Articles by Claire Guthrie Gastañaga
Public Advocacy
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Domestic Violence:  Moving the Agenda from Punishment to Prevention
Richmond WOMAN, Vol. 2, Issue 12, December 2004, pp.16-17

Violence is an issue of concern not only on our streets or in our schools; it is a problem at home and in our most personal relationships. Nationally, one in four women and one in thirteen men has been physically assaulted and/or raped by a current or former spouse, cohabiting partner, or date.  (National Violence Against Women Survey, 1998). According to the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance (VSDVAA), a newly formed coalition dedicated to assuring all people a life free from violence, 95% of adult victims of domestic violence receiving services in Virginia during 2002 were women, mostly between the ages of 18 to 34.

Generally, Virginia has not settled on any particular definition of domestic violence. Domestic violence is defined by the VSDVAA as “a pattern of abusive behaviors used by one individual intended to exert power and control over another individual in the context of an intimate or family relationship.” The term “domestic violence” is defined in section 38.2-508 of the Code of Virginia (which prohibits insurance discrimination against victims) as the occurrence of one of several “acts” by a current or former family member, caretaker, household member, or person against whom the victim has obtained a protective order. These types of acts are some of those that have been defined to constitute violence: i) attempted, actual or threatened physical harm, emotional distress, psychological trauma, and rape or sexual assault; ii) stalking; iii) holding someone against their will; and iv) damage to property with an intent to intimidate.

Regardless of the definition used, however, there is no debate about the significant, serious impact of this violence, which affects individuals across all racial and ethnic lines and socio-economic levels. In addition to the obvious and direct adverse effects of domestic violence on the victims, their children and families, the epidemic of domestic violence has serious economic consequences.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the health-related costs of rape, physical assault, stalking, and homicide committed by intimate partners exceed $5.8 billion nationally each year. Of that amount, nearly $4.1 billion are for direct medical and mental health care services, and nearly $1.8 billion are for the indirect costs of lost productivity or wages. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Costs of Intimate Partner Violence Against Women in the United States, April 2003).

Clearly, domestic violence is a significant factor in rising health care costs.  One study estimates that the “direct costs of medical treatment for battered women [alone] annually are estimated at $1.8 billion.”  (“Intimate Partner Violence Against Women: Do Victims Cost Health Plans More?” Journal of Family Practice, 1999). A presentation prepared by The Family Violence Prevention Fund, in collaboration with Physicians for a Violence Free Society, reports that health care costs for victims of domestic violence are 1.5 to 2.3 times higher than for other patients; domestic violence victims cost $850 more per in-patient hospital stay; and domestic violence victims require 77% more hospitalizations. (“The Business Case for Domestic Violence Programs,” http://endabuse.org/programs/display.php3?DocID=9932). 

Domestic violence also has adverse consequences in the workplace beyond lost productivity.  The American Institute for Domestic Violence (AIDV) reports that homicide is the leading cause of death among women in the workplace and that “partners and boyfriends commit 13,000 acts of violence in the workplace every year.” 

The Family Violence Prevention Fund presentation highlights the breadth of the problem in the workplace.  The presentation cites a survey of employee assistance programs in which 83% of these programs said that they had employees with restraining orders and 71% of these programs had worked with employees who had been stalked. The same presentation highlights the hidden costs of absenteeism and decreased productivity related to domestic violence:  54% of abuse victims missed an average of 3 days more per month than their peers and 37% reported that their job performance was impacted. The AIDV says that more than “1,750,000 workdays are lost each year due to domestic violence.”

The AIDV also reports that “employers lose between $3 and $5 billion every year in absenteeism, lower productivity, higher turnover, and health and safety costs associated with battered workers,” and that “businesses lose an additional $100 million in lost wages, sick leave, and absenteeism.” According to the AIDV, the total corporate cost of domestic violence is an estimated $67 billion annually. http://www.aidv-usa.com/Statistics.htm.

Virginia has made strides over the past two decades in improving law enforcement’s response to domestic violence.  Former Attorney General Mary Sue Terry fought for changes to Virginia’s rape laws to make marital rape a crime.  Former Attorney General and Governor James Gilmore championed Virginia’s “mandatory arrest” law that helps assure that people who commit domestic violence are prosecuted and punished for their criminal behavior. Virginia has passed an anti-stalking law, and the sanctions for domestic violence have been increased.

Nonetheless, it is clear from the figures cited above that public policy concentrated on punishment and incarceration of perpetrators of violent acts cannot stop domestic violence alone. Increased emphasis on prevention and early intervention is necessary.

Section 63.2-1611 of the Code of Virginia states that “it is the policy of this Commonwealth to support the efforts of public and private community groups seeking to provide assistance to and treatment for victims of domestic violence and to provide recognition to the need to combat all phases of domestic violence in this Commonwealth.”  Section 63.2-1612 designates the Department of Social Services as the state agency responsible for implementing this policy.  The Code gives the Department a number of responsibilities to achieve the policy objective:  providing a clearinghouse for information; promoting interagency cooperation; administering state grants for community organizations that administer services to victims; and developing a list of resources for victims.  Unfortunately, the Department’s responsibilities are limited “to the extent that funds are appropriated by the General Assembly or otherwise made available.”  Since limited or no funds have been appropriated or made available for these purposes, the Commonwealth’s policy remains largely unimplemented.

The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance announced recently that it plans to propose legislation in the 2005 Session of the General Assembly to help “refocus Virginia’s attention on prevention [of] and early intervention [in] domestic violence.”  Among these proposals will be legislation (or executive branch action) to create a domestic violence prevention and services unit in the Department of Social Services.   Another proposal would authorize Virginia to join 47 other states in modifying welfare-to-work laws to allow domestic violence victims additional time to make the transition from welfare to work and to focus state funds on providing the special services needed by victims of domestic violence seeking to escape both the violence and the poverty that entraps them.

These proposals deserve public support and priority in the budget process.  As is the case so often, prevention is not glamorous or showy, and one must be patient in waiting for the return on investment.  As the Fram Oil Filter commercial says, though, “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”  As taxpayers, employers, and citizens, we are already paying for the consequences of domestic violence.  It is time to invest in prevention. 

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