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2003 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 8, No. 3
May 2003

Domestic Violence: An Introduction for Child Welfare Workers

Editor’s Note: Much information in this article was adapted from the Family Violence Prevention Fund’s publication “Domestic Violence: A National Curriculum for Child Protective Services,” by Anne L. Ganley, Ph.D. and Susan Schechter, MSW. Special thanks to these authors for sharing this wonderful resource.

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“The kids were carrying a dreadful secret. If they talked, they would lose their dad, and they would be responsible for ‘breaking up’ the family. If they didn’t talk, they felt like they were taking part in my abuse.”
—Annette, domestic violence survivor

Earlier this year, a Hickory firefighter shot and killed his fiancée in front of his home, then walked into the garage and shot himself. Their 2-year-old son was nearby (Lacour, 2003).

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When it comes to domestic violence, well-informed intervention can have a real impact on the well-being of the families and children involved. In some cases it can even mean the difference between life and death. Before you can intervene effectively, however, you must understand this common form of family violence.


Domestic violence is the establishment of control and fear in an intimate adult relationship through the use of violence and other forms of abuse. The aim of domestic violence perpetrators is power and control over victims. Domestic violence takes many forms. Abusive behaviors used by perpetrators, also called batterers, include physical, sexual, and psychological attacks; economic oppression; intimidation; threats; manipulation and maltreatment of children; and isolation.

Domestic violence can occur in heterosexual relationships, same-sex relationships, and teen dating relationships. Although women can be batterers, recent statistics show that 85% of domestic violence victims are female (BJS, 2003). Therefore, in this issue of Practice Notes we refer to adult victims of domestic violence as “she” and to batterers as “he.”


Though experts suspect it is vastly under-reported, we know that domestic violence in the United States is widespread. Nearly 25% of American women report being raped and/or physically assaulted by a current or former spouse, cohabiting partner, or date at some time in their lifetime, according to the National Violence Against Women Survey (CDC, 2000).

Violence of this kind occurs every year to women from all walks of life. In 2001, more than half a million American women (588,490 women) were victims of nonfatal violence committed by an intimate partner (BJS, 2003). Women of all races are about equally vulnerable to domestic violence (BJS, 1995).

Domestic violence can be fatal. On average, more than three women are murdered by their partners in the U.S. every day. In 2000, 1,247 women were killed by an intimate partner. The same year, 440 men were killed by an intimate partner (BJS, 2003).

Adults are not the only victims of domestic violence. Children live in many of the homes where domestic violence occurs: one study found that slightly more than half of female victims of domestic violence live in households with children under age 12 (DOJ, 1998).

In some of these homes, children are maltreated by the batterer, his victim, or both. The correlation between domestic violence and child maltreatment is a strong one, especially where the domestic violence is serious/frequent: in a national survey of more than 6,000 American families, half of the men who frequently assaulted their wives also frequently abused their children (Strauss & Gelles, 1990).

Research at Yale New Haven Hospital revealed that “in the vast majority of cases” where a mother was battered and a child was maltreated, the man who battered the mother also abused or neglected the child. In other words, the “man hits wife, wife hits child” scenario is rare; abuse tends to flow from a single source—usually the male batterer (Weinstein, 2002).

In the minority of cases when the adult victim of domestic violence abuses or neglects her children, her actions are often linked to the domestic violence. For example, a batterer’s actions may prevent a woman from satisfying her children’s basic needs for food, supervision, and support. However, some battered women will abuse or neglect their children whether or not they are being abused themselves.

There is also a link between domestic violence and child fatalities. Of the 67 child fatalities in Massachusetts in 1992, 29 (43%) were in families where the mother identified herself as a victim of domestic violence. In 17 of the 22 (77%) child deaths examined by the N.C. Division of Social Services’ child fatality review team in 2000, the families involved were struggling with both domestic violence and substance abuse (McHenry, 2001).

Even if they are not physically involved, often children know about domestic violence. It is estimated that 87% of the children in homes where domestic violence occurs are aware of the violence (Youngblood & Morris, 2003). As discussed below, witnessing domestic violence can have serious consequences for children.

The number of children exposed to domestic violence is staggering. Between 3.3 million (Carlson, 1984) and 10 million (Strauss, 1991) children in the U.S. witness some form of domestic violence each year.


Over the years, people have attributed the cause of domestic violence to factors such as genetics, illness, alcohol and drugs, anger, marital problems, and stress. Sometimes people even blame the victim, believing her behavior provoked the violence.

In truth, battering is a learned behavior. Individuals learn domestic violence in their families, communities, schools, peer groups, and in our culture at large. It is reinforced through exposure to values and beliefs put forth by the media, education, religion, and other social institutions that directly or indirectly condone the use of violence against women. (See Social Causes of Domestic Violence.)

Although in a sense battering is caused by our culture, from a legal and practical standpoint every perpetrator of domestic violence, like everyone else in society, is ultimately responsible for his abusive behavior, and for stopping it.


Batterers are individuals who believe (1) it is their right to use violence to get their way, and (2) they have a right to control their partners. Individuals who engage in domestic violence often receive reinforcement of these beliefs from peers and from authorities (e.g., police, judges, religious leaders, etc.) who ignore or condone violence against women.

Batterers may be current or previous spouses or boyfriends; they may live in or out of the woman’s home. Adolescents in dating relationships can also engage in domestic violence. Batterers come from every group and every part of society.

Batterers often have a public and private face, which can make it difficult for those outside of the family to tell what's really going on.


Like their abusers, the victims of domestic violence come from all racial and ethnic groups, socioeconomic classes, occupations, religious affiliations, sexual orientations, and ages.

Most victims of domestic violence are women involved in heterosexual relationships, although men and people involved in same-sex relationships can also be targets of intimate violence. When battering occurs in same-sex relationships the tools of abuse are often different. For example, a female partner may threaten to “out” a woman to her friends and family in order to gain control over her.

Victims of male violence are no more likely than non-victims to have symptoms of psychopathology, to be hostile, or to abuse alcohol. When victims of domestic violence do exhibit mental illness or substance abuse issues, these problems are often the result of stress caused by the chronic abuse (Hotaling & Sugarman, 1986).

Contrary to popular belief, research has found that as a group, battered women do not have a higher incidence of multiple abusive relationships.

The Cycle of Violence

In the short term, whether it is the first incident of domestic violence or the hundredth, domestic violence is often marked by a particular cycle. In this cycle of violence there is a buildup of tension, followed by an abusive event (not always physical), followed by contrition from the abuser and a period of relative calm. The cycle then repeats itself. With some abusers this cycle gradually increases in frequency and intensity, putting the woman and her children at greater and greater risk (Walker, 1979). Though there is some disagreement within the domestic violence movement about whether this cycle is applicable to all cases of domestic violence, every child welfare professional should understand this important theory.

In order to protect themselves and their children, victims of domestic violence usually go to great lengths to prevent, anticipate, and avoid abusive episodes. Ganley and Schechter (1996) note that actions women take include:

  • Fighting back OR pleasing and placating the batterer
  • Leaving to try to make things better OR not leaving for fear of making things worse
  • Avoiding the batterer (e.g., working separate shifts)
  • Protecting the children by sending them away
  • Searching for help for herself or the batterer OR dropping the search for help as a way to protect herself
  • Lying to the batterer and others as a way to survive
  • Encouraging the batterer to drink so he’ll pass out and not hurt anyone OR drinking to numb her own pain
  • Reasoning with the batterer and expressing disapproval of his behavior
  • Creating an internal space through fantasies that the batterer cannot touch

Child welfare workers should consider the victim’s attempts to protect herself and her children as strengths that can be built upon during an intervention. Though they may not work, these attempts may have been the best choice for her within the context of the abuse.

The Dynamics of Leaving

Usually a victim stays in an abusive relationship because of certain barriers. A primary barrier is the batterer’s attempts to harm, control, and intimidate the woman and her children: assaults against the victim frequently escalate before, during, and after attempts to leave. Women who leave are at a 75% greater risk of being killed by their abusers than those who stay; 1 out of 3 women killed in the U.S. is murdered by a spouse, ex-spouse, or boyfriend (Mecklenburg, 1999).

Money is another major barrier. Many women choose not to leave, or are forced to return to the abuser, because they cannot afford safe housing, health insurance, and the other things they and their children need to get by. To succeed, interventions with domestic violence victims must empower women and support their independence—especially their financial independence.

Community barriers, such as lack of support for leaving from peers and church, lack of job training programs, and lack of day care also present obstacles to victims of domestic violence. There can be individual barriers as well. These may include the victim’s fear of having to raise the children alone, her belief that the abuse is her fault, and her love for the abuser. Like other people, batterers may have positive qualities—they may be charming, good providers, and good conversationalists. Recognizing this point helps us understand the ambivalence a women may feel about leaving her abuser.

Taken together, these obstacles explain why many women choose to stay with their abusers, and why the ones who try to leave often find it so difficult. “The reality,” explains Pat Youngblood, Director of the Albemarle Hopeline, a domestic violence agency in Elizabeth City, “is that when it comes to domestic violence, leaving is a process, not an event.”

Victims and their abusers often engage in this pattern:

  • Many women don’t leave the first time they are hit because the violence is unprecedented
  • If the abuse continues, victims often leave for a few days to teach the abuser a lesson
  • It seems to work—he pursues her, apologizes, promises to change, and tries to reform
  • If the abuse continues the victim may leave many times, but often returns

“On average,” says Youngblood, “women leave six to ten times before they leave for good.”


Adult Victims. Domestic violence affects its adult victims in a number of ways. In addition to physical injuries, batterers often inflict emotional and psychological damage on their partners. Normal emotional responses to battering include fear, denial, anger, guilt, and feelings of helplessness. Some of the more serious psychological consequences of battering include depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse. As is the case with child maltreatment, when the domestic violence is severe and chronic, victims are more likely to suffer serious effects for a longer period of time. However, many victims recover well from the effects of the abuse once they are safely out of the abusive situation and properly supported.

Domestic violence can definitely interfere with an adult victim’s ability to parent her children. For example, injuries caused by the batterer may prevent a mother from getting out of bed in the morning, so that she cannot feed her children and tend to their needs. Even when she is physically capable, batterers may interfere with proper care of the children (e.g., preventing her from taking children to the doctor).

Perpetrators of domestic violence take away the victim’s ability to direct her own life and protect her children. With appropriate intervention, most victims of domestic violence can provide proper care for their children.

Children. Children who see, hear, or are otherwise aware of domestic violence in their homes experience a broad range of responses. Some appear to be unaffected. Others experience negative developmental, emotional, psychological, and behavioral consequences. Indeed, some children who live with domestic violence demonstrate the same symptoms as children who are physically abused and neglected (Mecklenburg, 1999).

A number of factors may influence how an individual child responds to being exposed to domestic violence. These factors include the level of violence, the degree of the child’s exposure to the violence, the child’s exposure to other stressors, and the child’s individual coping skills. Not surprisingly, the child’s age affects his or her ability to cope with exposure to domestic violence: younger children are more vulnerable. The victim’s relationship to the child and the presence of a parent or a caregiver to mediate the intensity of the event are also potential factors in a child’s reaction (Weinstein, 2002).

Short-term effects in children exposed to battering include PTSD, sleep disturbances, separation anxiety, depression, aggression, passivity or withdrawal, distractibility, concentration problems, hypervigilance, and desensitization to violent events. Child observers of domestic violence also tend to have a higher rate of academic difficulties than other children (Weinstein, 2002).

Once safety and security are provided to these children, symptoms tend to disappear. Studies have demonstrated that, among children exposed to the most severe domestic violence, over 80% tested psychologically normal, were self-confident, had positive images of themselves, and were emotionally well (Weinstein, 2002).

Although much less common, the long-term effects of exposure to battering can include delinquency, higher risk for substance abuse, a propensity to use violence in future relationships, and a pessimistic view of the world (Weinstein, 2002).

Historically, exposure to domestic violence has also placed some children at risk of inappropriate child welfare interventions—specifically, with unnecessary placement in foster care. Certainly this is the conclusion reached by a federal judge in the case Nicholson v. Williams, a class action lawsuit in which adult victims of domestic violence in New York City alleged that they were unfairly harmed when the city’s child welfare system placed their children in foster care.

In his decision in this case, Judge Jack Weinstein (2002) wrote “Some child protection agencies in the United States appear to be defining exposure to domestic violence as a form of child maltreatment....Defining witnessing as maltreatment is a mistake.”

Weinstein goes on to state that automatically defining witnessing as maltreatment harms children. He bases this conclusion on the research showing that not all children are negatively affected by domestic violence, and upon evidence from experts.

During the trial psychologists and others testified that children separated from their mothers because of domestic violence experience that separation as exceptionally traumatic because, in the words of one witness, the child “is terrified that a parent might not be OK, may be injured, may be vulnerable.... They feel that they should somehow be responsible for the parent and if they are not with the parent, then it’s their fault.”

The judge also found that in concluding that abused mothers had neglected their children by exposing them to domestic violence child welfare agencies often ignored battered mothers’ efforts to develop safe environments for their children and themselves. “To blame a crime on the victim,” he wrote, “desecrates fundamental precepts of justice.”

Weinstein found that these inappropriate foster care placements resulted from “benign indifference, bureaucratic inefficiency, and outmoded institutional biases.”

Implications for Child Welfare

Since the 1980s our society has learned a great deal about domestic violence. We now understand the dynamics of power and control that exist in these abusive relationships, the strategies employed by batterers and their victims, and the negative effects domestic violence has on the safety and well-being of adult victims and their children.

Based on this knowledge—and prompted both by the desire to do right by the families they serve and by rulings like Judge Weinstein’s—child welfare workers and the systems they work in are examining their assumptions, policies, and practices relative to domestic violence. For example, in the reaction to this court case, New York City has taken significant steps to change the way it responds to domestic violence (see Pilot Initiative in New York City to Better Support Families Affected by Domestic Violence).

Here are some of the conclusions agencies are reaching about effective child welfare practice with domestic violence:

  • Screening for domestic violence must be universal and ongoing. We know domestic violence is relatively common in the families involved with child welfare. We also know battering can have serious, negative effects on children and their caregivers. Therefore we must seek to identify domestic violence throughout the child welfare continuum—at intake, during assessment and service provision, and in foster care and adoption.
  • Children cannot be safe unless their mothers are safe. Therefore child welfare interventions must address domestic violence. We must provide battered women with appropriate supports, including help with safety planning.
  • We must hold perpetrators, not victims, accountable for domestic violence. To do this DSS and other agencies should collaborate to ensure batterers are the focus of appropriate legal and therapeutic interventions. Effective intervention and meaningful consequences make it clear to adult victims and their children that help is available and that they are not responsible for the abuse (NCCWDV, 2002).

The next article discusses some of the steps North Carolina is taking to translate these conclusions into policies and practices that ensure the safety, permanence, and well-being of children exposed to domestic violence.

To Learn More

Consult the following resources to learn more about this topic:

• Casey Foundation’s Team Decision-making model <>

• Children and Domestic Violence: An Information Packet

• In Harm’s Way: Domestic Violence and Child Maltreatment <>

• Guidelines for Public Child Welfare Agencies Serving Children and Families Experiencing Domestic Violence <>

• Guidelines for Conducting Family Team Conferences When There is a History of Domestic Violence <>

• Domestic Violence: A National Curriculum for Children’s Protective Services <>

• Effective Intervention in Domestic Violence & Child Maltreatment Cases: Guidelines for Policy and Practice

• N.C. Child Well-Being and Domestic Violence Task Force Final Report <>

• Batterer Intervention Programs: Where Do We Go From Here?
A June 2003 special report by the National Institute of Justice describing the most common types of batterer intervention programs and evaluating two studies of batterer intervention programs.

References for this and other articles in this issue