WASHINGTON - Numbers showing that murders and assaults against women by their husbands and boyfriends have been falling in America may not tell the whole story of a complex issue, advocates for battered women say.
The number of women criminally abused by the men they live with fell from 1.1 million in 1993 to 876,340 in 1998, according to a study released Wednesday by the Justice Department.
Murders of women by their intimate partners fell from 1,500 in 1976 to just over 1,300 in 1998.
Some groups dealing with battered women every day said the statistics are welcomed, but could be skewed by a number of factors difficult to measure.
Sue Osthoff, of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women in Philadelphia, said the finding of a decrease in crime against wives and girlfriends ''has not been our experience.''
Esta Soler, executive director of the Family Violence Prevention Fund in San Francisco, said while the study appears to be good news, ''we should not be complacent and believe this is the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.''
The findings in the report came from interviews with more than half- a -million people in nearly 300,000 households between 1993 and 1998.
The husband or male companion was responsible for one in five of the violent attacks suffered by women between 1993 and 1998, according to data gleaned from the Bureau of Justice Statistic's yearly victimization surveys.
Intimate partners committed fewer murders in each of the past three years reviewed in the study - 1996, 1997 and 1998 - than in any year since 1976.
Among other key findings of the report:
- For black men, murders of a wife or domestic partner fell 74 percent between 1976 and 1998. For white men, the number fell 44 percent in that period.
- Since 1976, murders of white women by a spouse or intimate partner actually rose 3 percent. For black women, the number fell 45 percent.
- Women were five times more likely to be attacked by men they lived with than men by women.
- The highest rate of victimization for women was between ages 16 and 24, with 19.6 attacks per 1,000 women each year.
Soler said the statistics are somewhat in line with the country's overall drop in crime in the past eight years.
''What you have seen is violence is down in all categories across the country,'' she said. ''Part of it is the criminal justice system taking crimes against women seriously. Part of it is that services for victims are doing a good job. And the economy is good.''
But statistics gleaned from random interviews don't tell the whole story, some women advocates said.
Osthoff said many victims of domestic abuse would not admit it in a survey, in part out of fear that such a revelation could lead to their children being taken from the home.
''In some cases, if the police come (for domestic violence complaints) the kids can be taken away. That is why women go for outside intervention and don't report abuse,'' she said. Groups like hers in Philadelphia are seeing no abatement in crime against women, Osthoff said.
Soler said in San Francisco a study of court records showed that violent crimes against women by men they lived with, including murders, are often not specifically recorded as domestic violence and so don't show up in statistical analyses.
Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Justice Policy Institute, saw another, more positive factor in the apparent decrease in crimes by men against women they live with.
''The connection between poverty and domestic violence is pretty strong,'' he said. ''Neighborhoods like Harlem (in New York), Anacostia (in Washington, D.C.) and South Central L.A. are finally feeling the benefits of a strong economy, and that may be reducing domestic violence.''
(Contact Michael Hedges at HedgesM(at)shns.com or http://www.shns.com.)