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The response to domestic violence is typically a combined effort between law enforcement, social services, and health care. The role of each has evolved as domestic violence has been brought more into public view.

Domestic violence historically has been viewed as a private family matter that need not involve the government or criminal justice. Police officers were often reluctant to intervene by making an arrest, and often chose instead to simply counsel the couple and/or ask one of the parties to leave the residence for a period of time. The courts were reluctant to impose any significant sanctions on those convicted of domestic violence, largely because it was viewed as a misdemeanor offense.

Medical response

Medical professionals can make a difference in the lives of those who experience abuse. Many cases of spousal abuse are handled solely by physicians and do not involve the police. Sometimes cases of domestic violence are brought into the emergency room, while many other cases are handled by family physician or other primary care provider.

Medical professionals are in position to empower people, give advice, and refer them to appropriate services. The health care professional has not always met this role, with uneven quality of care, and in some cases misunderstandings about domestic violence.

In the U. S., the Institute of Medicine recognized the shortcomings of the health care system in its 2002 report entitled Confronting Chronic Neglect and attributed some of the problems cited to a lack of adequate training among health professionals. Health professionals have an ethical responsibility to recognize and address exposure to abuse in their patients, in the health care setting. For example, the American Medical Association's code of medical ethics states that "Due to the prevalence and medical consequences of family violence, physicians should routinely inquire about physical, sexual, and psychological abuse as part of the medical history. Physicians must also consider abuse in the differential diagnosis for a number of medical complaints, particularly when treating women."

Many victims leave their abusers, only to return. Research has shown that a major factor in helping a victim to establish lasting independence from the abusive partner is her or his ability to get legal assistance. Economists at the Brennan Center for Justice analyzed Bureau of Justice Statistics data to determine what accounted for the nationwide reduction in reported abuse. Their findings revealed that one significant factor was the availability of legal services to assist abuse victims. Another major study by economists at Colgate University and the University of Arkansas flatly stated that the only public service that reduces domestic violence in the long term is legal aid. Legal assistance can provide essential safety planning, buttress a family’s economic position through child or spousal support, allay fears planted by the batterer about loss of custody, and help victims to secure needed government benefits.

Law enforcement

In the 1970s, it was widely believed that domestic disturbance calls were the most dangerous type for responding officers, who arrive to a highly emotionally charged situation. This belief was based on FBI statistics which turned out to be flawed, in that they grouped all types of disturbances together with domestic disturbances, such as brawls at a bar. Subsequent statistics and analysis have shown this belief to be false.

Statistics on incidents of domestic violence, published in the late 1970s, helped raise public awareness of the problem and increase activism. A study published in 1976 by the Police Foundation found that the police had intervened at least once in the previous two years in 85% of spouse homicides. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, feminists and battered women's advocacy groups were calling on police to take domestic violence more seriously and change intervention strategies. In some instances, these groups took legal action against police departments, including in Oakland, California and New York City, to get them to make arrests in domestic violence cases. They claimed that police assigned low priority to domestic disturbance calls.

Many U. S. police departments responded to the study, adopting a mandatory arrest policy for spousal violence cases with probable cause. By 2005, 23 states and the District of Columbia had enacted mandatory arrest for domestic assault, without warrant, given that the officer has probable cause and regardless of whether or not the officer witnessed the crime. The Minneapolis study also influenced policy in other countries, including New Zealand, which adopted a pro-arrest policy for domestic violence cases.

However, the study was subject of much criticism, with concerns about its methodology, as well as its conclusions. The Minneapolis study was replicated in several other cities, beginning in 1986, with some of these studies having different results; one of which being the fact that the deterrent effect observed in the Minneapolis experiment was largely localized. In the replication studies which were far more broad and methodologically sound in both size and scope, arrest seemed to help in the short run in certain cases, but those arrested experienced double the rate of violence over the course of one year.

Criminologists do not fully understand the reasons why deterrent effects do not last over time. But they suggest that abusers who are employed and have ties to the community may initially fear punishment, though many cases do not make it all the way through the criminal justice process. If the victim is uncooperative during investigation, the prosecutor may choose not to pursue the case. If the case is pursued through the criminal justice system, sometimes the resulting sentence is minor. Subsequently, any fear that the abuser has of punishment may have diminished.

Each agency and jurisdiction within the United States has its own Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) when it comes to responding and handling domestic calls. Generally, it has been accepted that if the understood victim has visible (and recent) marks of abuse, the suspect is arrested and charged with the appropriate crime. However, that is a guideline and not a rule. Like any other call, domestic abuse lies in a gray area. Law enforcement officers have several things to consider when making a warrantless arrest:

Are there signs of physical abuse?

Were there witnesses?

Is it recent?

Was the victim assaulted by the alleged suspect?

Who is the primary aggressor?

Could the victim be lying?

Could the suspect be lying?

Along with protecting the victim, law enforcement officers have to ensure that the alleged abusers' rights are not violated. Many times in cases of mutual combatants, it is departmental policy that both parties be arrested and the court system can establish truth at a later date. In some areas of the nation, this mutual combatant philosophy is being replaced by the primary abuser philosophy in which case if both parties have physical injuries, the law enforcement officer determines who the primary aggressor is and only arrests that one. This philosophy started gaining momentum when different government/private agencies started researching the effects. It was found that when both parties are arrested, it had an adverse affect on the victim. The victims were less likely to call or trust law enforcement during the next incident of domestic abuse.

Counseling for person effected

Due to the extent and prevalence of violence in relationships, counselors and therapists should assess every client for domestic violence (both experienced and perpetrated). If the clinician is seeing a couple for couple’s counseling, this assessment should be conducted with each individual privately during the initial interview, in order to increase the victim’s sense of safety in disclosing DV in the relationship. In addition to determining whether DV is present, counselors and therapists should also make the distinction between situations where battering may have been a single, isolated incident or an ongoing pattern of control. The therapist must, however, consider that domestic violence may be present even when there has been only a single physical incident as emotional/verbal, economic, and sexual abuse may be more insidious.

Another important issue in assessing clients for DV lies in differing definitions of abuse – the therapist’s definition may differ from that of the client, and paying close attention to the way the client describes their experiences is crucial in developing effective treatment plans. The therapist must determine if it is in the best interest of the client to explain that some behaviors (such as emotional abuse) are considered domestic violence, even if she did not previously consider them as such.

If it becomes apparent to the therapist that domestic violence is taking place in a client’s relationship, there are several statements the clinician can make that have been shown to be effective in rapport-building and immediate crisis intervention with clients. Firstly, it is essential that the therapist believe the victim’s story and validate their feelings. It is recommended that the therapist acknowledge them for taking a risk in disclosing this information, and assure them that any ambivalent feelings they may be having are normal. The therapist should emphasize that the abuse they have experienced is not their fault, but should keep their feelings of ambivalence in mind and refrain from blaming their partner or telling them what to do. It is unreasonable for the therapist to expect that a victim will leave their perpetrator solely because they disclosed the abuse, and the therapist should respect the victim’s autonomy and allow them to make their own decisions regarding termination of the relationship. Finally, the therapist must explore options with the client (such as emergency housing in shelters, police involvement, etc.) in order to uphold their obligation to protect the welfare of the client.

Lethality assessment

A lethality assessment is a tool that can assist in determining the best course of treatment for a client, as well as helping the client to recognize dangerous behaviors and more subtle abuse in their relationship. In a study of victims of attempted domestic violence-related homicide, only about one-half of the participants recognized that their perpetrator was capable of killing them, as many domestic violence victims minimize the true seriousness of their situation. Thus, lethality assessment is an essential first step in assessing the severity of a victim’s situation.

Safety planning

Safety planning allows the victim to plan for dangerous situations they may encounter, and is effective regardless of their decision on whether remain with their perpetrator. Safety planning usually begins with determining a course of action if another acute incident occurs in the home. The victim should be given strategies for their own safety, such as avoiding confrontations in rooms where there is only one exit and avoiding certain rooms that contain many potential weapons (such as kitchens, bathrooms, etc.).

Counseling for offenders

The main goal for treatment for offenders of domestic violence is to minimize the offender’s risk of future domestic violence, whether within the same relationship or a new one. Treatment for offenders should emphasize minimizing risk to the victim, and should be modified depending on the offender’s history, risk of reoffending, and criminogenic needs. The majority of offender treatment programs are 24–36 weeks in length and are conducted in a group setting with groups not exceeding 12 participants. Groups are also standardized to be gender specific (male offenders only or female offenders only). It has been demonstrated that domestic violence offenders maintain a socially acceptable façade to hide abusive behavior, and therefore accountability is the recommended focus of offender treatment programs. Anger management alone has not been shown to be effective in treating domestic violence offenders, as domestic violence is based on power and control and not on problems with regulating anger responses. Anger management is recommended as a part of an offender treatment curriculum that is based on accountability, along with topics such as recognizing abusive patterns of behavior and re-framing communication skills. Any corresponding problems should also be addressed as part of domestic violence offender treatment, such as problems with substance abuse or other mental illness.