues and child abuse and neglect cases were sent to these courts rather than the criminal court system. Instead of being viewed as a crime, domestic violence was now seen as the fault of both the man and the woman, and violence against a wife was perceived as a misunderstanding in the marriage. The goal of these courts was not to punish the abuser as a criminal, but to encourage reconciliation in the marriage (Pleck, 1987). The courts used their authority to reinforce traditional family values and morality, while judges and social workers took on the role of providing knowledge and guidance to a happy and harmonious marriage. Couples were given practical requirements to fulfill in order to resolve the abuse issue (Pleck).

Historically speaking, there was little political or legislative movement on the issue of domestic violence from early twentieth century until the 1970’s (Pleck, 1987). On the heels of the 1960s and the radical changes that occurred, women began to organize, publicly assert their rights, and demand change. The National Organization for Women (NOW) founded in 1966, created a platform for women’s issues in the United States and by 1974, the first battered women’s shelter was opened in Minnesota. By 1976, state laws were passed regarding wife abuse, including funding for shelters, improved police reporting, and court procedures (Pleck).

By the mid to late 1970s the federal government had begun to take notice of domestic violence as a significant issue. The Senate, House, and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission held hearings on battered women in 1978, and President Carter established the Office of Domestic Violence in 1979. The federal government began to pay for the training and employment of shelter workers though the Concentrated Employment and Training Act (CETA) and states began to tax marriage licenses to fund shelters (Felter, 1997).

In 1976, a class action suit was filed by five women against the Oakland, California police department because the police did not respond to their calls for help when they were assaulted by their mates. The resulting settlement brought about mandatory policy changes, including prompt responses to domestic dispute calls, arrest if there is probable cause, and the enforcement of Civil Orders of protection (Sparks, 1996). During this time, officers were given the opportunity to use discretion when arresting an alleged abuser. In fact, most states required that any abuse had to be witnessed by an officer, or had to be serious enough to be considered a felony, in order for the officer to make an arrest (Buzawa & Buzawa, 1990). If the situation was not ideal for an officer to make an arrest, it became the woman’s decision as to whether or not she wanted to press charges.

In 1977, Oregon took the next step in domestic violence laws by passing a bill requiring mandatory arrest in domestic violence cases (Sparks, 1996). That same year, Carmen Bruno filed a law suit against the New York City police department, probation, and family court departments on the basis that she had not received equal protection under the law when police officers failed to arrest her abuser. Bruno won her case, and as a result, the city adopted a policy requiring the arrest of an abuser if a victim had a visible injury (Miller & Mullins, 2002).

The 1980s offered both positive and negative policy changes for domestic violence survivors. The beginning of the decade began bleakly when President Reagan dismantled the Office of Domestic Violence. With a predominately conservative government in power, many bills requesting funds for domestic violence shelters quickly died (Pleck, 1987). However, 1984 was a year of great change and influence on domestic violence policy in the U.S. First, the passing of both the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act and the Victims of Crime Act provided monies to shelters and other related services to survivors of domestic violence (Brooks, 1997). Second, research was undertaken to study the possible effects of a criminal justice response to domestic violence.

A giant step in domestic violence policy was taken on June, 19, 1990 when Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. introduced the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The bill had several initiatives and funding components including “Safe Streets for Women,” “Safe Homes for Women,” and “Equal Justice for Women in the Courts Act of 1994” (Office on Violence Against Women [OVW], 2005). After several additional revisions over the next three years, the bill was passed by both the House and the Senate in 1993. However, the bill was approved with one large caveat; it was attached to the Crime Bill of 1993. After several additional revisions and bi-partisan arguments, President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, with VAWA as title IV (Brooks, 1997). This bill has become the most important piece of legislation for domestic violence survivors, providing related agencies with $1.62 billion dollars in funding over the course of six years. VAWA was re-enacted in October 2000 and maintains many of the initial objectives set out by the original document. Additionally, it offers some new programs and policies to address domestic violence. These changes include but are not limited to recognizing dating violence, and increases in grant funding to both Indian Tribal Governments and programs that encourage arrest policies (OVW, 2005). In September 2005 both the Senate and Congress will vote on whether to re-authorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 2000. This bill would continue to provide support services for those who have experienced domestic violence. Proposed additions include expansion of financial support to victims of sexual assault, women of color, children, and youth affected by violence, and prevention programs (National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, 2005).

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