Victims of Domestic Violence Deserve Safe Shelters

By Ronald L. Scott

Domestic violence and abuse has increasingly been recognized as a major public health issue in the United States, and the role of health care providers in detecting and preventing domestic violence is becoming better accepted.  A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine (Eisenstat & Bancroft, Domestic Violence, Sept. 16, 1999) advocates that medical providers should “routinely screen patients for a history of abuse…refer patients for appropriate services, and assess whether the patients are in immediate danger.”  Implicit in any referral is the promise that the victim will be safe—or at least safer—under protection provided by support agencies.  The authors define domestic abuse or battering as “a pattern of psychological, economic and sexual coercion of one partner in a relationship by the other that is punctuated by physical assaults or credible threats of bodily harm.”

In Houston, an irate husband recently shot his way through glass doors at the entrance of a women’s shelter, found his wife, and chased her to the cafeteria.  The man ran out of bullets, no one was physically injured, and security at the shelter has been tightened.  This widely reported incident is particularly unfortunate since health care providers already have a difficult time convincing victims of domestic violence that resources are available to increase their safety.

It is clear that whatever the risks of violence within a shelter (real or perceived), the risks of remaining with an abusive spouse are greater.  In its 1997 report titled Family Violence and the Health Care System in Texas, the Health Law & Policy Institute (Institute) reported the following chilling statistics:

A spokesperson for the Texas Council on Family Violence (Council) testified before the Senate Finance Committee of the Texas Legislature earlier this year in support of additional funding for family violence programs.  Recent statistics cited by the Council indicate the continued pervasiveness of family violence in Texas as follows: In its report, one of the Institute’s recommendations was to develop better-coordinated, more comprehensive, and readily available support services for victims of abuse.  Texas law requires that health care providers refer victims of domestic violence to available services.  Texas has family violence shelters in at least sixty communities. Some of these shelters may now be forced to dip into already limited resources to increase physical security.  However, Texas is devoting additional resources to help curb family violence.  In addition to increased funding, the 76th Texas Legislature should be commended for passing a number of innovative laws addressing family violence including: Protection of Child and Victim in Visitation Orders--H.B. 1411, Mediation Waiver in Family Law Cases—H.B. 819, Mediation Prohibited in Criminal Cases—S.B. 1124, Magistrate’s Orders for Emergency Protection—S.B. 23, Domestic Violence Training for Judges—S.B. 1187, and Funding for Shelters—S.B. 461

As efforts to better educate health care providers about domestic violence yield promising results (and therefore more referrals), we must be ready to assist the victims of domestic violence and at a minimum ensure their physical safety.