Lifting the "Political Gag Order" Breaking the Silence Around Partner Violence in Ethnic Minority Families

Chapter Summary by
Carolyn M. West

Chapter summary, as it appears in:
Partner Violence: A Comprehensive Review of 20 Years of Research
Edited by Jana L. Jasinski and Linda M. Williams (1998)
Made available by Sage Publications

What Are the Hallmarks of a Culturally Appropriate Assessment?

A culturally appropriate assessment should include the same demographic and background information that would be gathered from any other client or family (e.g., history of substance abuse, mental illness). Therapists should also explore the following areas relevant to minorities (Abney & Priest, 1995; Chan & Leong, 1994; Comas-Diaz, 1995; LaFromboise et al., 1994; Okamura et al., 1995):

Race/Ethnicity. Ethnic identities of all family members should be carefully assessed. It would be a mistake to assume that every visibly black client identifies as African American. These clients may identify as West Indian or African-Caribbean. Among Asians, the father may be Chinese, the mother Laotian, and the children might define themselves as Chinese-Laotian Americans. The ethnic identity of Latinos and American Indians should also be considered. It is best to ask the client how he or she identifies.

Economic Status. Objective measures of economic status should be obtained (e.g., amount and source of income, ability to meet basic needs). Subjective measures should be considered as well. For example, how is the family's economic status perceived in comparison with others in the neighborhood or the extended family?

Family Structure. Clarifying boundaries and family roles (e.g., wage earner, child caretaker) will provide information about family power structure. Additional information about the family support network can be gathered by asking questions about, for example, the location and amount of contract with relatives and economic support provided to or obtained from family members.

Level of Acculturation. Information about acculturation can be gathered from language preference and immigration history:

  • Several languages may be spoken or comprehended. Therapists should carefully assess preferred language among ethnic groups. For example, which language does the client prefer to speak at work and home? Awareness of language nuances is important as well; that is, battering may have a different meaning, depending on the language. Therapists should make sure that communication is clear.
  • Premigration and postmigration history of the family will give clues about significant stressors. Important areas to explore include loss of property and homeland or significant people (through death and separation); changes in status (e.g., inability to obtain employment); and effect of culture shock and displacement).

Prior Exposure to Violence. Personal history of incest and child physical abuse (Lujan, DeBruyn, May, & Byrd, 1989: West & Williams, 1997) should be assessed. It is also important to evaluate family history of trauma (e.g., lynchings, war atrocities) for several reasons:

  • Prior exposure to violence, such as living in high-crime areas, may heighten the effects of a trauma, including partner violence (Allen, 1996).
  • Interviews about partner violence may trigger memories of traumatic historic events (e.g., a Cambodian being interviewed about wife assault may remember the interrogations she faced in resettlement camps; Fontes, in press).
  • Second and third generations may minimize partner abuse when they compare it with previous family and historic traumas (Yoshihama et al., 1991).

Suicide Potentiality. Battered Asian Americans (Crites, 1990) and black women (Stark & Flitcraft, 1995) are at increased risk for suicide attempts. It is wise to conduct a suicide assessment with clients from all ethnic backgrounds.

Cultural Coping Strategies. Therapists should assess family strengths, as well as past and current family coping strategies. These could include family rituals or religious practices, such as visiting healers (Comas-Diaz, 1995) or sweat lodges (Williams & Ellison, 1996).

Policy Recommendations

Based on the literature the following policy recommendations are given (Franco, 1996; Jasinski, 1996; Williams & Becker, 1994):


  1. Improved research on ethnic minority populations is required. Specifically, more information is needed on prevalence and incidence of partner violence, nature and characteristics of abuse, and contributing factors. In addition, more research should be conducted on ethnic group differences as will as generational status, gender, age, and socioeconomic differences in partner violence.
  2. Future research efforts should focus on culturally appropriate education concerning partner violence. Information can be disseminated through word of mouth, community leaders, religious institutions, ethnic events, and English-as-a-second-language classes. Community hotlines can also be establishes for victims and batterers who are reluctant to be identified.
  3. "Culturally competent" shelters and counseling services should be established. This entails networking with the minority communities, using outside consultants with expertise in minority issues, and employing at least one bilingual counselor.
  4. Most important, factors that contribute to minority partner violence, including poverty and lack of educational opportunities, must be addressed.


Abney, V. D. & Priest, R. (1995). African Americans and sexual child abuse. In Fontes, Lisa Aronson (Ed.), Sexual abuse in nine North American cultures: Treatment and Prevention (p.11-30). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Chan, S., & Leong, C.W. (1994). Chinese families in transition: Cultural conflicts and adjustment problems. Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless, 3(3), 263-281.

Comas-Diaz, L. (1995). Puerto Ricans and sexual child abuse. In L.A. Fontes (Ed.), Sexual abuse in nine North American cultures: Treatment and prevention (pp. 31-66). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Crites, L. (1990). Cross-cultural counseling in wife beating cases. Response to Victimization of Women and Children. 13(4), 8-12.

Franco, F.E. (1996). Unconditional safety for conditional immigrant women. Berkeley Women's Law Journal, 11, 99-141.

Jasinski, J.L. (1996). Structural inequalities, family and cultural factors, and spousal violence among Anglo and Hispanic Americans. Unpublished doctoral Dissertation, University of New Hampshire, Durham.

LaFromboise, T.D., Berman, J.S., & Sohi, B.K. (1994). American Indian women. In L. Comas-Diaz & B. Greene (Eds.), Women of color: Integrating ethnic and gender identities in psychotherapy (pp.30-71). New York: Guilford.

Lujan, C., DeBruyn, L.M., May P.A. & Bird, M.E. (1989). Profile of abused and neglected American Indian children in the southwest. Child Abuse & Neglect, 13, 449-461.

Okamura, A., Heras, P., & Wong-Kerberg, L. (1995). Asian, Pacific Island, and Filipino Americans and sexual child abuse. In L.A. Fontes (Ed.), Sexual abuse in nine North American cultures: Treatment and prevention (pp. 67-96). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Stark, E., & Flitcraft, A. (1995). Killing the beast within: Woman battering and female suicidality. International Journal of Health Services, 25(1), 43-64.

West, C.M., & Williams, L.M. (1997). Adult sexual revictimization among Black women sexually abused in childhood: A prospective study. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Williams, E.E., & Ellison, F. (1996). Culturally informed social work practice with American Indian clients: Guidelines for non-Indian social workers. Social Work, 41(2), 147-151.

Williams, O.J., & Becker, R.L. (1994). Domestic partner abuse treatment programs and cultural competence: The results of a national survey. Violence and Victims, 9(3), 287-296.

Yoshihama, M., Parekh, A.L., & Boyington, D. (1991). Dating violence in Asian/Pacific communities. In B. Levy (Ed.), Dating Violence: Young women in danger (pp. 184-301). Seattle, WA: Seal.

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