As crime statistics continue to fall throughout the US, one problem remains stubbornly entrenched in American life: domestic violence. According to the Centers for Disease Control, domestic violence costs Americans an estimated $6 billion annually. Some expenses are job-related (workplace security and lost working time); others relate to law enforcement and jail expenses, and still others are linked to counseling costs and emergency room and doctor visits.

Public safety agencies take domestic violence seriously, and yet the numbers stubbornly refuse to fall. One in every four women is a victim of domestic physical violence at some point during her life. In the US, according to the Justice Department, three women and one man are killed by their partners every day. Homicide is the leading cause of maternal death while a woman is pregnant or immediately after a baby is born. One statistic is particularly alarming: Half the women killed by their partners had sought help from the criminal justice system at least once.

Why is domestic violence so resistant to solutions? Experts say that understanding the complexity of the problem is the key to solving it.

One obstacle is Constitutional. Our country is built on the principle of innocent until proven guilty. Would-be offenders can’t be locked up indefinitely just because an official has a hunch that something terrible is about to happen to a woman and her family. It’s a principle we should all be grateful for, but it can leave an agency hamstrung when a terrified woman calls 911 for the tenth or twentieth time to beg for help but can’t prove that this might be the weekend when her husband kills her.

Another problem is that domestic violence scenarios don’t always match the expectations of a prosecutor or judge. Experts say that abusers may not have anger management problems or appear dangerous. “The average batterer is more likable than his victim, because domestic violence affects victims a lot more than it affects batterers,” says David Adams, co-founder of a batterers’ intervention group called Emerge. Often batterers are in control of every area of their lives except the intimate relationship. Victims, on the other hand, may come across as weak, confused, overly dramatic, or needy. As a result, the judicial system may have a hard time assessing and responding to the dangers at hand.

And domestic abuse often involves an embedded and escalating pattern rather than a single, verifiable event. Courts are better equipped to deal with a crime that already happened—the murder of a wife, husband, or lover—than a developing and escalating danger.

The unique nature of an abusive relationship adds additional complications. First, many victims depend on their abusive partners for the food, shelter, and the other basic necessities of life. Domestic violence is the only crime that puts offender and victim together in a home or apartment after the judicial and correctional systems have finished their work, opening the door to possibly deadly retaliation. In a cruelly ironic twist, a victim’s physical safety may depend on her (or his—many victims are male) ability to keep the abuser happy. Calling 911 can make a dangerous situation worse, not better.

And reading the danger signals in an abusive relationship can be difficult even for an expert. If a victim fails to show up for a court hearing, is that a sign that things are getting better? Or does it mean the dangers have escalated to the point that she’s afraid to take any further action against her abuser?

The very term “domestic”—defined as “ordinary, everyday, and intimate”—points to another reason why even experts may have trouble sorting out what really happened before police were called. Anger is a fact of life, and even a healthy relationship can include a shove, a slap, or a threat. Is he really an abusive monster, or is she fabricating a story? Who is more credible, the abashed aggressor who promises it will never happen again, or the trembling victim who insists that her life is in danger?

And one final question has been asked repeatedly over the years by police officers, judges, victims, and advocates: Does anything work?

The answer is a qualified “yes.” An article in the July 22 The New Yorker (“A Raised Hand” by Rachel Snyder) discusses a Boston program created by the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center that is successfully protecting some victims of domestic violence. (The article is available only to subscribers, but much of the same content was featured on the August 1 edition of NPR’s Diane Rehm Show:

The Domestic Violence High Risk Team coordinates efforts by police, prosecutors, counselors, and hospitals to make victims safer. “It’s in the cracks that murders happen,” says Kelly Dunne, chief operating officer of the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in Boston. Two tools that the team uses have proven particularly helpful.

One is the research-based Danger Assessment developed by Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell from the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing. For her doctoral dissertation, Campbell interviewed 2,000 victims and studied domestic homicide statistics. After analyzing the data, Campbell devised a weighted scale to indicate the level of risk: extreme, severe, increased, or variable. Using the scale, the group can identify potentially lethal situations and take effective steps to protect victims.

The other tool is more controversial: The team can ask for a dangerousness hearing (a judicial tool traditionally used in gang and drug cases) to request preventive detention. Even a defendant with a clean record may be jailed as a result of the hearing.

Although many states have some version of preventive hearing, judicial systems have traditionally been wary of using it. Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel of the Massachusetts Public Defender Division, says his office tries to fight dangerousness hearings. “Our system is set up to decide what happened as best it can; it’s not set up to decide what will happen in the future.” Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr., director of the Harvard Criminal Justice Institute, says, “The Constitution tends to frown upon punishing prospective behavior.” But the Domestic Violence High Risk Team finds dangerousness hearings a useful tool and requests them about twice a month—up from once or twice a year before the Team was formed.

Other effective strategies employed by the Massachusetts team and various agencies across the US include the following:

  • Mandatory arrests (in some jurisdictions, officers can be held liable for their handling of domestic calls)
  • GPS monitoring (in Boston, not one monitored abuser has committed another act of domestic violence)
  • Mandated counseling for abusers
  • Closer coordination with the judicial system (often judges do not have access to an abuser’s past history or to police reports that reveal escalating danger)

What does not work, according to research, is arming victims: Owning a gun does not increase a victim’s chance of survival.

Experts are also encouraging shelter administrators to make shelters more victim-friendly. In the past, many shelters insisted that victims cut off all contact with family, friends, and employers. Some refused to take pets or teenage boys. Those restrictions sometimes forced victims to make life-shattering choices between their personal safety and the needs of a job, a child, a beloved dog, or an aging parent in ill health.

One goal of the Domestic Violence High Risk Team in Boston has been finding ways to allow victims to continue living their normal lives without the disruption of moving to a shelter. Many of their efforts have been successful: Of 106 recent high-risk cases, only eight sought refuge in shelters.

The bottom line, experts say, is that the interventions they have developed save lives—and taxpayer money. Suzanne Dubus, chief executive officer Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center, says, “Here’s the outrage. It’s really cheap to do what we’re doing. It’s a lot cheaper than murder investigations and prosecutions and jail time.”

To learn more:

National Domestic Violence hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE.

Rachel Snyder, “A Raised Hand.” The New Yorker, July 22, 2013, pp. 34+.

Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of nine books, including Police Talk (Pearson), co-written with the late Mary Mariani. Visit her website at for free report writing resources. Go to for a free preview of her book The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.