Seventeen percent of all murders are committed within the family; more than half of these involve husbands and wives. But homicide is just the most aggravated example of domestic violence. There are also spouse assault, child abuse and the little-noticed victimization of the elderly. Family violence is unlike other crime in a number of ways. Often, victims do not report assaults either because they are too old and infirm or too young to do so, or because they are afraid that calling the police will bring reprisals. Neighbors are reluctant to intervene in matters that are still thought by some to be private. And sometimes police and prosecutors prefer to handle cases with an eye to reconciliation, even when that is unrealistic.

We need to know more about the extent of this problem and the practical approaches to dealing with it that have been proven to work. An example of how our understanding can be improved is a study by the National Institute of Justice. That report contradicted popular belief and demonstrated that in a pilot program, arrest and not conciliation was the most effective means of stopping spouse abuse. Perhaps we have been approaching the critical problem of child abuse in an ineffective manner as well, giving too much weight to the rights of parents who burn, maim and severely beat young children and not enough to the innocent victims who need society's protection.

This week the attorney general announced the creation of a Task Force on Family Violence that will seek to improve services to victims and coordinate information on this subject. The offenses in question are not federal crimes, nor should they be. But the task force can play an important role by studying the adequacy of our statistics on the problem and the alternative approaches to it being taken in communities across the country. Only two of the nine members of the task force are attorneys, which may indicate a decision to look beyond problems of law enforcement and take a comprehensive view of families in serious trouble. The recommendations of the study group, due in six months, may not be popular within the administration --handgun control laws, for example--and they may challenge the assumptions that underlie our current approach to family violence. But the assignment given to the task force is of urgent importance, and its findings will deserve serious attention.