Family violence, mostly in the form of battered women, is a problem so large and so expensive for society that it is hard to comprehend.
Each year around the nation, police are called to intervene in domestic violence against 1.8 million women. There may be up to 10 times as many cases that go unreported.Women are statistically more likely to fall victim to physical and sexual assault, and even murder, in the home than they are on the street. Family violence results in medical treatment for women that even ranks ahead of auto accidents.
Where a wife is battered, the children are likely to be abused as well. Even without physical beatings, the emotional trauma for children is enormous. Children from violent families tend grow up to be beaters themselves and to have many social problems - from drugs to violent crime.
As Surgeon General C. Everett Koop said recently, in urging more action to resolve domestic violence: "It is an overwhelming moral, economic, and public health burden that our society can no longer bear."
Utah is not an exception to the problem. While accurate figures are hard to assemble, there is no indication that spouse abuse is any less prevalent than the U.S. generally. For example, in Salt Lake County alone, there are an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 situations a year that require police intervention. Unreported cases are, of course, much greater.
The hopeful side to these numbers is that spouse abuse can often be treated and eliminated with firm police action, followed by intensive counseling. In a demonstration project in West Valley City, the Community Counseling Center reports a success rate of more than 70 percent in getting spouse abusers to change their ways.
Unfortunately, treatment is hard to find. What is needed are more counselors, more police trained in handling such cases, more public awareness, better laws and ways to implement them. In other words - more money.
Two bills have been introduced in the 1989 Utah Legislature. Both have the backing of lawmakers, social service groups, and police.
One, HB15, would amend the 1979 Spouse Abuse Act, which outlines procedures by which battered wives can get protective court orders.
The act is not working well because it is complicated, requires women to go through many bureaucratic steps that may be more than a beaten, fearful woman can handle.
The time frames for serving papers and holding hearings are too brief. If the five-day deadline for serving papers on an abusive husband is not met, for example, the whole process must be started again from scratch. In addition, too few women even know about the law.
HB15 seeks to make it a little easier to get protective orders, but the law itself does not solve domestic violence problems.
The second bill, HB16, would set up a state task force to study the whole issue of domestic violence, to examine what is being done elsewhere, to explore the latest research, and to draft model legislation. The group would include legislators, social workers, lawmen and prosecutors, judges, and even victims of domestic violence.
The hope is that all these diverse groups can learn to work together in handling domestic violence and developing an effective statewide plan - including laws with teeth in them - to deal with this vast problem.
More simply has to be done to protect women from this brutality.