Professor Marshall

LESSON 9: Family Violence

Family Violence

In most states, domestic violence/family violence is defined as any physical abuse, or threat of abuse, between intimately involved partners, roommates, or family members. In some states, the legal wording extends to include anyone with whom you have had a child, whether or not they live with you or have EVER lived with you. Domestic violence does not have to happen inside of the home--it can (and often DOES)--happen outside the home. What makes it "domestic violence" is the relationship of the people involved. It does not matter where the violence occurs.

Domestic violence is often thought about as being inflicted from a husband to a wife, but it can also include violence from a teenager to a parent, from a wife to her husband, between siblings and other family members, between former and current love interests (you are the uniting factor in the middle), and between GLBT partners, even when not living together. Family violence includes many aspects of the problematic nature of the family hierarchy.

Law enforcement and the courts use domestic violence as an umbrella term for a wide variety of combinations of other crimes. Generally, practitioners recognize three different (but intertwined) broad areas of violence in the family. This is sometimes referred to as the "Domestic Violence Umbrella." What laypersons often think of as "domestic violence" is the type of family violence that occurs between adult partners in an intimate relationship. But, for practitioners and researchers, domestic violence encompasses three main areas:

Family Violence Umbrella

Child Abuse

According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, each State provides its own definitions of child abuse and neglect based on minimum standards set by Federal law. In 2003, legislation was introduced which identified a minimum set of acts and behaviors that define child abuse and neglect. These two pieces of legislation are the Federal Child Abuse Prevention Act (CAPTA) and the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act. Federal law defines child abuse and neglect as:

  • Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or
  • An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.

One important thing to note is that most Federal and State child protection laws refer to cases of harm to a child caused by parents or other caregivers; they generally do not include harm caused by other people, such as acquaintances or strangers.

As you can see from the data in the chart below, we have had an increase in the number of child deaths due to abuse/neglect in the US. It may be that we are getting better at separating child abuse deaths from accidental deaths. Or, it may be that the actual numbers are increasing. Either way, this is an alarming trend which should be on the dcline rather than on the increase--as we as a society become more aware of the issues related to domestic violence, our efforts at outreach and education should also be increasing. What is happening within the structures of society which may be contributing to this problem?

Child Deaths Per Day

Major Types of Child Abuse and Neglect


Within the minimum standards set by CAPTA, each state is responsible for providing its own definitions of child abuse and neglect, but most states recognize four major types of maltreatment. It is also important to understand that the definitions here are general definitions that most states encompass:

Physical abuse:

  • Is nonaccidental physical injury (ranging from minor bruises to severe fractures or death) as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting (with a hand, stick, strap, or other object), burning, or otherwise harming a child, that is inflicted by a parent, caregiver, or other person who has responsibility for the child.
  • Is considered abuse regardless of whether the caregiver intended to hurt the child.
  • Is physical discipline, such as spanking or paddling, is not considered abuse as long as it is reasonable and causes no bodily injury to the child. Courts have the final word on what constitutes "reasonable" discipline.


  • Is the failure of a parent, guardian, or other caregiver to provide for a child's basic needs.
  • May be:
    • Physical (e.g., failure to provide necessary food or shelter, or lack of appropriate supervision)
    • Medical (e.g., failure to provide necessary medical or mental health treatment)
    • Educational (e.g., failure to educate a child or attend to special education needs)
    • Emotional (e.g., inattention to a child's emotional needs, failure to provide psychological care, or permitting the child to use alcohol or other drugs)
      • These situations do not always mean a child is neglected. Sometimes cultural values, the standards of care in the community, and poverty may be contributing factors, indicating the family is in need of information or assistance (Courts and child saving agencies working under the purview of the state determine whether or not a family is in violation of standards of care).
      • When a family fails to use information and resources, and the child's health or safety is at risk, then child welfare intervention may be required.
      • Many states provide an exception to the definition of neglect for parents who choose not to seek medical care for their children due to religious beliefs that may prohibit medical intervention (Courts and child saving agencies determine whether or not a violation has or is occurring).

Sexual abuse:

  • Includes activities by a parent or caregiver such as fondling a child's genitals, penetration, incest, rape, sodomy, indecent exposure, and exploitation through prostitution or the production of pornographic materials.
  • Is defined by CAPTA as "the employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of any child to engage in, or assist any other person to engage in, any sexually explicit conduct or simulation of such conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct; or the rape, and in cases of caretaker or inter-familial relationships, statutory rape, molestation, prostitution, or other form of sexual exploitation of children, or incest with children"

Emotional abuse:

  • Is a pattern of behavior that impairs a child's emotional development or sense of self-worth.
  • Includes constant criticism, threats, or rejection, as well as withholding love, support, or guidance.
  • Is often difficult to prove and, therefore, child protective services may not be able to intervene without evidence of harm or mental injury to the child.
  • Is almost always present when other forms of abuse are identified.

Emerging categories of abuse:

A newer category, abandonment, is also defined in many states as a form of neglect. In general, a child is considered to be abandoned when the parent's identity or whereabouts are unknown, the child has been left alone in circumstances where the child suffers serious harm, or the parent has failed to maintain contact with the child or provide reasonable support for a specified period of time.

Substance abuse is also an element of the definition of child abuse or neglect in many states. Circumstances that are considered abuse or neglect in some states include:

  • Prenatal exposure of a child to harm due to the mother's use of an illegal drug or other substance
  • Manufacture of methamphetamine in the presence of a child
  • Selling, distributing, or giving illegal drugs or alcohol to a child
  • Use of a controlled substance by a caregiver that impairs the caregiver's ability to adequately care for the child

Intimate Partner Violence

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), intimate partner violence (IPV) is a serious, preventable public health problem that affects millions of Americans. The term "intimate partner violence" describes physical, sexual, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse. This type of violence can occur among heterosexual or same-sex couples and does not require sexual intimacy.

IPV can vary in frequency and severity. It occurs on a continuum, ranging from one hit that may or may not impact the victim to chronic, severe battering.

There are four main types of intimate partner violence (Saltzman et al. 2002, as qtd in CDC):

  • Physical violence is the intentional use of physical force with the potential for causing death, disability, injury, or harm. Physical violence includes, but is not limited to, scratching; pushing; shoving; throwing; grabbing; biting; choking; shaking; slapping; punching; burning; use of a weapon; and use of restraints or one's body, size, or strength against another person.
  • Sexual violence is divided into three categories: 1) use of physical force to compel a person to engage in a sexual act against his or her will, whether or not the act is completed; 2) attempted or completed sex act involving a person who is unable to understand the nature or condition of the act, to decline participation, or to communicate unwillingness to engage in the sexual act, e.g., because of illness, disability, or the influence of alcohol or other drugs, or because of intimidation or pressure; and 3) abusive sexual contact.
  • Threats of physical or sexual violence use words, gestures, or weapons to communicate the intent to cause death, disability, injury, or physical harm.
  • Psychological/emotional violence involves trauma to the victim caused by acts, threats of acts, or coercive tactics. Psychological/emotional abuse can include, but is not limited to, humiliating the victim, controlling what the victim can and cannot do, withholding information from the victim, deliberately doing something to make the victim feel diminished or embarrassed, isolating the victim from friends and family, and denying the victim access to money or other basic resources. It is considered psychological/emotional violence when there has been prior physical or sexual violence or prior threat of physical or sexual violence. In addition, stalking is often included among the types of IPV. Stalking generally refers to "harassing or threatening behavior that an individual engages in repeatedly, such as following a person, appearing at a person's home or place of business, making harassing phone calls, leaving written messages or objects, or vandalizing a person's property" (Tjaden & Thoennes 1998, as qtd in CDC). Learn more about stalking.

GLBT Communities

Domestic violence in the GLBT community is a serious issue. The rates of domestic violence in same-gender relationships are roughly the same as domestic violence in heterosexual relationships, however it is again important to recall that what we know about partner violence is only that which gets uncovered by either law enforcement or self-reporting. And, as in opposite-gendered couples, the problem is likely even more underreported than in opposite-sex relationships.

GLBT individuals often face a system which is hostile towards them and those involved in same-gender battering frequently report being afraid of revealing their sexual orientation or the nature of their relationship to law enforcers or other service providers. Police officers, prosecutors, judges and others to whom a GLBT victim may turn to for help may have difficulty in providing the same level of service as to a heterosexual victim. Not only might personal attitudes towards the GLBT community come into play, but these providers may have inadequate levels of experience and training to work with GLBT victims. Less than adequate legal definitions and laws are also problematic.

While many aspects of LGBT domestic violence are similar to those experienced by heterosexual victims, it is not in all ways identical. Perpetrators often attempt highly specific forms of abuse based on identity and community dynamics, including:

  • "Outing" or threatening to out a partner's sexual orientation or gender identity to family, employer, police, religious institution, community, in child custody disputes, or in other situations where this may pose a threat.
  • Reinforcing fears that no one will help the victim because s/he is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, or that for this reason, the partner "deserves" the abuse
  • Alternatively, justifying abuse with the notion that a partner is not "really" lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (i.e. the victim may once have had, or may still have relationships, or express a gender identity, inconsistent with the abuser's definitions of these terms). This can be used both as a tool in verbal and emotional abuse as well as to further the isolation of a victim from community.
  • Telling the survivor that abusive behavior is a normal part of LGBT relationships, or that it cannot be domestic violence because it is occurring between LGBT individuals.
  • Monopolizing support resources through an abuser's manipulation of friends and family supports and generating sympathy and trust in order to cut off these resources to the survivor. This is a particular issue to LGBT people and others living in small insular communities, where there are few community specific resources, neighborhoods or social outlets.
  • Portraying the violence as mutual and even consensual, especially if the partner attempts to defend against it, or as an expression of masculinity or some other "desirable" trait.
  • Depicting the abuse as part of sado-masochistic (S/M) activity. Domestic violence can exist in S/M relationships but it is not implicit, nor unique to this type of relationship. Domestic Violence is not S/M, nor should any non-consensual violent or abusive acts that take place outside of a pre-arranged scene or in violation of pre determined safe words or boundaries be considered part of, or justified as, a normal S/M relationship.

Although much advancement has been made in the provision of services, the enforcement of the law, and the equality of protections available to those in GLBT relationships over the last decade, there are still many issues that this minority group must face when choosing to report (or to remain silent) about intimate partner violence. 

Dating Violence

Another area of recent concern is that of dating violence. Generally, dating violence is considered a form of Intimate Partner Violence, even though some would argue that the definition of IPV puts dating violence outside of the purview of this problem. However dating violence presents in many of the same ways as IPV, and is considered a part of IPV by most practioners due to the significant similarities between the two types of partner violence.

What is Dating Violence?

Dating violence is a pattern of abusive behaviors used to exert power and control over a dating partner. Calling dating violence a pattern doesn't mean the first instance of abuse is not dating violence. It just recognizes that dating violence usually involves a series of abusive behaviors over a course of time. Every relationship is different, but the one thing that is common to most abusive dating relationships is that the violence escalates over time and becomes more and more dangerous for the victim. The definition of dating violence also points out that at the core of dating violence are issues of power and control.

What is a Partner?

"Partner" might mean different things to different people, particularly across generations. The relationship may be sexual, but it does not have to be. It may be serious or casual, monogamous or not, short-term or long-term. The important thing to remember is that dating violence occurs within an intimate relationship.

What Does Dating Violence Look Like?

Teens and young adults experience the same types of abuse in relationships as adults. This can include:

  • Physical abuse: any intentional use of physical force with the intent to cause fear or injury, like hitting, shoving, biting, strangling, kicking or using a weapon
  • Emotional abuse: non-physical behaviors such as threats, insults, constant monitoring, humiliation, intimidation, isolation or stalking
  • Sexual abuse: any action that impacts a person's ability to control their sexual activity or the circumstances in which sexual activity occurs, including rape, coercion or restricting access to birth control

While teens experience the same types of abuse as adults, often the methods are unique to teen culture. For example, teens often report "digital abuse" — receiving threats by text messages or being stalked on facebook or MySpace.

Test your knowledge with this Dating Violence Quiz

Ten Warning Signs of Dating or Intimate Partner Abuse

While there are many warning signs of abuse, here are ten of the most common:

  1. Checking your cell phone or email without permission
  2. Constant put-downs
  3. Extreme jealousy or insecurity
  4. Explosive temper
  5. Financial control
  6. Isolating you from family or friends
  7. Mood swings
  8. Physically hurting you in any way
  9. Possessiveness
  10. Telling you what to do

Elder Abuse


This is a category which is increasing in numbers over time. Because we are a "graying" society, incidents of elder abuse are becoming more frequent. There are two kinds of elder abuse which can occur:

In the Home

This category of family violence presents differently than some of the other forms of family violence. More often, abuse to elders in the home are a result of caregiver stress. Many middle-aged couples have become sandwiched between caring for their children, and caring for their parents. This is particularly challenging for women, who often have careers outside of the home along with significantly more responsibilities inside the home as compared to their male counterparts. Women are also charged as becoming the caregivers not only for their own parents, but also for the parents of their male spouses--it does not matter whose parents need care, the woman of the house is usually tasked with this responsibility.

Elder abuse manifests itself as a range of actions which can inflict intentional or unintentional abuse on elders in the home. Some of the intentional acts are similar to those of child abuse: hitting, slapping, kicking, etc. This type of abuse can also include breaking of glasses, taking away cell phones, and other assistive devices, and emotionally abusing the elder. The unintentional abuse category however is the more prevalent form in elder abuse in the home and can happen when caregivers experience stress, frustration, and become overly tired. This type of abuse can be:

  • forgetting to (or not having the time to) feed a bed-bound elderly person before leaving for work
  • infrequently assisting an elderly person with going to the bathroom, causing soiled sheets or adult diapers, which results in bedsores and other skin irritations
  • not hydrating a bed-bound elder while you are at work during the day in the hopes that they will not need to go to the bathroom while you are gone
  • malnutrition either by not feeding a bed-bound elder frequently enough, or giving them food that is difficult to manage or eat
  • ignoring pleas for help

There are however increasing numbers of elders who are purposefully physically and sexually assaulted by caregivers. Watch this short clip on Miss Mary, a woman who was sexually assaulted by her grandson:


Institutionalized elder abuse is also becoming more frequent. With more and more elderly people needing care couple with low pay for many caregivers in this profession, abuse of elders in nursing homes and other assisted living facilities is increasing in frequency.

This type of abuse manifests itself similarly to in-home elder abuse:

Signs of General Neglect and Elder Abuse

  • Sores or rashes on the body
  • A smell of urine or fecal matter on elder's body, in their room or other living area
  • Safety and/or health hazards are evident in elder's living area
  • Elder has an untreated medical condition
  • Obvious malnutrition
  • Elder is excessively dehydrated
  • Inadequately clothed

Signs of Physical Elder Abuse

  • Bruises, welts, or discoloration on the face or body
  • Bedsores including skin ulcers and pressure sores
  • Puncture wounds, cuts, scratches, lacerations
  • Scared or fearful attitude of resident to a particular staff member
  • Reluctance of resident to explain burns, wounds, bruises, etc.
  • Soiled clothing, bed, or living area
  • Untreated or cared for medical problems
  • Bodily problems not compatible with resident's history
  • Burns on the body (commonly from cigarettes, ropes, restraints, etc.)
  • Significant weight loss (in absence of illness)
  • Noticeable dehydration (in absence of illness)
  • Noticeable malnutrition
  • Significant skin problems (untreated rashes or infections such as scabies, bug bites, etc.)
  • Bleeding or hemorrhaging below scalp

Along with these types of abuse, institutional sexual and emotional elder abuse also occurs:

Signs of Sexual Elder Abuse

  • Inappropriate display of affection by staff member
  • Flirtation or coyness directed to a particular resident

Signs of Emotional Elder Abuse

  • Confusion
  • Unwarranted anger
  • Depression without illness
  • Agitated state
  • Unusual silence or sullenness
  • Helplessness
  • Hesitation to talk openly
  • Implausible stories
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Denial
  • Fear
  • Withdrawal symptoms

Of particular concern is financial exploitation of the elderly:

Signs of Financial Exploitation

  • Resident has no awareness of their financial affairs. Not aware of how their money or assets are being handled.
  • Resident's rent is often overdue. Other bills are late or are unpaid.
  • Noticeable difference between known material status of resident and appearance (clothing, material possessions, etc.).
  • Inappropriate activity of bank accounts
  • Signatures on checks do not resemble the older person's signature, or signed when older person cannot write
  • Recent changes to will for a resident who is unable to make such a decision.
  • Caregiver concerned that too much money is being used to provide resident with care and services.

If you have a parent or a family member who is being cared for in a facility, you should be concerned if you see the following signs:

  • Insufficient staff training
  • Less than adequate maintenance on structures.
  • Excessive demands on staff
  • Insufficient staff
  • Poorly paid staff
  • Accepting residents whose needs cannot be met by facility
  • Crowding/concentration of vulnerable adults
  • High employee absenteeism
  • Staff duties not properly defined
  • Poor response to alleged incidence of abuse
  • High personnel turnover

As you can see, there are many types of family violence, and our definitions are somewhat fluid as more and more research gives us additional information with which to explain this social problem in society.

Theories about Family Violence

Family Violence Theory

There are many general theories in the fields of psychology, sociology, feminist studies, and women's and gender studies which can be applied to family violence. Below is a sampling of some of the most used schools of thought and theories.

The Classical School of Crime and Deviance

Classical theories about criminal and deviant behavior are based on the idea that people CHOOSE to engage in criminal or deviant behavior. The classical school of thought is drawn from the work of Cesare Beccaria (18th century), who suggested that since people have "free will" they could make the choice to engage (or not engage) in behaviors. He also suggested that laws which spelled out penalties for "bad" behavior needed to be clear in order for people to understand the penalties of behaving outside of the law.

There are two concepts that are essential to this approach: control and punishment. When we think about these two concepts in terms of family violence, what we see is that there is a direct relationship to contemporary laws which have been crafted in an attempt to control and punish those who commit acts of family violence. In a very short amount of time, we've gone from family violence being a private act to being one of public wrong. Because of the crafting of family violence as a social problem, we were able to take these acts out of the private sphere and into the public purview.

Rational Choice Theory (RCT) falls under the classical school and states that offenders do a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether or not to act. Theorists who interpret family violence under this perspective believe that the benefits to committing family violence outweigh the costs. What this means is that the offender sees his/her actions as somehow benefiting the relationship or the family.

RCT focuses on interventions and strategies to reduce family violence.

Deterrence Theory focuses on the swiftness of punishment for family violence crimes, and asserts that punishment must be specific and rapidly administered in order to be effective. Deterrence may be specific (prevention efforts that target specific offenders, such as mandatory arrest laws) or general (when a non-offender is impacted by the arrest of an offender).

The Positivist School of Crime and Deviance

Positivist theories about criminal and deviant behavior are based on the idea that a CURE for the problem can be found. Further, these theories assert that through scientific research, the organic beginning of any criminal or deviant act can be identified. Positivist theorists look at problems from biological, psychological, and sociological points of view—and none alone will provide an answer. Positivist theorists assert that a combination of these points of view are likely responsible for family violence.

Both the Classical and the Positivist schools of thought are important facets of the study and deterrence of family violence and lead us to a more robust way of incorporating theory into the study of family violence:

Feminist Theory

Perhaps the most well-known theory of intimate partner violence is the cycle of violence theory proposed by Lenore Walker in the 1970s. She conducted interviews with women who had survived abusive relationships, and came up with a three phase cycle which predicted the pattern that each of these abusive relationships tended to go through:

Cycle of Violence Theory

The HONEYMOON is the period of time at the beginning of a relationship where things are going well. The abuser charms the victim, buying things and paying attention. In this phase, the victim feels loved and accepted.

The TENSION BUILDING phase is when things begin to get tense, and the abuser may become short tempered and jealous of the victim's outside relationships and friendships. In this phase, there is little a victim can do to appease the abuser, and victims often describe this phase as "walking on eggshells."

The BATTERING phase happens when the attack happens. In addition to physical assault, victims may be threatened, coerced, and intimidated. In this phase, victims are often too frightened to speak out or to seek help.

Once the battering phase is over, the honeymoon begins again. Walker asserted that this cycle becomes shorter in duration, with battering phases becoming more and more frequent.

While Walker's sample was a very small, non-representative group of victims, this theory remains as one of the most used and cited theories in the study of family violence.

Multidimensional Theories

Family Systems Theory focuses on the family and tries to identify problems that are a byproduct of dysfunctioning family relationships. In this theory, the roles of each family member are considered with regard to violence in the family, whether perpetrator, victim, or viewer of violence. For example, in a home where a mother is physically abusing a child, a father's refusal to intervene might be seen as a contributing factor to repeated acts of abuse.

Imitation and Reaction models show us that when parents are abusive toward each other, there is a higher likelihood that they will abuse their own children. In addition, older children may be more apt to abuse younger siblings when parents are abusive toward each other. In research from 1977, it was observed that when parents are violent and children are exposed, boys tend to become more aggressive and girls tend to withdraw. This may give us a clue into why boys exposed to parental violence offend more violently than do girls (Gosselin 88).

Since none of the multidimensional models are restricted to one school of thought, they are somewhat confusing to use as a practical framework for extensive research. More and more theories make it confusing to determine what works and what doesn't. One thing that is good about multidimensional theories is that they cause researchers to look "outside the boxes" of classical and positivist frames of reference. No one theory is the answer, and moreover, researching family violence from many theoretical foundations may be the best approach.


Learning about family violence can make the problem seem as if it is overwhelming.

As I introduced myself to you in the first week of the semester, I related that I was a child abuse investigator for the state of Florida before I became a teacher. Most of the academic information I learned about family violence was reinforced by my experiences in the field. Many times as I got to know a family where the parents/adult partners had been violent or aggressive toward each other, I noticed the same behaviors mimicked in the children of the family. Parents often commented to me in frustration that they had no control over their children and that the children were physically or verbally abusive to them. In working with these families over time, I was often able to get the parents to see how their own adult dynamic of verbal and physical abuse was being replicated in their children. In many cases (but not all cases) once this connection was made by the parent(s), a therapeutic path could be forged which would allow the family dynamic to heal. It didn't always work--in a few cases, the adult abuser simply could not (or more likely, WOULD not) bring him or her self to see his or her own role in creating problems for the children. But for many families, getting counseling (both for the adults and for the children) allowed for corrective measures. Hopefully, if therapy and changes to behaviors are instilled early enough, abuse subsides.

Ask any practitioner of services to children who have grown up in abusive households and they will tell you: abuse does not have to be directed to a person for those behaviors to be replicated—either as an adult abuser or as a victim of abuse. Early intervention and education are key to helping to diminish this social problem.

You are encouraged to do additional research as, in this lesson, we have only begun to explore issues related to family violence.