For weeks, amid allegations involving several NFL players, domestic violence has been the focus of intense national attention. Does the turmoil reflect a worsening epidemic of domestic violence, or has the U.S. in fact made great strides to curtail it? The answer is complicated.

On one hand, domestic violence committed by intimate partners — current or former spouses, boyfriends or girlfriends — has declined by more than 60 percent since the mid-1990s, according to Justice Department figures.

Yet the dramatic decrease from 1995 through 2004 has largely stalled, with the numbers stabilizing at a level that appalls people in the prevention field. The latest federal figures for “serious” intimate partner violence — sexual assault or aggravated physical assault — showed 360,820 such incidents in 2013, or roughly 1,000 per day.

Meanwhile, many organizations that serve the victims are struggling to meet rising demand, particularly in the past few weeks since a graphic video surfaced of suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking his future wife unconscious in a casino elevator.

Shelters are turning away victims for lack of beds and staff; the National Domestic Violence Hotline could handle barely half of the 8,500 calls that came during the eight days after the Rice video appeared.

“Statistically, are we improving?” asked the hotline’s president, Katie Ray-Jones. “From a service standpoint, it doesn’t feel like it.”

The sharp decline in domestic violence began soon after the 1994 enactment of the federal Violence Against Women Act, which toughened penalties for offenders, expanded training for law enforcement and improved services for victims.

However, that drop in domestic violence coincided with a comparable drop in virtually all types of violent crime.

Janet Lauritsen, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said there’s been no authoritative research to gauge the role of the federal act in curtailing domestic violence.

Kim Gandy, a former prosecutor who now heads the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said most law enforcement agencies have vastly improved their handling of domestic violence over the past 20 years, while public attitudes and understanding have lagged behind.

She hopes awareness will increase as the NFL cases spark a national conversation on domestic violence that she described as unprecedented.

“People who never talked about it before are talking about it now, saying it happened in my family,” Gandy said.

“It’s an opportunity to begin removing the stigma from domestic violence, so victims will feel more free to tell their stories.”

Clearly, there’s been a ripple effect. As debate arose over whether Rice’s fiancee, Janay Palmer, should have married him after being slugged, thousands of women took to Twitter, under the hashtags WhyIStayed and WhyILeft, to share their own stories reflecting the sometimes difficult choice of whether or not to leave an abusive partner.


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