Distributed April 7, 2003
For Immediate Release

News Service Contact: Scott Turner

New study documents domestic violence by race, income in R.I.

Although black and Hispanic women comprised 6 percent of Rhode Island’s 1990 population, they represented more than 17 percent of victims in police reports documenting domestic violence and sexual assault, according to a Brown University study published in the journal Public Health Reports.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Black and Hispanic women, especially black women in more affluent neighborhoods, are over-represented in police-reported domestic violence information compiled by the Rhode Island Department of Health, according to a new analysis published in the journal Public Health Reports.

Four Brown University researchers found that although black and Hispanic women comprised 6 percent of the state's 1990 population, they represented more than 17 percent of victims in police reports documenting domestic violence and sexual assault.

The study authors say that black and Hispanic women are not more prone to domestic violence in the Ocean State. Instead, the findings may reflect a point of entry difference among women. The federal government has funded a handful of states to establish domestic violence surveillance systems since the 1990s, but Rhode Island is the only state with a system largely centered on police reports.

This is one of the first studies based on a state reporting system for domestic violence. Other states rely on court reports or medical documents or a blend of both, said co-author Wendy Verhoek-Oftedahl, an assistant professor of community health who helped develop the surveillance program in Rhode Island. “These states have not reported whether there are racial differences in domestic violence risk when the point of entry for help is the courts or hospital emergency rooms.”

The Brown study looked at whether the risk of police-reported domestic violence varied in relation to a woman's race and neighborhood conditions. The researchers linked data from Rhode Island's surveillance system with 1990 census information at the block group level (average population 1,000).

The study found that white and Hispanic women were less likely to make a domestic violence report to police as neighborhoods became less impoverished and levels of poverty dropped. However, “black women were as likely to contact police to report domestic violence in poor as in more-affluent neighborhoods,” said lead author Deborah Pearlman, assistant professor of community health.

“We think that white and Hispanic women may take advantage of or have different options for domestic violence interventions,” Pearlman said. “This may include contacting a private physician, having more direct access to a lawyer or the courts, or relying on social support from family and neighbors.” But this study could not confirm that hypothesis, she said.

The findings of a higher number of black women reporting to police builds on previous research that showed an increased likelihood that police will make an arrest if the victim and perpetrator are black, note the authors, who acknowledge that the findings for black women are complex.

“Race acts as a proxy for discrimination and for the restriction of resources,” said Pearlman. “At every level of income, blacks do not do as well as whites and Hispanics. In the U.S. there is a skin color hierarchy that affects education, disposable income, wealth, assets, stability of employment, and health across the life course, even for blacks living in neighborhoods with similar socioeconomic characteristics as whites.”

Author Sally Zierler, professor of community health, said, “Is accessing police, regardless of socioeconomic well-being, the best route for black women in reporting domestic violence, who may be lacking alternative support?”

In terms of racial position in society, black women are the least valued socially and economically, said Zierler. “Something about racial positioning also puts black women at worse danger in their homes than white women. There is a loss of dignity for black men as a result of racial discrimination. The more disintegrating one’s own context, the fewer places there are to express anger.”

The authors hope that “any woman who experiences domestic violence is not missed by the network of help that is available. We want women in all communities, poor and affluent, to know about resources such as hotlines, safe houses, and restraining orders, and that police will come and help,” they said.

“You don't want any woman falling through the cracks,” said Verhoek-Oftedahl. “States looking to set up their own domestic violence surveillance programs must include education programs about domestic violence and about ways to protect oneself, whether that protection comes from police, or through victim services agencies, courts or hospitals. In Rhode Island, as in other states, women can obtain restraining orders without police assistance. This is an important point, as women not wishing police intervention can still receive this protection.”

The study’s other author was PhD graduate student Annie Gjelsvik. Grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funded the research.