As awful as the statistics are -- as many as 4 million women annually victimized by domestic violence, thousands killed by boyfriends or husbands -- this society has come a long way since 1871, when judges in Alabama and Massachusetts first declared wife-beating illegal.
In the two decades since the first shelter for battered women opened in St. Paul, Minn., there has been a steady increase in attention paid to violence within the home. As a result, new laws and policies and better community resources are now in place for helping victims and dealing with perpetrators. Still, there is a long way to go.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the temptation to settle for partial answers or "quick fix" solutions. There is none. If society is to reduce the level of violence that can turn a home into a place of terror, the message must be consistent from all levels of government and across all parts of society.
Pieces of the framework are in place. On the federal level, Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md., has prodded Congress to take a stand on domestic violence issues. Provisions of the Violence Against Women Act, passed last year by both houses of Congress, are now pending as part of the omnibus crime bill. These include appropriations for more shelters, a national hotline and other programs to help victims and to encourage state and local governments to undertake prevention efforts. The bill also provides for interstate enforcement of orders of protection.
In Maryland, the General Assembly has strengthened some laws governing family violence, but it still needs to fine-tune legislation governing civil protective orders. There is also a strong case to be made for eliminating provisions that allow spouses not to testify against each other.
Judges and police departments need to work together to insure that policies like mandatory arrest in cases where there is evidence of an injury don't produce more cases than courts are prepared to handle. Both police departments and prosecutors' offices need domestic violence units that are well-trained and given appropriate resources.
Finally, society needs to recognize that government can't carry the burden alone. Civic leaders, celebrities, clergy, health care workers, anyone concerned with the family values this country likes to celebrate -- all these voices can help broadcast the message that homes should be havens from danger, not places of terror.