Study Shows Heightened Risk of Domestic Violence After Family Member’s Release from Incarceration

By Tom McLaughlin

October marks Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

While one incident is too many, intimate partner violence against a spouse or partner has an alarming rate of occurrence – about one in four cases studied – following the release of an individual from incarceration, according to new Rutgers University–Camden research.

“This was not something that we expected,” says coauthor Dan Semenza, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Rutgers–Camden. “This gives us a better sense of the specific risks involved when a partner is released from prison. However, we also found only four studies that focused on the prevalence of violence perpetrated against children; there is much more to learn on this front.”

Semenza worked on the paper with fellow Rutgers–Camden researchers Richard Stansfield, an associate professor of criminal justice and the lead investigator, and Laura Napolitano, an assistant professor of sociology, as well as students Melanie Gatson, Megan Coleman, and Maria Diaz. Titled “The Risk of Family Violence After Incarceration: An Integrative Review,” the paper was published in the peer-reviewed journal Trauma, Violence, and Abuse.

The project, which takes stock of a large volume of academic literature focusing on reintegration, aims to assess the physical manifestation of violence – defined as “any incident that includes pushing, shoving, throwing an object, kicking, or hitting, as well as the threatened use of a weapon against a child, intimate partner, or other relative” – during the critical reentry stage after release from prison.

Dan Semenza

“There has been a lot of research in this area, but it has never been collected and standardized in one place,” says Semenza. “That was our goal.”

According to the Rutgers–Camden researcher, the study also identified several key predictors of physical violence between family members during this critical reentry period, namely a past history of family violence, weak family support, and substance abuse after release.

“These factors predicted family violence time and time again,” he says, adding, “When you do an exhaustive review like this, what is really useful is that you can see such patterns emerge.”

Semenza further explains that the study uniquely benefits from its integrative scope, factoring in a combination of “statistics and hard numbers” of technical, quantitative studies, as well as direct conversations with individuals – both victims and perpetrators – who have experienced family violence.

“This allows us to draw out patterns, but also to identify other factors where we could use additional research, such as the aforementioned lack of focus on violence perpetrated against children,” he says. “This is extremely important when you are trying to get a sense of the field to know what we do and don’t know.”

Laura Napolitano

For instance, he notes, previous research shows many families experience difficulties maintaining healthy relationships both prior to and following incarceration. However, the Rutgers–Camden study could not determine whether someone was violent or aggressive toward a family member prior to incarceration and that violence continued after release, or if the incarceration experience increased that risk when an individual returned home.

“It’s difficult to tell, for example, if someone coming home causes major stress on the family, which results in greater risk of violence,” he says. “A lot of these studies haven’t been done long-term, so they still haven’t been able to disentangle that finding. It might seem like we are splitting hairs technically, but our argument is that this is the kind of research which still needs to be done.”

The Rutgers–Camden researchers posit that their findings have several vital implications for public policy and future research. First and foremost, says Semenza, they want policymakers to consider the risk of family violence – and the key predictors of violence – when designing and implementing reentry programs.

Richard Stansfield

A prime example, he says, is the much-needed focus on substance abuse treatment, both during incarceration and following release. He notes that this treatment is a part of many reentry programs, but it isn’t necessarily standardized or a major emphasis.

“Based on what we see, this treatment is beneficial not only for people struggling with substance abuse, but also has a potential preventative effect on family violence following their release,” he says.

Furthermore, he says, the majority of perpetrators of violence studied were male, showing a need for more sufficient social support and conflict resolution strategies for this population. He says that these strategies, which ideally should be administered before incarceration, become critical when factoring in the myriad stressors when someone returns home.

“They are trying to find a job, potentially find housing, and reintegrating with their family,” he says. “Oftentimes these people need support from family members, and reentry programs should help them learn how to cope with these issues in a way that is prosocial and enable violence not to occur.”

On the research front, the Rutgers–Camden social scientists hope to see additional quantitative studies looking at how incarceration changes the dynamic of family violence, studies that focus on females who have been incarcerated and released, and research assessing the prevalence of domestic violence perpetrated against children following a family member’s release.

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