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In 1992, the American Medical Association called it a public health problem of epidemic proportions. Last month the U.S. Department of Justice said the situation is even worse than we thought.

This month, officially dedicated to domestic violence awareness, everyone from corporate executives to social service case workers is focusing on spousal abuse, once considered a private matter and, in some circles, a man's prerogative.

They'll share a mantra of statistics: 2 million to 4 million women are battered every year; a woman is beaten every 12 seconds; a woman is killed every six hours; one-quarter of all women will experience domestic violence sometime in their lives; wife assault constitutes 25 percent of all violent crime; more than half of female murder victims are killed by their partners; 60 percent of battered women are beaten while they are pregnant.

And that's just in this country, where tolerance levels are much lower than in many parts of the world.

While statistics don't measure the pain, suffering and tragedy of family violence, they do provide the framework for public debate and reaction. In recent years they have spurred legislatures, the criminal justice system and the medical establishment to alter the landscape in almost revolutionary fashion. Spousal abuse as a crime is confronted and treated in an entirely different atmosphere today from even a decade ago.

While it no longer festers unfettered behind closed doors, family violence remains one of the hardest of crimes to detect, measure and prevent. No one knows for sure if the commonly accepted statistics, in many cases only estimates, are overblown or underreported. Not everyone agrees on what turns domestic discord into violence. Are words alone, pushes and slaps on a par with throwing punches or brandishing weapons?

The Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, which has been counting cases of domestic violence that turn up in courts, crime statistics and lately hospital emergency rooms, classifies domestic violence as difficult to measure. The bureau's most recent report states: "These crimes typically occur in non-public settings. Many of the victims, including those of long-term abuse, are unable or unwilling, because of fear or embarrassment, to report such abuse to authorities or to programs that measure these victimizations."

Based on a survey of hospital emergency departments, the bureau's newest study uncovered domestic abuse crimes at a rate four times higher than estimates gleaned from previous measurements in its National Crime Victimization Survey.

The bureau believes domestic abuse may be underreported in the victims' survey that is based on interviews, because victims don't always recognize it as a crime. The emergency room survey, on the other hand, counts injuries inflicted on one person by another regardless of how the victim perceived the attack.

Of the 1.4 million people treated for violence-related injuries in emergency rooms in 1994, 243,000 were hurt by a spouse, a former spouse, a current or former boyfriend or girlfriend. Almost half of the injuries where the attack's location was known took place in a home. Adult males were the perpetrator in two-thirds of the cases.

Close to 16 percent of the women were injured by someone with whom they shared an intimate relationship. Men were more likely to be victims of non-relatives and most were injured by strangers. However, the patient-offender relationship was unknown in about one-third of all injuries of males compared to one-fifth of injuries of females.

The study confirms concerns that domestic violence is a major public health issue, but perhaps not on the scale once believed. This report shows that injuries from confirmed or suspected interpersonal violence constituted 1.5 percent of all visits to emergency rooms and 3.6 percent of injury-related emergency room visits in 1994. This is somewhat less than a 1985 estimate that domestic violence is the
No. 1 cause of emergency room visits by women, a statement that is widely quoted today.

Bob Howard, media relations expert from the Centers for Disease Control, in Atlanta, will speak at a breakfast to be sponsored by Western New York Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice on Thursday at 8:30 a.m. in Amherst Community Church. Also speaking will be the Rev. Kenneth Applegate and Mindy Berman of Family Planning Advocates, Albany. Susan Higgins, 853-1779, is taking reservations.

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