About Victims of Abuse
Though home is supposed to be a sanctuary, sometimes it's the most dangerous place of all. Every year in the United States, somewhere between two million and four million women are assaulted by their spouse or partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Many of these women have children who also are abused. In up to 60 percent of the cases of domestic violence against women, some form of child maltreatment is also present, the Children's Defense Fund reports.
But women who want to leave an abusive home and establish a new one can face an arduous journey. "Every battered woman I've ever talked to thinks, 'How can I get out?'" says Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "At some point, probably all of them will make some attempt. The question is, what's in place to help her do that? And it's often very limited."
Remarkably, until the 1970s there were no shelters for abused women in the United States, says Smith. Today, there are more than 2,000 shelters and service programs. The number of available beds may still fall short of the need, but it represents a dramatic increase in emergency assistance.
The problem is the next step. Many shelters allow people to stay for as little as 30 days; most allow stays of no more than 90 days. "The biggest need we see is for housing after the initial crisis," Smith says. "After the shelter, many can't find an affordable place to go. There's nowhere to go, and they're forced back into the violence, simply because of a lack of resources."
Economic need is often severe. Almost 50 percent of the women who receive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the government's primary aid program, cite domestic violence as a factor in the need for assistance, according to a study of Chicago welfare recipients conducted by Northwestern University. The situation is most acute for single-parent women with children, who have poverty rates five times that of two-parent families.
Not surprisingly, a significant number of these families end up on the street. In 2000, more than half of the cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors identified domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness. The preliminary results of a study in Los Angeles county by Suzanne Wenzel, a behavioral scientist at the Rand Corporation, found that more than one fourth of women in shelters had been the victim of physical violence within the last year.
Women trying to make a new home after escaping abuse often have special needs beyond a roof over their heads. Foremost can be a need for security, including keeping their identity and whereabouts closely held secrets.
While most shelters include such security safeguards, transitional or permanent housing for these women and their children is usually more public and accessible. Smith says housing programs need to recognize the continuing danger faced by many of these residents: "Getting away isn't the final step for a lot of battered women -- they're consistently stalked and harassed," So longer-term housing, she says, has "really got to be a place where they can be safe."
When women fleeing abuse encounter housing problems, their children bear much of the cost. Almost one out of every four people receiving homeless services was a minor child in a 1996 government survey. Poverty and housing instability are especially harmful during the earliest years of childhood; but it is estimated that almost half of children in shelters are under the age of five.
Many of the mothers are little more than children themselves. Teen mothers are an increasing portion of the homeless population, according to analysts. The number of homeless families in Massachusetts headed by teens doubled during the last decade, according to a study by the Massachusetts Alliance for Young Families.
One housing option that has reported impressive results helping teenage mothers, in Massachusetts and other states, is a program called Second Chance Homes. These are group homes or clusters of apartments that offer access to child care, education, job training and advice on parenting and life skills, while providing a stable environment in which young women can stay until they're 21 or 22.
"It's unlike any other housing," says Kate Sylvester, executive director of the Social Policy Action Network, which works with Second Chance Homes. "We have two goals. First, teach them how to be parents. But also, to treat them as children, and to help them in growing up."
By Reed Karaim
About Victims of Abuse
Estimates vary widely of the number of women and children who are assaulted or otherwise abused in a year by a spouse or partner.
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, in its study Intimate Partner Violence, calculated that about 876,000 women had been the victims of violent crimes by a current or former spouse or boyfriend in 1998, the latest year for which statistics were available. More than 1,300 of the women were murdered.
The study was based on a household survey, but did not include women living in shelters, homes for battered women, or those in hospitals or other institutions. Thus, it is virtually certain to have underestimated the total.
Shame and denial also remain heavy counterweights to any accurate tally of abuse. Most experts believe a large percentage of physical and sexual assault by partners goes unreported. The same is true for cases of child abuse. The government, through the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, records cases of maltreatment found by state child protective service agencies. In 2000, the latest year for which statistics are available, 879,000 children were found to be victims of abuse or neglect. More than 80 percent of the children were abused by one or both parents.
Government statistics indicate that both domestic violence and child abuse have declined in the 1990s.
The rate of teenage pregnancy in the United States also has fallen steeply. The current rate -- 49 births per 1,000 women ages 15-19 -- is roughly half of what it was half a century ago. Still, the U.S. teenage pregnancy rate remains the highest in the Western, industrialized world -- nearly twice that in Canada and about four times that in France. And with the "shotgun marriage" largely a thing of the past in America, the proportion of teenage births outside marriage has increased dramatically, from 13 percent in 1950 to 79 percent in 2000.
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has educational materials and contact information for victims of abuse.
The Social Policy Action Network maintains an exhaustive set of links related to family and children's issues, and provides information on the Second Chance Homes project for young mothers.
The Alan Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit organization focused on sexual and reproductive health issues, examines the demographics of teenage pregnancy.
Information from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System can be found in the publications section of the U.S. Children's Bureau Web site.
Project Safe Place, sponsored by the YMCA, aims to provide immediate help and safety to young people at risk of abuse, neglect or serious family problems.
The Family Violence Prevention Fund Web site has information about the non-profit organization's public education and abuse prevention campaigns, as well as its public policy reform and advocacy efforts.