In a sweeping study of crime in the American household, the Justice Department reported Thursday that domestic violence, one of the most common offenses against women, has fallen by more than half since 1993.
Assaults, rapes, homicides and robberies against a current or former partner dropped from about 10 per 1,000 women in 1993 to four per 1,000 in 2004, researchers found.
"It's a substantial decline in the amount of violence between intimates -- that's the good news," said Michael Rand, chief of victimization statistics at the Bureau of Justice Statistics in Washington. "The bad news, of course, is there still is a significant amount of violence that occurs."
The downward trend in violence by "intimate partners" -- current and former spouses, boyfriends or girlfriends -- mirrors an overall national decrease in violent crime since the early 1990s, justice officials said. While the study did not attempt to explain the decline in domestic violence, some experts have credited more vigorous law enforcement, increased education and an expanded network of services for battered partners, said Shannan Catalano, a bureau statistician and the report's author.
But she and others emphasized that the report may not reflect the actual level of violence taking place behind closed doors. Indeed, the apparent decline could mean that women are choosing to suffer in silence rather than seek help.
If the rate of domestic violence has fallen, many experts in the field are not seeing it, said Gail E. Wyatt, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA's Semel Institute. She said shelters are still filled and hotlines still buzz with pleas for help.
"Are we really seeing a decrease? Or are we seeing that people are more reluctant to reveal these incidents because of the consequences?" Wyatt asked. "Many of these intimate partners are still in relationships -- they have mortgages, children, a life -- and they don't see that incarceration will necessarily resolve the problem. Who's going to pay the bills?"
The two-year study was based on both reported and non-reported instances against men and women. Researchers contacted a representative sample of American households identified through census data. Respondents were asked whether they had been the victim of a crime at the hands of a current or former partner, and if they had told the police or anyone else.
The results showed what society has long known -- that women are far more likely than men to be battered or assaulted. Whereas crimes at the hands of an intimate partner represented nearly one-quarter of violent assaults against women in the period of the study, they accounted for only 3% of such incidents against men.
Domestic crimes against men fell too, though less dramatically, from 1.6 per 1,000 to 1.3 per 1,000.
Women who were separated or divorced reported the highest rates of violence, while married women reported the lowest. But the researchers and other experts warned against presumptions that married women are less vulnerable, because they also might be least inclined to recognize violent behavior as abusive, or to report it if they did.
"These women are still in the relationship, there is an emotional love connection, they may need the income. They may not see kicking, punching or beating as domestic violence," Wyatt said.
During the period studied, researchers found 627,400 nonfatal crimes by an intimate partner -- nearly 476,000 of them against women.
About one-third of those were serious violent crimes -- sexual assaults, robberies and aggravated assaults -- involving weapons and resulting in serious injury.
Homicides by a close partner fell, although more for male victims than female. The number of men killed by intimate partners dropped 45%, compared with a 26% decline in female victims.
Still, women were more likely to die at the hands of an intimate partner, with one-third of killings attributed to current or former spouses and boyfriends. Just 5% of male homicide victims were killed by intimate partners, the report found.
Native American women were victimized most often by an intimate partner, with 18 assaults per 1,000. Asian men, the elderly and white men reported the lowest rates of partner violence.
Poor women and those ages 20 to 24 were most vulnerable to violence by a partner or former partner.
An uptick in nonfatal assaults against black women and white men in 2003 to 2004, the last year of the study, came as a surprise, Catalano said. The rate of nonfatal violence for black females increased from 3.8 to 6.6 per 1,000. For white men, it more than doubled, from 0.5 to 1.1.
"It's too soon to tell whether that represents an upward trend or an anomaly," she said, adding that the 2005 figures could shed more light in the coming year.
Esta Soler, president of the Family Violence Prevention Fund, called the overall decline in violence "positive and encouraging news," but added that three women a day on average were murdered by their husbands or boyfriends.
"It is clear that violence against women remains a costly and devastating problem in this country. There is no question that we have a lot more work to do to keep families safe."