WASHINGTON — When Adele Freeman fired five .38-caliber bullets into her boyfriend in 2000, she contributed to an often-overlooked statistic within the sometimes deadly world of partner abuse: More than a third of all homicides each year connected to domestic violence are perpetrated by women.
“Men can be victimized in the same way women can,” said Laura Martin, the Calvert County state’s attorney who helped to secure Freeman’s first-degree murder conviction in 2002. “And it’s not just the violence. It’s about control, dominion, power,” she said.
The fact of female abusers and male victims often is lost in the discussion of domestic violence.
“This is the best-kept secret on family violence,” said Murray Straus, a sociologist who led a federally commissioned survey which found, in 1975, and again in 1985, that women are equally abusive to men. “There is a tremendous effort to suppress and deny these results.”
No one disputes that when physical violence occurs, women are prone to more serious injury than men; however, Straus and others caution that should not “obscure” the fact that about a third of men suffer injuries from partner violence, or homicide.
Bill Hall of Adam’s House, a health and wellness center in Suitland, agreed. He called domestic violence an “equal opportunity” issue often overlooked by the 24 or so women’s advocacy centers throughout the state.
“It’s kind of hard to find programs that cater to men and boys,” he said. “Most of the agencies I know of refer men to us … as abusers.”
Each Monday night, he and his wife, Stacie, counsel two groups of some 30 women and 65 men. Within each group, about 70 percent have been court-ordered to attend the 90-minute-long sessions, aimed at curtailing future violent behavior.
In dealing with those who’ve punched out girlfriends and choked wives, socked boyfriends, stabbed exes and even shot at spouses, both Halls agree that domestic violence is anything but a one-way street of male-on-female violence.
“Most women who abuse in the relationship (do so) because they feel pressured and don’t feel that they can communicate any other way,” said Stacie Hall. “Because he’s just not listening, and (men) are much bigger than we are.”
But other advocacy groups appear to ignore female-on-male violence.
One particular bullet point from a brochure sponsored by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, a state advocacy coalition backed largely by federal funds, notes: “Every 15 seconds a woman is battered in the United States by her husband, boyfriend or live-in partner.”
To Michaele Cohen, the nonprofit’s executive director, that statistic sounds about right. “There are male victims, of course, but the majority of victims who come forward are female,” she said.
Cohen said other data suggesting that men suffer from equal rates of violence are unreliable.
“That methodology is very controversial because, you know, you’re saying that every hit is equal and you’re not taking into account context,” she said. “I think you have to look critically at those studies.”
Yet both sides of the debate are actually looking at the same studies: The 1975 survey, updated 10 years later, revealed nearly identical rates of abuse among men and women.
Cohen did not know of the connection to the statistics in her group’s brochure, but said anecdotal evidence supports their contention.
“I don’t really want to quibble about the particular stats,” she said. Instead, Cohen pointed to the “huge number” of female victims she sees in need of assistance each and every day. “I’m not relying on statistics. I’m relying on 30 years of experience.”
Such reliance on nonscientific data is no shock to Richard Gelles, who co-authored the 1975 and 1985 surveys with Straus.
“People cherry-pick their numbers for advocacy studies,” he said. “This is what advocates do, and that’s not sad. What’s sad is policymakers don’t create evidence-based policy.”
Gelles, dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, cited the Violence Against Women’s Act as an example.
Since 1994, the act has pushed $4 billion to states — dollars aimed at eliminating domestic abuse, stalking and sexual assault through increased financial, legal and housing support to women. The act also has upped the penalties against offenders and more closely knits prosecutors, judges, police and victims advocates to the effort.
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee last May, Gelles said the law, which is set for reauthorization in 2011, mostly ignores services and resources for male victims of abuse.
“No other federal legislation dealing with an aspect of family violence, including child maltreatment, sexual abuse, and elder abuse, singularly focuses on one sex,” he testified.
Before the law’s passage, The Washington Post published a story on the impact the slaying of Nicole Brown Simpson, and the implication of her husband, former football star O.J. Simpson, in her death, was having on domestic violence service providers.
“Battered women and abusive men,” the piece states, “are calling area hot lines for help in record numbers.”
In that same story, Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Fort Washington, co-founder and then-executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, told The Post that 4 million women a year were abused by their spouses.
But, like the brochure, even that number appears to derive from within Gelles and Straus’s own published research, and could mean that men, too, suffer from 4 million cases of abuse each year.
Edwards said in a recent telephone interview that “There is no credible evidence that there is a 50-50 relationship in domestic abuse numbers. That is so not true.”
Instead, she pointed to an “overwhelming body of research” that shows men perpetrate as much as 95 percent of domestic abuse.
Richard Davis, a retired Brockton, Mass., police lieutenant and author of two books on the subject of family violence, said those figures are inaccurate, and outdated.
“There’s nobody outside radical feminism that accepts that 95-percent figure anymore,” he said.
Even the domestic violence network Edwards co-founded avoids the number, instead putting the rate of male batterers at “85 percent.”
That 85 percent equates to 588,490 annual victimizations of women 12 years of age and older, according to the network’s source, a 2003 “crime data brief” from the Bureau of Justice Statistics — about 3.4 million victimizations shy of the figure Edwards gave The Post in 1994.
“One of the ironies is that many battered women’s groups use (one-half of) our data to show prevalence rates,” Straus said. “But when trying to show who’s doing the violence, they use crime-survey data.”
Straus faults feminism as well as colleagues within the academic community for underplaying male victimization rates.
Likewise, Patricia Tjaden, who fielded a 1995 federally funded survey, said she has drawn criticism from Straus.
“Maybe I am a feminist,” she said, “but I’m also a good researcher.”
Tjaden’s survey, widely cited by advocacy groups that include the Maryland House of Ruth, found that 1.3 million women suffer from physical assaults each year.
What isn’t widely acknowledged, however, are the 834,732 men who also suffer from abuse each year, according to her survey.
Put another way, about 39 percent of the victims of physical assault each year are men.
While Tjaden stressed that as the degree of violence increases — from slapping and punching, to kicking and knives — men were found to make up a larger share of the more violent violence, she also acknowledged that the majority of estimated cases were only minor in nature, and very few involved guns or knives.
So what of services available to men?
Laura Dugan, a public policy expert and associate professor at the University of Maryland, said some might not know there is a need for men based on the services available to them.
“All of these service providers, they do not let men on their premises,” she said, recounting a case in which an alcoholic wife was abusing her husband. “She really abused him. And he had nowhere to go.”
In Maryland, the House of Ruth, one of Maryland’s largest domestic violence service providers, will assist men, but active outreach efforts seem in short supply.
“We also work with men,” Program Development Director Cheri Parlaman said, referring to an abuser intervention program.
Dorothy Lennig, director of the non-profit’s Legal Clinic, said 77 men received some form of free legal counseling or services through the Montgomery County Circuit Court in fiscal 2010, about 8 percent of the 933 served by the clinic during that period.
“We don’t discriminate,” Lennig said.
But the services available to men aren’t advertised.
Adam’s House’s Stacie Hall said that’s a shame.
“They (women’s advocates) need to realize that men are abused as well — that it’s something that is real.”
Crime Stats Support Male Domestic Violence Victims
A billboard in Baltimore, sponsored by the Maryland House of Ruth, promotes the notion that domestic violence is purely a women’s problem and issue: “How many more women have to die before domestic violence becomes a crime?”
While it long has been held that women make up the vast majority of the injured and abused, police reports compiled and analyzed by Maryland’s Central Records Division reveal that men, too, suffer from violence in the home.
Six of the 20 homicides connected to domestic violence in 2009 were men, according to Kenneth Degen, a field liaison at the division.
Other statistics based on Maryland’s 2009 Uniform Crime Report, touted by Gov. Martin O’Malley for showing the lowest rate of violent crime here since 1975, also appear to show a narrower gap between genders and violence than what is widely understood.
In fact, of the 4,317 cases of aggravated assault — cases usually requiring medical treatment — about 25 percent of victims were men, Degen said.
While few experts interviewed for this story said they believe UCR figures capture the true extent and nature of abuse behind closed doors, most experts agree male victims are much more likely to keep the violence against them a secret, and not report their female abuser to the police.
Further muddling matters, law enforcement officials are more prone to arrest a man accused of violence than a woman.
That snapshot is consistent with what Patricia Tjaden, a well-known women’s advocate and sociologist, said she found while conducting a federally-funded National Violence Against Women’s Survey of 16,000 men and women between 1995 and 1996.
Through confidential telephone interviews, Tjaden estimated that some 1.3 million women versus 834,732 men are physically assaulted each year by their partners — ranging from slapping and pushing to the much rarer use of knives and guns.
In her final report, Tjaden noted that police were “significantly more likely” to report and arrest a man accused of physical assault when dealing with a female victim. What’s more, female victims of partner violence were “significantly more likely than their male counterparts to report their victimization to the police.”
In short, you are dealing with the “wimp factor,” said David Fontes, a clinical psychologist who wrote his dissertation on stereotypes and domestic violence.
“Because as hard as it is for women to report violence, it’s twice — if not three — times harder to report for men: They don’t want to be seen as wimps,” Fontes said.
Fontes runs a private practice and doubles as an employee assistance program manager for the California Department of Social Services and said he came to that conclusion after a 6-foot-tall man with “family issues” was sent through his doorway in the mid-1990s.
The man claimed his wife was beating their children, whom Fontes later saw bearing bruises on their backs. After contacting child services, Fontes said he was struck by a question he’d never thought to ask before: “Did your wife ever hit you?”
“Yes,” the man muttered. “Seven times.”
“It was a light-bulb moment,” Fontes said.
“Whenever a female came in, I would always ask her that question: ‘Did he ever hit you?’ But I never reversed the question.”
Ever since that time, Fontes said he’s been “surprised” by the number of men who acknowledge physical abuse by their female counterparts.
Despite that, many policymakers remain fixated on the premise that domestic violence mostly is a women’s dilemma.
One of the largest federal grants Maryland has received to deal with domestic violence — dubbed the “STOP Violence Against Women Formula Grant” — put some $2.5 million dollars in state coffers in 2010.
STOP stands for services, training, officers and prosecutors, but is aimed at helping women.
The STOP grant application form indicates that “Funding may only be directed to those entities whose primary focus is combating violence against women.”
While the application also states that “does not preclude sub-recipients from providing services to a ‘similarly situated’ male victim who is in need and seeks services,” some critics charge that’s not enough.
“If a male victim happens to show up at their door they will try to help him, but they have no active outreach program or services specifically set up with the male victim in mind,” Fontes said.
That appears to be true of the Maryland House of Ruth.
Lisa Nitsch, a project manager at the nonprofit, said that while the agency would like to offer more services to male victims, its roots and “shoestring budget” prevent it from offering more to men.
“We are an agency that comes with feminist roots,” she said. “But we’re not going to oppose any services that open services to men. It’s just really hard to do this work on the budgets that we have.”
Fighting the public relations war is the biggest problem in advocating for male victims, some said.
“Male victims of abuse are not going to come forward until you reach out to them,” Fontes said.