2003 Jordan Institute
8, No. 3
Domestic Violence: An Introduction for Child Welfare Workers
Editors Note: Much information in this article was adapted from the Family Violence Prevention Funds 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 didnt talk, they felt like they were taking part in my abuse.
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 sourceusually 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 batterers actions may prevent a woman from satisfying her childrens 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 womans 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
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.
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:
Child welfare workers should consider the victims 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 batterers 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 independenceespecially
their financial independence.
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 victims 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 qualitiesthey 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:
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
Domestic violence can definitely
interfere with an adult victims 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 victims 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.
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
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 childs
exposure to the violence, the childs exposure to other stressors,
and the childs individual coping skills. Not surprisingly, the childs
age affects his or her ability to cope with exposure to domestic violence:
younger children are more vulnerable. The victims 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 childs reaction (Weinstein,
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 interventionsspecifically, 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 citys 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 its 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.
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 knowledgeand
prompted both by the desire to do right by the families they serve and
by rulings like Judge Weinsteinschild 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
Here are some of the conclusions
agencies are reaching about effective child welfare practice with domestic
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 Foundations Team Decision-making model <http://www.aecf.org/initiatives/familytofamily/tools.htm>
Children and Domestic
Violence: An Information Packet
In Harms Way: Domestic Violence and Child Maltreatment <http://www.calib.com/nccanch/pubs/otherpubs/harmsway.cfm>
Guidelines for Public Child Welfare Agencies Serving Children and Families Experiencing Domestic Violence <http://www.aphsa.org/hotnews/dvguidelines.doc>
Guidelines for Conducting Family Team Conferences When There is a History of Domestic Violence <http://endabuse.org/programs/display.php3?DocID=159>
Domestic Violence: A National Curriculum for Childrens Protective Services <http://endabuse.org/programs/display.php3?DocID=79>
in Domestic Violence & Child Maltreatment Cases: Guidelines for Policy
N.C. Child Well-Being and Domestic Violence Task Force Final Report <http://www.doa.state.nc.us/doa/cfw/cfw.htm>
Programs: Where Do We Go From Here?