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Dealing With Domestic Violence

JUST a little family quarrel.That's the attitude many law-enforcement officers, doctors, and even relatives have traditionally taken toward domestic violence. Too often, a police officer might simply tell an abusive husband to "simmer down." And a physician might routinely accept an abused wife's explanation that her bruises resulted from bumping into a door. A conspiracy of silence has prevailed, masking the fact that domestic violence causes more injuries to women in the United States than muggings, automobile accidents, and rapes combined. Now that silence is ending. Dr. Antonia Novello, the US Surgeon General, has announced a national effort by physicians to combat domestic violence. In conjunction with the American Medical Association, she is encouraging doctors to join the Physicians' Campaign Against Family Violence. The association will help physicians recognize abuse. It will also train them to question patients in a sensitive way and to assist them in finding shelters and legal aid. Another hopeful approach is being applied in at least a dozen states, where laws require police officers to arrest batterers on the spot if there is probable cause. No longer must officers put the burden of accusation on an abused and frightened woman, asking her, in the presence of her batterer, "Do you want to press charges?" Domestic violence is an abstract term for cruelly specific acts. This is no area for euphemism. Perhaps it is time for a new phrase - wife abuse or spouse abuse - that focuses on the person being mistreated, as the terms child abuse and elder abuse do. According to Dr. Novello, "The home is actually a more dangerous place for American women than the city streets." As Novello and others work to increase public awareness and strengthen legal protection for abused wives, they are helping to banish outmoded attitudes that view a woman as private property. These efforts cannot assure that a house or apartment will always be Home Sweet Home. But they can improve the chances it will at least be Home Safe Home.

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