Protecting Children and Their Mothers
The overlap between domestic violence and child abuse has been well documented: where one form of family violence exists, there is a likelihood the other does as well. In one review of 200 substantiated child abuse reports in Massachusetts, 48% mentioned adult domestic violence. Another survey of more than 6,000 American families found that 50% of men who frequently assaulted their wives also frequently abused their children. Mothers who are abused are more likely to harm their children, as well. Data from a 1995 Gallup Poll of family violence suggest that from 1.5 million to 3.3 million children witness parental domestic violence each year.
Severe and Fatal Cases of Child Abuse Overlap with Domestic Violence
In a 1993 study, the Oregon Department of Human Resources reported that domestic violence was present in 41% of families experiencing critical injuries or deaths due to child abuse and neglect.
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. The Massachusetts Department of Social Services notes that “in 20 of these cases, the report of domestic violence was noted in the case record with no further explanation or intervention.”
Both the Oregon and the Massachusetts study clearly indicate a strong need for closer attention to the connection between domestic violence and child abuse.
Unfortunately, while Child Protective Services (CPS) and domestic violence organizations have separately set up programs to address one of these forms of family violence, few programs address both when they occur together in families. Moreover, there are few collaborative efforts between the fields aimed at preventing both forms of family violence.
For the past several years, the Family Violence Prevention Fund, with support from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, has worked with child welfare agencies and domestic violence programs to develop innovative policies, practice, and collaborative service delivery systems to ensure greater safety for women and children in their homes.
Effects on Children
Efforts to protect children from abuse and neglect often overlook one of the most important factors affecting children”s safety in the home: adult domestic violence. Child abuse and domestic violence often occur in the same family and are linked in a number of important ways that have serious consequences for the safety of children.
First, domestic violence often directly results in physical injury and/or psychological harm to children. Second, even when domestic violence does not result in direct physical injury to the child, it can interfere with both the mother”s and the father”s parenting to such a degree that the children may be neglected.
Third, while an intervention into child abuse may be initially effective, the impact of that intervention will soon be sabotaged if domestic violence is also present, and if the perpetrator is not held accountable for stopping the violence and the adult victim is not protected.
Children can be injured as a direct result of domestic violence. Batterers sometimes intentionally injure children in an effort to intimidate and control their adult partners. These assaults can include physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of the children. Children are also injured—either intentionally or accidentally—during attacks on their mothers. An object thrown or a weapon used against the mother may hit her child. Assaults on younger children may occur while the mother is holding the child. Injuries to older children often occur when an adolescent attempts to intervene in violent episodes.
Although many parents believe that they can hide domestic violence from their children, children living in these homes report differently. Research suggests that between 80 and 90 percent of these children are aware of the violence. Even if they do not see a beating, they hear the screams and see the bruises, broken bones, and abrasions sustained by their mothers.
Children of all ages are deeply affected by domestic violence. Infants exposed to violence may not develop the attachments to their caretakers which are critical to their development; in extreme cases they may suffer from “failure to thrive.” Preschool children in violent homes may regress developmentally and suffer sleep disturbances, including nightmares. School-age children who witness violence exhibit a range of problem behaviors including depression, anxiety, and violence towards peers. Adolescents who have grown up in violent homes are at risk for recreating the abusive relationships they have seen.
There is growing evidence that domestic violence can have lasting negative consequences. As these child-witnesses to domestic violence grow up, they are at greater risk for abusing alcohol or other drugs and for committing violent crimes of all types, eventually getting involved with the criminal justice system.
Child advocates are beginning to understand the risks for children who live within households where domestic violence is occurring, even when the children are not physically harmed themselves. In fact, the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect suggests that domestic violence may be the single major precursor to child abuse and neglect in this country.
Often the most effective way to protect these children is to protect their mothers.#
Reprinted and adapted from “News Flash”
(http://www.fvpf.org/newsflash), an online newsletter of the Family Violence Prevention Fund.”