National Family Violence Surveys Essay

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Social surveys are one source of data on family and intimate partner violence. There have been seven major national surveys that were designed and carried out with the specific purpose of assessing and examining the extent, correlates, causes, and consequences of family violence, intimate partner violence, and/or violence toward children. The majority of these surveys were one-time cross-sectional surveys. In addition, a number of surveys on topics such as youth violence or child and family well-being included one or more questions designed to measure the occurrence of family or intimate partner violence. For example, the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH) included a single question that can be used to estimate partner violence. The question asked, “During the last year, how many fights with your partner resulted in (you/him/her) hitting, shoving, or throwing things at (you/him/her)?” The NSFH has been examined by some researchers interested in the extent and patterns of partner violence. Sharon Wofford and her colleagues administered the Conflict Tactics Scales during one wave of the National Youth Survey—a longitudinal study of a birth cohort in the United States. Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi administered a modified version of the Conflict Tactics Scales to a nationally representative birth cohort in Dunedin, New Zealand. The U.S. Department of Justice includes questions on intimate partner violence in the annual National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). The U.S. Department of Justice has published a number of reports on intimate violence based on the data collected by the NCVS.

This essay focuses exclusively on those national surveys designed and carried out with the goal of studying family violence, intimate partner violence, or violence toward children.

Family Violence Surveys

Murray Straus and Richard Gelles and their colleagues have carried out three national surveys of family violence: (1) in-person interviews with a nationally representative sample of 2,143 respondents in 1976, (2) telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 6,002 respondents in 1985, and (3) telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,970 respondents in 1992.

Intimate Partner Violence

In terms of intimate partner violence, the rate of minor violence, violence that had a low probability of causing a physical injury, declined from 100 per 1,000 women in 1975 to about 80 per 1,000 in 1985 and then rose to 91 per 1,000 in 1992. More serious or severe acts of violence toward women (acts labeled severe assaults or wife beating by the investigators) declined from 38 per 1,000 in 1975 to 19 per 1,000 in 1992.

Violence Toward Children

Milder forms of violence, violence that most people think of as physical punishment, were the most common. However, even with the severe forms of violence, the rates were high. Abusive violence was defined as acts that had a high probability of injuring the child. These included kicking, biting, punching, hitting or trying to hit a child with an object, beating up a child, burning or scalding, and threatening to use or using a gun or a knife. Slightly more than two parents in 100 (2.3%) admitted to engaging in one act of abusive violence during the year prior to the 1985 survey. Seven children in 1,000 were hurt as a result of an act of violence directed at them by a parent in the previous year. Projecting the rate of abusive violence to all children under 18 years of age who live with one or both parents means that 1.5 million children experience acts of abusive physical violence each year and 450,000 children are injured each year as a result of parental violence.

National Surveys Of Violence Toward Women

The Commonwealth Fund carried out a national survey of violence toward women in the early 1990s. A nationally representative sample of 1,324 was interviewed by telephone. The women’s reported rate of victimization was 84 per 1,000 women, with 32 per 1,000 women reporting that they experienced at least one incident of severe violence in the previous year.

The National Violence Against Women Survey (NVAWS) involved telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 8,000 women and 8,000 men. The survey was conducted between November 1995 and May 1996. The NVAWS assessed lifetime prevalence and annual prevalence (violence experienced in the previous 12 months). The NVAWS used a modified version of the Conflict Tactics Scales to measure violence victimization. Nearly 52% of women surveyed (519 per 1,000—52,261,743 women) reported experiencing a physical assault as a child or adult. Nearly 56% of women surveyed (559 per 1,000—56,289,623 women) reported experiencing any form of violence, including stalking, rape, or physical assault. The rate of lifetime assault at the hands of an intimate partner was 221 per 1,000 for physical violence and 254 per 1,000 for any form of violence-victimization. The rates of forms of violence less likely to cause an injury, such as pushing, grabbing, shoving, or slapping, were the highest (between 160 and 181 per 1,000), while the rates of the most severe forms of violence (used a gun, used a knife, beat up) were the lowest (85 per 1,000 for beat up, 7 per 1,000 for used a gun).

The annual prevalence or incidence of violence was 19 per 1,000 for physical assault (1,913,243 women) and 30 per 1,000 for any form of violence victimization (3,020,910 women). The annual prevalence of women victimized by intimate partners was 13 per 1,000 for physical assault (1,309,061) and 18 per 1,000 (1,812,546 women) for all forms of victimization.

National Surveys Of Violence Toward Children

Murray Straus and Julie Stewart carried out a national survey of physical punishment of children. A nationally representative sample of 900 adult parents was interviewed in a telephone survey. Straus and Stewart reported that 28.4% of parents of 2to 4-year-olds and 28.5% of parents of 5to 8-year-olds used an object to spank their child’s bottom. Overall, the survey found that 74% of children less than 5 years old were hit or slapped by their parents.

David Finkelhor and his colleagues conducted a national survey of child victimization in 2002–2003. Interviews were carried with a nationally representative sample of 2,030 parents and children living in the contiguous states in the United States. The survey collected data on children ages 2 to 17 years. Slightly more than 1 in 7 children (138 per 1,000) experienced child maltreatment. Emotional abuse was the most frequent type of maltreatment. The rate of physical abuse (meaning that children experienced physical harm) was 15 per 1,000, while the rate of neglect was 11 per 1,000. The overall projected extent of maltreatment was 8,755,000 child victims. The investigators also found that 35% of children experienced a physical assault at the hands of a sibling in the previous year. Boys and girls were nearly equally likely to be a victim of sibling violence. The rate of assault was highest for children 6 to 12 years of age.


  1. Finkehor, D., Ormrod, R., Turner, H., & Hamby, S. H. (2005). The victimization of children and youth: A comprehensive national survey. Child Maltreatment, 10, 5–25.
  2. Gallup Organization. (1995). Disciplining children in America: A Gallup poll report. Princeton, NJ: Author.
  3. Gelles, R. J., & Straus, M. A. (1988). Intimate violence. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  4. Rennison, C. (2003). Intimate partner violence: 1993–2001. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.
  5. Tjaden, P., & Thoennes, N. (2000). Extent, nature, and consequences of intimate partner violence (NCJ Publication No. 181867). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

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