Family violence, especially severe child abuse, has declined dramatically in the United States during the past decade, pointing to a ``phenomenal'' change in Americans' attitudes toward the problem, two sociologists say. Their research, released last week, shows severe violence toward children decreased a whopping 47 percent since 1975. The incidence of wife beating dropped 21 percent in the same period.
``It's not often that a researcher in the field of family violence has an opportunity to present results that give good news,'' says Richard J. Gelles, a professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Rhode Island.
At first glance, the child-abuse figures appear to conflict with reports by the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, which show a steady rise in the number of child-abuse cases. But the disparity can be attributed to the fact that violence toward children, which used to go undetected, is being reported more often and is adding to the caseload, says NCPCA executive director Anne Cohn.
``It's true, too, that people who work on the front lines in this battle say the physical violence against children looks much less severe than it used to,'' she adds.
Dr. Gelles and Murray A. Straus, director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, conducted the first national survey on family violence in 1975, following up in 1985 with a telephone survey of 4,500 US families. The findings on child abuse focused only on children ages 3 to 17 who live with two parents; the findings on wife beating focused on all couples, married and unmarried.
The decrease in severe family violence can be attributed in part to public-awareness campaigns and changes in public attitudes, the researchers say. In a 1983 Louis Harris poll, 90 percent of Americans said child abuse was a severe national problem, compared with only 20 percent in 1975, Gelles says.
Rates of child abuse dropped more than rates of spouse abuse because violence against children has been ``on the national agenda'' a few years longer than wife beating, Dr. Straus says. ``Every state now has child-abuse reporting laws, protective-service workers, `hot lines,' and the like. The network for women is not as extensive.''
Both men say they were surprised by the dramatic decreases in family violence, but they warn that the nation must not rest on its laurels. At least 2 million children are seriously assaulted every year, and 1.3 million women are battered by their mates, Straus says.
Gelles, who presented results from the survey at the Seventh National Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect in Chicago, says 1 in 25 children in 1975 was a victim of ``severe'' violence (such as kicking, biting, beating, and threatening with a gun or knife). Now the number has dropped to 1 child in 33.
Besides the fundamental change in public attitudes, they cited other possible explanations for the decreases in severe family violence, including:
The economy. Today's economy, with a lower unemployment rate and more stable inflation rate than in 1975, puts less stress on family life.
Deterrence. Police are beginning to make arrests in domestic violence cases, rather than treating such cases as private disputes.
The feminist movement. ``American marriages are becoming, bit by bit, more egalitarian,'' Straus says. Data show that marriages are more violent when the man has the final say in decisions or when the woman does not work outside the home.
Family structure. Men and women are marrying later in life, bearing children later, and having fewer children. Data show that young couples are more likely to use violence against their partners and against their children than couples who marry later in life. ``Young marriages have incredibly high violence rates,'' Straus says.
Family planning. This generation is the first to have a full range of planned parenting options, including abortion, Gelles says. Data show that unwanted children are the most likely to be abused.
Other researchers are cautious about endorsing the findings, citing variations in methods used to take the two surveys.
In addition, Richard Berk, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a specialist in family-violence issues, says: ``Given all we know about the pattern of crime statistics, a 47 percent drop is so unprecedented as to be unbelievable. Never before has there been a drop of that magnitude, that rapidly.''
A Reagan administration official, too, says he has ``serious doubts'' about the accuracy of the surveys. Because child abuse is a subject that is complicated and hidden from view, it's difficult for researchers to quantify the problem scientifically, he says.
Gelles and Straus concede that, because family violence has become more unacceptable in society, many people in the survey may not have admitted to it. Even so, the researchers say, it's evident more people recognize that violence in the family is inappropriate.
The surveys, the only ones ever conducted using a national representative sample, were funded by the National Institute of Mental Health in Washington.