Family Abuse and Crime

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Since the early 1970s, violence in the family has been transformed from a private concern to a criminal justice problem. Violence in intimate relationships is extensive and is not limited to one socioeconomic group, one society, or one period in time. Every type and form of family and intimate relationship has the potential of being violent.

In 1998, a National Academy of Sciences panel assessing family violence interventions defined family violence:

Family violence includes child and adult abuse that occurs between family members or adult intimate partners. For children, this includes acts by others that are physically or emotionally harmful or that carry the potential to cause physical harm. Abuse of children may include sexual exploitation or molestation, threats to kill or abandon, or lack of emotional or physical support necessary for normal development. For adults, family or intimate violence may include acts that are physically and emotionally harmful or that carry the potential to cause physical harm. Abuse of adult partners may include sexual coercion or assaults, physical intimidation, threats to kill or harm, restraint of normal activities or freedom, and denial of access to resources. (National Research Council, p. 19)

There are three main sources of data on family violence: (1) clinical data; (2) official report data; and (3) social surveys. Clinical studies carried out by psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors are a frequent source of data on family violence. This is primarily because clinicians have the most direct access to cases of family violence. Official reports constitute a second source of data on family violence. In the United States, there is abundant official report data on child maltreatment (because of mandatory reporting laws). On the other hand, few other countries have enacted mandatory reporting laws, and thus most nations rely on official data from hospitals or criminal justice agencies for their estimates on the extent of violence and abuse of children. There is no tradition of officially reporting spouse abuse in the United States or other countries, with the exception of a handful of states in the United States that collect data on spouse abuse.

Each of the major data sources has its own validity problems. Clinical data are not representative, and few investigators gathering data from clinical samples employ comparison groups. Official records suffer from variations in definitions, differing reporting and recording practices, and biased samples of violent and abusive behaviors and persons. The biases of social survey data on intimate violence include inaccurate recall, differential interpretation of questions, and intended and unintended response error.

Risk and protective factors

There has been debate regarding the risk and protective factors for family violence. Some advocates argue that violence cuts across all social groups, while others agree that it cuts across social groups, but not evenly. Some researchers and practitioners place more emphasis on psychological factors, while others locate the key risk factors among social factors. Still a third group places the greatest emphasis on cultural factors, for example, the patriarchal social organization of societies.

One note of caution is that, when basing an analysis of risk and protective factors on clinical data or official report data, risk and protective factors are confounded with factors such as labeling bias or agency or clinical setting. Researchers have long noted that certain individuals and families are more likely to be (correctly or incorrectly) labeled as offenders or victims of family violence, and, similarly, some individuals and families are insulated from being (correctly or incorrectly) labeled or identified as offenders or victims. Social survey data are not immune to confounding problems either, as social or demographic factors may be related to a subject's willingness to participate in a self-report survey and the tendency to provide socially desirable responses.

An important caveat is that any listing of risk and protective factors may unintentionally convey or reinforce a notion of single-factor explanations for family violence. No phenomenon as complex as family violence can be explained with a single-factor model.

Social and demographic risk factors

The major social and demographic risk factors for family violence appear to be the following:

Age. One of the most consistent risk factors is the age of the offender. As with violence between nonintimates, violence is most likely to be perpetrated by those between eighteen and thirty years of age. Relative youth is not a risk factor for elder abuse, although the rate of elder abuse is lower than the rate of the other forms of family violence.

Sex. Similarly with nonintimate violence, men are the most likely offenders in acts of intimate violence. However, the differences in the rates of offending by men compared to women are much smaller for violence in the family than with violence outside the home. Men and women experience similar rates of child homicide, although women appear more likely to be offenders when the child victim is young (under three) and males are the more likely offenders when the child victim is older.

Income. Although most poor parents and partners do not use violence toward intimates, self-report surveys and official report data find that the rates of all forms of family violence, except sexual abuse, are higher for those whose family incomes are below the poverty line than for those whose income is above the poverty line.

Situational and environmental factors

Stress. Unemployment, financial problems, being a single parent, being a teenage mother, and sexual difficulties (such as sexual dysfunction or impotence) are all factors that are related to violence, as are a host of other stressor events.

Social isolation and social support.

Researchers often find that people who are socially isolated from neighbors and relatives are more likely to be violent in the home. Social support appears to be an important protective factor. One major source of social support is the availability of friends and family for help, aid, and assistance. The more a family is integrated into the community and the more groups and associations they belong to, the less likely they are to be violent.

The intergenerational transmission of violence. The notion that abused children grow up to be abusive parents and violent adults has been widely expressed in the literature on child abuse and family violence. Psychologists Joan Kaufman and Edward Zigler conclude that the best estimate of the rate of intergenerational transmission appears to be 30 percent (plus or minus 5 percent). Although a rate of 30 percent is substantially less than the majority of abused children, the rate is considerably more than the between 2 and 4 percent rate of abuse found in the general population. Byron Egeland and colleagues conducted a longitudinal study of high-risk mothers and their children. They found that mothers who had been abused as children were less likely to abuse their own children if they had emotionally supportive parents, partners, or friends. In addition, the abused mothers who did not abuse their children were described as "middle class" and "upwardly mobile," suggesting that they were able to draw on economic resources that may not have been available to abused mothers who abused their children.

Evidence from studies of parental and marital violence indicate that while experiencing violence in one's family of origin is often correlated with later violent behavior, such experience is not the sole determining factor. When the intergenerational transmission of violence occurs, it is likely the result of a complex set of social and psychological processes. Although experiencing and witnessing violence is believed to be an important risk factor, the actual mechanism by which violence is transmitted from generation to generation is not well understood.

Gender inequality. One of the important risk factors for violence against women is gender inequality. The greater the degree of gender inequality in a relationship, community, and society, the higher are the rates of violence toward women.

Presence of other violence. A final general risk factor is that the presence of violence in one family relationship increases the risk that there will be violence in other relationships. Thus children in homes where there is domestic violence are more likely to experience violence than are children who grow up in homes where there is no violence between their parents. Moreover, children who witness and experience violence are more likely to use violence toward their parents and siblings than are children who do not experience or see violence in their homes.

Research on victims

Compared to research on offenders, there has been somewhat less research on victims of family violence that focuses on factors that increase or reduce the risk of victimization. Most research on victims examines the consequences of victimization (e.g., depression, psychological distress, suicide attempts, symptoms of post traumatic stress syndrome, etc.) or the effectiveness of various intervention efforts.

Children. The very youngest children appear to be at the greatest risk of being abused, especially for the most dangerous and potentially lethal forms of violence. Not only are young children physically more fragile and thus more susceptible to injury, but their vulnerability makes them more likely to be reported and diagnosed as abused when injured. Older children are underreported as victims of abuse. Adolescent victims may be considered delinquent or ungovernable, and thus thought of as contributing to their own victimization.

Early research suggested a number of factors that raise the risk of child abuse. Low birth weight babies, premature children, and handicapped, retarded, or developmentally disabled children were all described as being at heightened risk of being abused by their parents or caretakers. However, a more recent review of studies that examined the child's role in abuse calls into question many of these findings (Starr). One major problem is that few earlier investigators used matched comparison groups. Newer studies fail to find premature or handicapped children being at higher risk for abuse.

Marital partners. Studies that examine the individual and social attributes of victims of marital violence are difficult to interpret. It is often unclear whether the factors found among victims were present before they were battered or are the result of the victimization. Such studies often use small, clinical samples and fail to have comparison groups.

Battered women have been described as dependent, having low esteem, and feeling inadequate and helpless. Descriptive and clinical accounts consistently report a high incidence of depression and anxiety among samples of battered women. Sometimes the personality profiles of battered women reported in the literature seem directly opposite. While some researchers describe battered women as unassertive, shy, and reserved, other reports picture battered women as aggressive, masculine, frigid, and masochistic.

Gerald Hotaling and David Sugarman reviewed the wife abuse literature and examined risk markers for abuse. They found few risk markers that identify women at risk of violence in intimate relations. High levels of marital conflict and low socioeconomic status emerged as the primary predictors of increased likelihood of wife assault.

Elder victims. Research on elder abuse is divided on whether elder victims are more likely to be physically, socially, and emotionally dependent on their caretakers or whether it is the offender's dependence on the victim that increases the risk of elder abuse. Conventional wisdom suggests that it is the oldest, sickest, most debilitated, and dependent elders who are prone to the full range of mistreatment by their caretakers. However, the sociologist Karl Pillemer has found that dependency of the victim is not as powerful a risk factor as perceived by clinicians, the public, and some researchers.

Theoretical models of family violence

The first people to identify a problem often shape how others will perceive it (Nelson, p. 13). Child abuse and neglect, the first form of family violence to receive scholarly and public attention, was identified by the medical profession in the early 1960s. The initial conceptualizations portrayed abuse and violence between intimates as a rare event, typically caused by the psychopathology of the offender. The perception of the abuser, or violent offender, as suffering from some form of psychopathology has persisted, in part because the first conceptualization of family violence was the guiding framework for the work that followed. The psychopathological or psychiatric conceptualization has also persisted because the tragic picture of a defenseless child, woman, or grandparent subjected to abuse and neglect arouses the strongest emotions in clinicians and others who see and/or treat the problem of intimate violence. There frequently seems to be no rational explanation for harming a loved one, especially one who appears to be helpless and defenseless.

Family violence has been approached from three general theoretical levels of analysis: (1) the intra-individual level of analysis, or the psychiatric model ; (2) the social-psychological level of analysis, and (3) the sociological or socio-cultural level of analysis.

The psychiatric level focuses on the offender's personality characteristics as the chief determinants of violence and abuse of intimates, although some applications focus on the individual personality characteristics of the victims. The psychiatric level includes theoretical approaches that link personality disorders, character disorders, mental illness, alcohol and substance abuse, and other intra-individual processes to acts of family violence.

The social-psychological model assumes that violence and abuse can best be understood by careful examination of the external environmental factors that impact on the family, on family organization and structure, and on the everyday interactions between intimates that are precursors to acts of violence. Theoretical approaches that examine family structure, learning, stress, the transmission of violence from one generation to the next, and family interaction patterns fit the social psychological level.

The socio-cultural level provides a macro-level of analysis. Violence is examined in light of socially structured variables such as inequality, patriarchy, or cultural norms and attitudes about violence and family relations.

A number of sociological and psychological theories have been developed to explain family violence. They are outlined below.

Social learning theory. Social learning theory proposes that individuals who experienced violence are more likely to use violence in the home than those who have experienced little or no violence. The theory's central proposition is that children who either experience violence themselves or who witness violence between their parents are more likely to use violence when they grow up. The family is the institution and social group where people learn the roles of husband and wife, parent and child. The home is the prime location where people learn how to deal with various stresses, crises, and frustrations. In many instances, the home is also the site where a person first experiences violence. Not only do people learn violent behavior, but also they learn how to justify being violent. For example, hearing a father say "this will hurt me more than it will hurt you," or a mother say, "you have been bad, so you deserve to be spanked," contribute to how children learn to justify violent behavior.

Exchange theory Exchange theory proposes that domestic violence and child abuse are governed by the principle of costs and benefits. Abuse is used when the rewards are greater than the costs. The private nature of the family, the reluctance of social institutions and agencies to intervenein spite of mandatory child abuse reporting laws or mandatory arrest laws for spouse abuseand the low risk of other interventions reduce the costs of abuse and violence. The cultural approval of violence as both expressive and instrumental behavior raises the potential rewards for violence. The most significant reward is social control, or power.

Feminist theory. Feminist theorists see violence toward women as a unique phenomenon that has been obscured and overshadowed by what they refer to as a "narrow" focus on domestic or family violence. The central thesis is that economic and social processes operate directly and indirectly to support a patriarchal (male dominated) social order and family structure. Patriarchy is seen as leading to the subordination of women and causes the historical pattern of systematic violence directed against women.

An ecological perspective

The ecological perspective is an attempt to integrate the three levels of theoretical analysis (individual, social-psychological, and socio-cultural) into a single theoretical model. The theory rests on three levels of analysis: the relationship between the organism and environment, the interacting and overlapping systems in which human development occurs, and environmental quality. The ecological model proposes that violence and abuse arise out of a mismatch of parent to child and family to neighborhood and community. The risk of abuse and violence is greatest when the functioning of the children and parents is limited and constrained by developmental problems. Children with learning disabilities and social or emotional handicaps are at increased risk for abuse. Parents under considerable stress, or who have personality problems, are at increased risk for abusing their children. These conditions are worsened when social interaction between the spouses or the parents and children heighten the stress or make the personal problems worse. Finally, if there are few institutions and agencies in the community to support troubled families, then the risk of abuse is further raised. The psychologist James Garbarino identifies two necessary conditions for child maltreatment. First, there must be cultural justification for the use of force against children. Second, the maltreating family is isolated from potent family or community support systems. The ecological model has served as a perspective to examine other forms of family violence.

A model of sexual abuse

The sociologist David Finkelhor reviewed research on the factors that have been proposed as contributing to sexual abuse of children and has developed what he calls a "Four Precondition Model of Sexual Abuse." His review suggests that all the factors relating to sexual abuse can be grouped into one of four preconditions that need to be met before sexual abuse can occur. The preconditions are:

  1. A potential offender needs to have some motivation to abuse a child sexually.
  2. The potential offender has to overcome internal inhibitions against acting on that motivation.
  3. The potential offender has to overcome external impediments to committing sexual abuse.
  4. The potential offender or some other factor has to undermine or overcome a child's possible resistance to sexual abuse.

Interventions and policy

Protecting children. All fifty states enacted mandatory reporting laws for child abuse and neglect by the late 1960s. These laws require certain professionals (or in some states, all adults) to report cases of suspected maltreatment. When a report is made, protective service workers investigate to determine if the child is in need of protection, and whether the family is in need of assistance. Although a wide array of options are available to child-protection workers, they typically have two basic ways to protect a victim of child abuse: (1) Removing the child and placing him or her in a foster home or institution; or (2) providing the family with social support, such as counseling, food stamps, day care services, and so on.

Neither solution is ideal. There are risks in both. Children who are removed from abusive homes may well be protected from physical damage, but still suffer emotional harm. The emotional harm arises from the fact that abused children still love and have strong feelings for their parents and do not understand why they have been removed from their parents and homes. Often, abused children feel that they are responsible for their own abuse. Abused children frequently require special medical and/or psychological care and it is difficult to find a suitable placement for them. They could well become a burden for foster parents or institutions that have to care for them. Therefore, the risk of abuse might even be greater in a foster home or institution than in the home of the natural parents.

Leaving children in an abusive home and providing social services involves another type of risk. Most protective service workers are overworked, undertrained, and underpaid. Family services such as crisis daycare, financial assistance, suitable housing, and transportation services are often limited. This can lead to cases in which children, reported as abused, and investigated and supervised by state agencies, are killed during the period the family was supposedly being monitored. Half of all children who are killed by caretakers are killed after they have been reported to child welfare agencies (Gelles).

The most effective intervention for preventing child maltreatment is home health visitation. Among children of poor, unmarried teenage mothers who were provided with the full complement of home visits by a nurse during the mother's pregnancy and for the first two years after birth, confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect were reported to the state child protection agency in 4 percent of the cases. Subsequent follow-ups of the home health visiting intervention demonstrated its long-term effectiveness. However, the effectiveness varied depending on the populations receiving the service, the community context, and who made the visits (nurses or others) (Olds et al.).

Other evaluations of interventions for child maltreatment have found that the more services a family received, the worse the family got and the more likely children were to be maltreated. Lay counseling, group counseling, and parent education classes resulted in more positive treatment outcomes. The optimal treatment period appeared to be between seven and eighteen months. The projects that were successful in reducing abuse accomplished this by separating children from abusive parents, either by placing the children in foster homes or requiring the maltreating adult to move out of the house.

Protecting women. There are a number of options available to women who either want to escape or be protected from partner violence. One option is to call the police. Evaluations of mandatory arrest policies find that, overall, arrest alone does not prevent future occurrences of domestic violence. Men who were employed or married when arrested for domestic violence were less likely to reabuse their partners. However, men who were unemployed when they were arrested were actually more likely to be violent after they were arrested compared to unemployed men who were not arrested.

A second possibility is for the woman to go to a shelter or safe house. Researchers find that the effects of shelters seem to depend on the attributes of the victims. When a victim is actively engaged in taking control of her life, a shelter stay can dramatically reduce the likelihood of new violence.

Researchers have also evaluated group programs developed for violent men. They determined that the programs were ineffective in reducing men's violence, regardless of the length or type of program (Levesque).


Characteristics of the child, parent, partners, family, social situation, community, and society are related to which family members are abused and under what conditions. Individual and emotional characteristics, psychological characteristics, and community factors, such as cultural attitudes regarding violence, are moderated and influenced by family structure and family situations. In addition, power and control are common features of nearly all forms of family and intimate violence. Thus, interventions and prevention efforts need to focus on the importance of power and control, and on the functions of the family system, if family and intimate violence are to be effectively treated and prevented.

Richard J. Gelles

See also Crime Causation: Psychological Theories; Crime Causation: Sociological Theories; Domestic Violence; Family Relationships and Crime; Feminism: Criminological Aspects; Feminism: Legal Aspects; Gender and Crime; Justification: Self-Defense; Prevention: Community Programs; Scientific Evidence.


Egeland, Byran; Jacobvitz, Deborah; and Papatola, Kathleen. "Intergenerational Continuity of Abuse." In Child Abuse and Neglect: Biosocial Dimensions. Edited by R. Gelles and J. Lancaster. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1987.

Finkelhor, David. Child Sexual Abuse: New Theory and Research. New York: Free Press, 1984.

Garbarino, James. "The Human Ecology of Child Maltreatment." Journal of Marriage and the Family 39 (1977): 721735.

Gelles, Richard J. The Book of David: How Preserving Families Can Cost Children's Lives. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

Hotaling, Gerald, and Sugarman, David. "A Risk Marker Analysis of Assaulted Wives." Journal of Family Violence 5 (1990): 113.

Kaufman, Joan, and Zigler, Edward. "Do Abused Children Become Abusive Parents?" American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 57 (1987): 186192.

Levesque, Deborah Violence Desistance among Battering Men: Existing Intervention and the Application of the Transtheoretical Model of Change. Ph.D. diss. University of Rhode Island, 1998.

National Research Council. Violence in Families: Assessing Prevention and Treatment Programs. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1998.

Nelson, Barbara J. Making an Issue of Child Abuse: Political Agenda Setting for Social Problems. Chicago: University Chicago Press, 1984.

Olds, David L.; Henderson, Jr., Charles R.; Tatelbaum, Robert; and Chamberlin, Robert. "Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect: A Randomized Trial of Nurse Home Visitation." Pediatrics 77 (1986): 6578.

Pillemer, Karl. "The Abused Offspring are Dependent: Abuse is Caused by the Deviance and Dependence of Abusive Caretakers." In Current Controversies on Family Violence. Edited by Richard Gelles and Donileen Loseke. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1993.

Starr, Raymond. H., Jr. "Physical Abuse of Children." In Handbook of Family Violence. Edited by Vincent B. Van Hasselt, Randall L. Morrison, Alan S. Bellack, and Michael Hersen. New York: Plenum, 1988. Pages 119155.

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