Years of stepped-up efforts by law enforcement, social services and women's advocates to reduce the toll of domestic violence appear to be paying off: Far fewer women are being beaten by their husbands and boyfriends, according to new data released Wednesday.
"We're giving women escape routes that didn't exist 20 years ago," said Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, who assisted in a new U.S. Justice Department study of the incidence of domestic violence, the most extensive ever done.
"Rather than staying in a relationship to the point of becoming a murder victim, people in domestic abuse situations now have alternatives _ from restraining orders and hotlines to shelters, support groups and mandatory arrest procedures," he said.
The Justice Department study found that instances of domestic violence have dropped 21 percent in recent years, falling from an estimated 1.1-million cases in 1993 to about 876,000 cases in 1998. The study's conclusions were based on interviews at nearly 300,000 households.
Domestic abuse killings have dropped to their lowest numbers in a quarter century, with 1,830 homicides in 1998, the study found.
Even more encouraging, domestic violence activists said, was the finding that women are reporting abuse to police far more frequently than in the past. Nearly six in 10 victims filed reports in 1998, compared with 48 percent of victims six years earlier, the Justice Department found.
With new laws and police training programs in many states, officers now are much more likely to make arrests in domestic situations that once were largely ignored as "private" matters, experts said. That has meant less of a stigma for victims and more of a deterrent for abusers who once had little fear of punishment.
"We're bringing domestic abuse out of the closet," said Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women.
"It's a matter of showing women that this is not a problem of their own making and that it has very little to do with whether they had dinner on the table on time."
While men's rights groups have drawn more attention in the last few years to male victims of domestic abuse, female victims still outnumber their male counterparts by a ratio of more than 5-to-1, according to the new study, which expands on 1998 federal data.
Domestic abuse against men in the 1993-98 study period was virtually unchanged, with about 1.5 men per 1,000 suffering violence at the hands of an "intimate partner," defined as current or former spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends.
Women, on the other hand, saw their rate of abuse drop from 9.8 victims per 1,000 in 1993 to 7.7 per 1,000 in 1998.
Some of the new study's findings are cause for concern. Domestic abuse has not declined as significantly as violent crime in general, which fell 27 percent from 1993 to 1998.