While general knowledge of IPV has grown since the initial stages of the movement, empirical evidence supporting the effectiveness of prevention strategies and interventions remains scarce (Bender, 2017). Although existing literature suggests that IPV services, such as shelter, mental health services, advocacy, and support groups, have a positive impact on survivor well-being, most of these studies lack methodological rigor (Center for Policy Research [CPR], 2017; Bender, 2017). Compared to survivor services, more data exist evaluating the effectiveness of AIPs, coinciding with the movement’s shift away from a victim-centric paradigm and toward a perpetrator-focused approach (Wathen & MacMillan, 2003). However, despite increased data concerning IPV prevalence rates and typologies, there is no evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of one AIP over another (Danis, 2003).
This gap between our understanding of IPV and empirically-supported intervention strategies presents barriers to securing program funding and advancing practice and policy (Bender, 2017; CPR, 2017). Two persistent themes found throughout the IPV movement include disputes about how to conceptualize, prioritize, and approach interventions, and continued reliance on problematic outcome measures.
Conceptualizing and Operationalizing IPV for Research
IPV research and program development have been influenced by the political and social climates of the period, resulting in disagreements about how this pressing social issue should be conceptualized and operationalized for research. In addition to the United States’ increased prioritization of the criminal justice system as the primary source for IPV intervention, the interdisciplinary nature of IPV has also contributed to ideological conflicts and incompatible intervention goals across systems (Jasinski & Williams, 1998; Worden, 2000). The absence of a comprehensive, underlying theory concerning the nature and causes of IPV has been cited as a significant barrier to the design and evaluation of interventions (Bell & Naugle, 2008; Bender, 2017). Without a guiding framework for determining the proximal variables associated with IPV, the primary intervention objectives – less violence, offender accountability, and victim safety – have remained broad since the movement’s initial stages (Worden, 2000; McCord, 1992).
Researchers, funders, and program developers primarily utilize revictimization and return to the abuser as outcome measures for evaluating survivor services. However, relying on incidences of revictimization as the measure of an intervention’s success dismisses the many reasons that women may remain with or return to an abusive partner, including the risks of social, economic, and interpersonal resource loss (Bender, 2017; Sullivan, 2018). For example, the implementation of regressive policies in the 1980s and 1990s, such as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, increased the likelihood that survivors who left their abusive partners would experience homelessness and extreme poverty (Fleck-Henderson, 2017). In 1996, welfare reform transformed cash assistance as entitlement into a state-administered block grant with strict work requirements, time limits, and harsh sanctions for non-compliance. These policy changes continue to disproportionately impact low-income women, particularly single mothers and women of color, contributing to the difficult choices women face when considering whether to remain with or return to their abuser. Given these significant concerns, leaving one’s abusive partner might not be the desired outcome for IPV survivors (Chang et al., 2005). Thus, the use of revictimization as an outcome measure neglects survivors’ goals, limits our understanding of how socioeconomic factors impact return to the abuser, and prohibits the development of interventions that effectively address survivors’ complex needs.
The development of standards and guidelines for AIPs began in the 1980s and was influenced by competing perspectives on the root causes of IPV and the most appropriate strategies to address it (Austin & Dankwort, 19999). As AIPs rose to prominence in the 1990s, researchers increasingly called for empirical studies evaluating the performance of AIPs and coordinated community responses. From the emergence of AIPs in the late 1970s to the present day, recidivism remains the primary outcome measure used to evaluate the effectiveness of batterer interventions. However, using recidivism is problematic for several reasons. First, utilizing police reports and partner reports as indicators of recidivism is often unreliable due to underreporting and inaccurate police reports (Babcock et al., 2004). In addition, there are inconsistencies across studies in how violence is measured and who is asked to provide this critical information (Gerlock, 1997). With the rising focus on evidence-based practices (EBP), the efficacy of AIPs is increasingly called into question. Contemporary criticisms of AIPs include the model’s reliance on a one-size-fits-all approach, the inattention to cultural differences within the treatment paradigm, and the lack of empirical evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of court-mandated treatment in reducing recidivism. Despite these criticisms, AIPs remain the predominant intervention (Babcock et al., 2004).