Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Factors Contributing to Domestic Violence

Understanding the risk factors associated with domestic violence will help you frame some of your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses. Risk factors do not automatically mean that a person will become a domestic violence victim or an offender. Also, although some risk factors are stronger than others, it is difficult to compare risk factor findings across studies because of methodological differences between studies.

Age

The female age group at highest risk for domestic violence victimization is 16 to 24.[25] Among one segment of this high-risk age group—undergraduate college students—22 percent of female respondents in a Canadian study reported domestic violence victimization, and 14 percent of male respondents reported physically assaulting their dating partners in the year before the survey.[26] And although the victimization of teen girls is estimated to be high, it is difficult to “…untangle defensive responses from acts of initial violence against a dating partner.”[27]

Socioeconomic Status

Although domestic violence occurs across income brackets, it is most frequently reported by the poor who more often rely on the police for dispute resolution. Victimization surveys indicate that lower-income women are, in fact, more frequently victims of domestic violence than wealthier women. Women with family incomes less than $7,500 are five times more likely to be victims of violence by an intimate than women with family annual incomes between $50,000 and $74,000.[28]

Although the poorest women are the most victimized by domestic violence,[29] one study also found that women receiving government income support payments through Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) were three times more likely to have experienced physical aggression by a current or former partner during the previous year than non-AFDC supported women.[30]

Race

Overall, in the United States, blacks experience higher rates of victimization than other groups: black females experience intimate violence at a rate 35 percent higher than that of white females, and black males experience intimate violence at a rate about 62 percent higher than that of white males and about two and a half times the rate of men of other races.[31] Other survey research, more inclusive of additional racial groups, finds that American Indian/Alaskan Native women experience significantly higher rates of physical abuse as well.[32],

† It is unclear how much of the differences in victimization rates by race is the result of willingness to reveal victimization to survey interviewers (Tjaden and Thoennes, 2000).

Repeat Victimization

Domestic violence, generally, has high levels of repeat calls for police service.[33] For instance, police data in West Yorkshire (United Kingdom) showed that 42 percent of domestic violence incidents within one year were repeat offenses, and one-third of domestic violence offenders were responsible for two-thirds of all domestic violence incidents reported to the police. It is likely that some victims of domestic violence experience physical assault only once and others experience it repeatedly[34] over a period as short as 12 months.[35] British research suggests that the highest risk period for further assault is within the first four weeks of the last assault.[36]

Incarceration of Offenders

Offenders convicted of domestic violence account for about 25 percent of violent offenders in local jails and 7 percent of violent offenders in state prisons.[37] Many of those convicted of domestic violence have a prior conviction history: more than 70 percent of offenders in jail for domestic violence have prior convictions for other crimes, not necessarily domestic violence.[38]

Termination of the Relationship

Although there is a popular conception that the risk of domestic violence increases when a couple separates, in fact, most assaults occur during a relationship rather than after it is over.[39] However, still unknown is whether the severity (as opposed to the frequency) of violence increases once a battered woman leaves.

Pregnancy

Contrary to popular belief, pregnant women are no more likely than non-pregnant women to be victims of domestic violence.[40] In fact, some women get a reprieve from violence during pregnancy. The risk of abuse during pregnancy is greatest for women who experienced physical abuse before the pregnancy.[41] Some additional factors increase the risk during pregnancy: being young and poor and if the pregnancy was unintended.[42] Physical abuse during the pregnancy can result in pre-term delivery, low birth weight, birth defects, miscarriage, and fetal death.[43]

Multiple Risk Factors for Women and Men

Being young, black, low-income, divorced or separated, a resident of rental housing, and a resident of an urban area have all been associated with higher rates of domestic violence victimization among women.[44] For male victims, the patterns were nearly identical: being young, black, divorced or separated, or a resident of rental housing.[45] In New Zealand, a highly respected study found that the strongest predictor for committing partner violence among the many risk factors in childhood and adolescence is a history of aggressive delinquency before age 15.[46]

The study also found that committing partner violence is strongly linked to cohabitation at a young age; a variety of mental illnesses; a background of family adversity; dropping out of school; juvenile aggression; conviction for other types of crime, especially violent crime; drug abuse; long-term unemployment; and parenthood at a young age.[47]

Other Risk Factors

Several other risk factors emerge from research:

  • A verbally abusive partner is one of the most robust risk factors for intimate partner violence.[48]
  • Women whose partners are jealous or tightly controlling are at increased risk of intimate violence and stalking.[49]
  • There is a strong link between threat of bodily injury and actual bodily injury, suggesting that abuser threats should be taken seriously.[50]

Recently, there is much discussion among police about the link between pet abuse and domestic violence. Although some overlap is likely, particularly under the theory that many batterers are generally violent, not enough is known because of the types of studies undertaken. Some small surveys of domestic violence shelter residents suggest that some women might have left their abuser sooner but they worried about their pet’s safety.[51]

Finally, although alcohol and drug use do not cause intimate partner battering, the risk of victim injury increases if a batterer is using alcohol or drugs.[52]