Costs of Domestic Violence Research Paper

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The topic of domestic violence and its associated social, economic, and psychological costs may elicit strong reactions from the public as well as from individuals involved with domestic violence scholarship and professional and social services. Domestic violence knows no boundaries in relation to class, race, gender, or age. It is generally accepted as the most frequent form of violence in the United States and is considered a major social problem. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury and death to American women. It is estimated that over 4 million American women experience a serious assault by their partners during an average year. Nearly one in three adult women experiences at least one physical assault by a partner during adulthood. Half of the men who frequently assault their wives also frequently abuse their children. Each year an estimated 3.3 million children are exposed to domestic violence and many domestic homicide victims are children. The main purpose for discussing the ‘‘costs’’ of domestic violence is to more clearly show the importance of the phenomenon to everyone in society.


I. Introduction

II. Social Costs of Domestic Violence

III. Economic Costs of Domestic Violence

IV. Psychological Costs of Domestic Violence

V. Conclusion


The costs of domestic violence can be most easily broken down into the two main categories of ‘‘direct’’ costs and ‘‘indirect’’ costs. For instance, one study showed that the health-related costs of rape, physical assault, stalking, and homicide committed by intimate partners exceeded $5.8 billion each year. Of that amount, nearly $4.1 billion was for direct medical and mental health care services, and nearly $1.8 billion was for the indirect costs of lost productivity or wages. Although the categories overlap to some degree, the direct costs of domestic violence are usually measured rather superficially in terms of dollars lost, injuries suffered, and lives taken. Direct costs could include direct expenses such as medical bills, legal fees, costs of incarceration, security measures, decreasing property values, sick leave taken, and employee turnover. The majority of direct costs are often borne by the government. The federal government typically bears the costs of income support, housing, and medical care. State governments typically cover the costs for court and legal services, child welfare, and family support programs. Businesses and employers may bear the direct costs of absenteeism, staff turnover, lost productivity, and employer liability.

Indirect costs are also prevalent and important but typically are even more difficult to measure. Indirect costs pertain to the actual human costs of domestic violence, which typically cannot be measured in dollars and cents. Mental and emotional trauma are very real consequences of domestic violence for many victims, but they tend not to be measured or reported in official government studies. The intangible costs of pain and suffering are also not usually measured. Indirect costs include but are not limited to pain and suffering, lost productivity, loss of freedom, fear, lost opportunity, reduced quality of life, replacement of lost or damaged property, vicarious trauma, and compassion fatigue. The majority of indirect costs are borne by female victims of domestic violence. Overall, the largest cost element of domestic violence is reduced quality of life and its related fear, pain, and suffering. Thus it is the direct victims who bear the greatest share of the costs of domestic violence.

Determining the cost of domestic violence is further complicated by the fact that most crime and economic statistics are often not broken down by crime type; and even when they are, domestic violence is generally overlooked. Research on domestic violence is further complicated by the fact that this term has a range of definitions. Domestic violence, by its barest definition, is violence within the domestic sphere of a home. In a broader sense, domestic violence could include any act of physical or sexual violence, threats or intimidation, emotional or social abuse, or willful neglect or economic deprivation where the victim-to-offender relationship is based on current or former marriage, family ties, or romantic relationship. Under this latter definition, domestic violence could take the form of child abuse, elder abuse, spousal abuse, or dating violence. Domestic violence harms more than its direct victim. It also harms the abuser and any children involved or witnessing the abuse, as well as the health and well-being of members of the community. In essence, domestic violence has a high price socially, economically, and psychologically.

Social Costs of Domestic Violence

Domestic violence financially impacts more than the immediate victim. As taxpayers, donors to private service providers, or consumers of government programs and services, everyone is impacted by the financial costs of domestic violence. Record highs in probation and parole caseloads and increasing jail and prison inmate populations have made a substantial impact on American society. Additionally, the necessity of investing resources in the criminal justice system to combat domestic violence and deal with its perpetrators means that there are fewer resources available for other socially valued uses such as education and social service programs, thus lowering in yet another way the quality of life for many.

From a broad perspective, even the time that a batterer invests in committing a crime or in serving a sentence represents a cost to society, since that batterer could perhaps have engaged in a legitimate and/or revenue-producing activity instead. Perhaps the greatest cost to society at large is primarily moral in nature, as the continuation of domestic violence forces many citizens to deal with a type of domestic terrorism within their own homes in communities across America. Even those who have not been directly victimized may suffer from a form of psychological victimization known as ‘‘fear of crime.’’ This fear is most pronounced in women and may result in less social interaction and faith in society, which may in turn start to destroy the social order of the community and perhaps even the nation. This increased fear and suspicion of interacting with others, especially others who are ‘‘different,’’ may reinforce existing racial and ethnic prejudices, thus lessening the rewards and knowledge offered by cultural diversity and perhaps even triggering further domestic violence and social isolation. Increased fear among citizens may not only create barriers and distrust among individuals but also weaken public belief in the legitimacy of the government, as individuals become dissatisfied with the criminal justice system’s ability to ‘‘protect and serve.’’

Even by conservative estimates, each year over one million women suffer nonfatal victimization by an intimate. By other estimates, like those provided by the American Psychological Association, annually over four million American women experience a serious assault by a partner. According to findings from the Study of Injured Victims of Violence, approximately one and a half million people are treated each year for nonfatal injuries sustained in violence. A higher percentage of women than men are treated for injuries inflicted by an intimate.

On average 1.7 million violent victimizations happen each year to persons who are at work or on duty. Additionally, about 900 work-related homicides happen each year. Police officers tend to experience the highest rates of workplace violence. Whites have higher rates of workplace victimization than minorities, which contrasts with the overall violent crime trends. About 3 percent of workplace victimizations are committed by husbands or boyfriends.

Homes and businesses can be forced to carry the cost of cyber victimization. Computer viruses as well as vandalism and sabotage meant to harm or scare a domestic violence victim can easily create losses in the millions for many businesses, whereas online stalking or harassment and intense monitoring of what one has done on the computer are often concerns for individual victims of domestic violence.

Economic Costs of Domestic Violence

Evidence suggests that it is the public sector of society in general which bears much of the economic burden of domestic violence. For instance, many of the medical costs of treating domestic violence injuries are either directly paid by public financing or not paid at all. If the medical costs are not paid, they are absorbed by the government and society in the form of uncompensated care financing, which results in overall higher payment rates for all citizens. Financing that is used to cover these costs of violence results in less money being available for direct public expenditures such as education, Social Security, housing, and recreation; this in turn may have negative effects on investment and economic growth. Few if any studies examine the costs to faith-based communities as well as to government.

Many studies have shown that preventive measures to stop domestic violence cost less than the money that such measures save. For instance, the 1994 Violence against Women Act has resulted in an estimated net benefit of $16.4 billion, including $14.8 billion in averted victims’ costs. Other studies have shown that providing shelters for victims of domestic violence results in a benefit-to-cost ratio of between 6.8 and 18.4. Similarly, the cost of a program to prevent child abuse through counseling equaled 5 percent of the cost of child abuse itself. Some interventions with juvenile offenders have resulted in economic benefits that were more than thirty times greater than the corresponding costs.

While it might theoretically be possible to determine the amount of funding that communities and programs allocated to domestic violence across the United States, this research has not yet been done as of this writing. Some costs of domestic violence can be inferred by examining the overall economic costs of crime. Crime victims lose over $17 billion in direct costs each year. Direct costs include property loss or damage, cash losses, medical expenses, and income lost because of injury or activities related to the crime. Lost property is typically not recovered, and medical expenses typically exceed $250. Medical expenses may continue to accumulate for months or even years after victimization, and domestic violence victims are typically revictimized.

About one out of every six victims who were injured survives serious injuries from gunshot or knife wounds, broken bones, teeth knocked out, or injuries requiring hospital stays of two days or more. Injuries caused by crime account for more than 700,000 days of hospitalization each year. Although not yet studied, long-term health problems could result from serious as well as minor injuries. Many women who suffer serious injuries were assaulted by a significant other. Despite a lack of standardized research on the economic costs of domestic violence, it is important to examine the psychological costs of domestic violence as well.

Psychological Costs of Domestic Violence

It is difficult to assign ‘‘costs’’ to the more qualitative aspects of victimization, but crime has real emotional and behavioral consequences for domestic violence victims as well as their family, friends, and communities. Emotional reactions can range from slight to extreme in intensity and can include multiple emotions such as fear, sadness, guilt, alienation, and rage. These emotions can lead to a wide range of behavioral consequences, from difficulty sleeping and lost work productivity to avoiding public places, withdrawing from relationships, and even suicide.

Women who have been exposed to domestic violence have a greater risk of developing a range of health problems, including stress, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, sleeping disorders, loss of self-esteem, pain syndromes, phobias, and somatic and medical symptoms. In addition to poor health overall, victims are more likely to engage in drug or alcohol use and other activities that are harmful to their physical and psychological health. These costs are often magnified by the difficulties in accessing health services. It is important to note that the more severe the abuse, the greater its impact on the victim’s health; furthermore, the impact over time of different types and multiple episodes of abuse appears to be cumulative. Typically, the mental health effects persist long after the violent episode(s).

The effect of domestic violence on children can be severe. It is estimated that between 3.3 and 10 million children witness domestic violence annually. Besides witnessing domestic violence, roughly half the children themselves may be the targets of physical, sexual, or verbal abuse by the perpetrator. Children’s psychological problems precipitated by domestic violence may include bed-wetting, nightmares, withdrawal, loss of self-confidence, lack of self-esteem, tantrums, and emotional outbursts. In addition to these immediate costs, living with domestic violence may affect children’s school performance and emotional development. The long-term costs may include diminished educational and employment opportunities, as well as increased likelihood of future criminal behavior.

Studies have shown that domestic violence has severe and persistent effects on the victim’s physical and mental health and even carries with it the enormous cost of disability and premature death. When psychological symptoms are severe, a syndrome such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or battered woman syndrome might be identified. In PTSD, victims may reexperience the traumatic event through intrusive thoughts, nightmares, or flashbacks. There may also be symptoms of emotional numbing, leading to diminished interest in activities and increased physiological arousal, causing difficulty in sleeping or concentrating. When one suffers from battered woman syndrome, one’s thoughts about safety, expectations of future violence, and views of oneself may be negatively transformed. These syndromes illustrate that the psychological costs of victimization may last for years after the crime and that victimization may even alter one’s perception of safety and the availability of alternatives.

Psychological harm comes not only at the hands of the batterer, but from the way the criminal justice system often neglects victims’ needs or, worse yet, tends to blame them for their own victimization. The response of the criminal justice system may have a negative impact on the fresh emotional problems of victims; this is often referred to as being ‘‘revictimized.’’ People such as family members and friends who are emotionally close to victims of domestic violence may also experience emotional problems and costs. Often these indirect victims experience difficulties and symptoms such as anger and fear, which are quite similar to the actual victim’s reactions. The development of psychological problems in the indirect victim may inadvertently worsen the symptoms of the direct victim. For instance, if a child reacts with guilt and anger instead of love toward the mother when she tries to leave the batterer, this reaction may influence the woman to stay in the situation. In the case of the death of a domestic violence victim, close family and friends often feel anger and vengefulness in addition to the feelings of normal bereavement. Also, necessary extensive contact with the criminal justice system may interfere, sometimes severely, with the normal reorganizations and healing processes taking place.

Working with traumatized people can have long-term impacts like ‘‘burnout,’’ where the worker becomes frustrated with her environment, or ‘‘compassion fatigue,’’ where the worker grows weary from the nature of the work. There may be ‘‘vicarious trauma,’’ where the worker’s views of the world change and there is a shift in her belief system which may trigger behavioral and social changes. This outcome is sometimes referred to as secondary trauma disorder or secondary PTSD. Thus, there can be an emotional cost in working with victims of domestic violence.

Domestic violence deprives victims as well as family members, friends, the community, and even the broader society of their sense of emotional well-being. Although the causes of domestic violence are complex, various factors in social, economic, and cultural environments play a significant part. Addressing these factors, including the unequal distribution of power and resources between men and women and among various racial groups, can help to lessen the occurrence and consequences of domestic violence. Sharing information about domestic violence will be important to further prevention efforts and advocacy for policy reform and program development. When it comes to program development, studies suggest that domestic violence warrants attention at least equal to that of many other well-established diseases and risk factors for health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity. Further research to understand domestic violence and to assess the effectiveness of various prevention strategies will be important.


At this point it is impossible to accurately gauge the cost of domestic violence, but it is expensive. How can one measure the costs of damaged lives and generations? Conservative estimates are that child abuse alone costs the United States $94 billion annually, or 1 percent of the gross domestic product. In terms of a dollar value, it is estimated that domestic violence costs range from $1.7 billion to over $300 billion annually, depending on which variables are considered. Given the importance and difficult nature of this topic, there is a clear need for systematic future research into the costs of domestic violence. Future research should follow rigorous guidelines, include both direct and indirect costs, and ideally be comparable across regions and countries.

See also:


  1. Gosselin, Denise Kindschi. Heavy Hands: An Introduction to the Crimes of Family Violence, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.
  2. Jackson, Nicky, and Gisele Oates. Violence in Intimate Relationships: Examining Sociological and Psychological Issues. Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1998.
  3. Karmen, Andrew. Crime Victims: An Introduction to Victimology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004.
  4. Straus, Murray A., and Richard J. Gelles. Physical Violence in American Families. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers 1990.
  5. Walker, Samuel, Cassia Spohn, and Miriam DeLone. The Color of Justice: Race, Ethnicity, and Crime in America, 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning, 2004.

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