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Research Questions

  1. What strategies can help prevent domestic abuse among service members and their spouses or partners before it occurs?
  2. What strategies can help the military with outreach and communication to reach individuals who might have risk factors for domestic abuse?
  3. What strategies can help the military measure or evaluate how well its domestic abuse outreach, communication, and prevention activities are working?

Domestic abuse is among many harmful behaviors of concern to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) because of its consequences for military personnel, their families, and military readiness. RAND's National Defense Research Institute is conducting a multi-year research effort, requested by Congress in Section 546C of the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, to study domestic abuse from a variety of perspectives.

In the first phase of this study, the RAND team focused its work on identifying strategies that can help DoD and the Services prevent domestic abuse among service members and their spouses or partners before it occurs and strategies that could be effective in the military environment for outreach and communication to individuals who might have risk factors for domestic abuse.

The prevention and outreach strategies highlighted in this research were synthesized from recommendations made by 80 experts — domestic abuse survivor experts and advocates, military program or service providers and practitioners, military leaders, and domestic abuse scholars — and a scoping review of relevant literature published in the past two decades.

Key Findings

  • Both the expert panel and scoping review results pointed to the need for prevention strategies to address not only individual and relationship risk factors but also the broader social, cultural, and systemic factors, such as social isolation and perceived tolerance of domestic abuse.
  • A comprehensive prevention approach would include strategies that fall outside the primary purview of DoD's Family Advocacy Program (FAP) and would require contributions from, for example, the Office of Force Resiliency, the Military Health Agency, training commands, military leaders, community organizations, and military offices tasked with preventing other problematic behaviors.
  • Experts cautioned against risk factors being treated as excuses or causal factors for domestic abuse, domestic abuse material becoming too diluted by other content, and non-subject-matter experts addressing sensitive domestic abuse topics.
  • Across discussions of strategies, experts noted that existing installation-level staffing, expertise, and resources were insufficient to implement some recommendations. This concern encompassed not only the capacity of FAP but also other potential key actors, such as counselors and medical staff.
  • Nearly half of the research studies in this scoping review focused on domestic abuse prevention strategies to educate and teach skills to individuals, couples, and families, and those focused on relationship and individual skills were the most common. Most studies of relationship skills strategies showed a positive impact on reducing the occurrence of domestic abuse.

Recommendations

  • Teach safe and healthy relationship skills by developing a military-specific domestic abuse prevention curriculum for service members and their spouses or partners, expanding the types of services available to support individuals and couples struggling with relationship and parenting issues, and addressing abusive leadership behaviors in the workplace and providing guidance on military-appropriate leadership skills that are not well-suited at home.
  • Engage influential community members by (1) preparing military leaders to actively participate in prevention activities and conveying the expectation that leaders will participate and (2) engaging peers and survivors in planning, implementing, and assessing domestic abuse prevention education, training, and information awareness campaigns.
  • Create protective environments by focusing on spouse and partner supports and community integration to counter isolation and dependency risk factors, and improve prevention by increasing efforts to hold perpetrators convicted of the crime of domestic violence and leaders accountable for their actions or inaction following a domestic violence conviction.
  • Strengthen economic supports for families by coordinating and promoting efforts to help relieve economic risk factors for domestic abuse and reduce economic control in relationships.
  • Strengthen the prevention system by increasing the number of prevention and education specialists and providers to increase capacity to focus on prevention before domestic abuse occurs and integrating domestic abuse prevention activities within other violence prevention programs to reduce risk factors.
  • Measure, monitor, and evaluate prevention activities by collecting data on domestic abuse prevention activities and resources and conduct surveys with service members, spouses or partners, and users of domestic abuse prevention resources.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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