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Domestic Violence and Education: Examining the Impact of Domestic Violence on Young Children, Children, and Young People and the Potential Role of Schools

This article examines how domestic violence impacts the lives and education of young children, children, and young people and how they can be supported within the education system. Schools are often the service in closest and longest contact with a child living with domestic violence; teachers can play a vital role in helping families access welfare services. In the wake of high profile cases of child abuse and neglect, concerns have been raised about the effectiveness of multi-agency responses to children living with abuse. In the United Kingdom, the case of 4-year-old Daniel Pelka who died in 2012 following abuse and starvation by his mother, who experienced domestic violence, and her partner, led to a serious case review. It found recording systems in Daniel’s school were not used consistently, and details held by different agencies were not collated to enable the formation of a coherent assessment. The lack of integrated working cited in the report echoes findings from previous serious case reviews. A strong correlation exists between domestic abuse and child abuse, with approximately half of all domestic violence situations involving direct child abuse. Children can also be affected indirectly by violence occurring in their home by seeing or hearing it taking place. This article examines the impact of domestic violence on the mental health of children, and the impact on their education. Violence in children’s lives often causes disruption to their schooling and harms the quality of their educational experiences and outcomes. The abuse children experience can result in emotional trauma, physical and psychological barriers to learning, and disruptive behavior in school, while the underlying causes of these problems remain hidden. Knowing when and how to seek advice from multi-agency professionals is an essential part of effective practice among school staff. Despite their vital role in identifying signs of abuse and signposting referral pathways, research indicates teachers often lack confidence and knowledge for such work. The article examines how the professional learning and professional confidence of teachers can be developed, and how recent policy and practice developments in the United Kingdom have the potential to influence work in this area.


Every school is likely to have children affected by domestic violence. The aim of this article is to examine how domestic violence impacts the lives of young children, children, and young people, and the potential role that schools can play in helping to address their needs. Wellbeing and healthy relationships are the foundations of learning. The immediate and long-term costs of domestic violence can thus be high, affecting children’s education as well as having long-term developmental consequences.

Many types of abuse occur within the domestic sphere. In the United Kingdom the government definition of domestic violence and abuse is: ‘any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behavior, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to: psychological, physical, sexual, financial, emotional’ ( Home Office, 2018 ). Although this definition applies to those aged 16 or over, children also experience the harmful effects of domestic violence, as will be examined further below. There is growing awareness of the emotional harm of domestic violence, evidenced in the United Kingdom in the offense of controlling or coercive behavior in intimate or familial relationships which has a maximum custodial sentence of 5 years, a fine or both ( Home Office, 2015 ). As well as being affected by physical abuse, children can be affected by non-physical domestic abuse based on coercive control, such as isolation, continual monitoring, financial abuse, and verbal and psychological abuse ( Katz, 2016 ). Domestic violence is part of the landscape of child protection. Government documentation on child protection titled ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’ ( HM Government, 2013 ) details safeguarding responsibilities of professionals and organizations, and promotes a child-centered approach based on the needs and views of children ( Holt, 2014 ).

While the term domestic violence is used in this article, a number of terms are present in literature such as intimate partner violence and inter-parental violence, and sometimes terms are used interchangeably. Since there is a governmental definition of domestic violence, and also for consistency, I will adopt the term domestic violence predominantly here. The terms intimate partner violence and inter-parental violence will be used when referring to studies that specifically adopt these terms.

Domestic violence and child protection is a complex, multifaceted area. It is common for domestic violence and, as specified in this case, intimate partner violence (IPV) to co-occur with other problems: ‘children’s experiences of and responses to IPV exposure cannot be viewed in isolation from other adversities and inequalities’ ( Etherington and Baker, 2018 , p. 70). The co-occurrence of stressful problems in early life is often referred to as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). ACEs is a construct emerging from a long line of studies into traumatic events occurring in childhood such as domestic violence, sexual, physical and emotional abuse, household dysfunction, and neglect ( Felitti et al., 1998 ; Dube et al., 2001 ). Research studies find that having these ACEs has long-lasting effects into adulthood. ACEs can be a source of long-term psychological distress as well as having longitudinal effects on physical health, substance misuse, interpersonal violence and self-harm ( Hughes et al., 2017 ). The ‘toxic trio’ of domestic violence, substance misuse, and parental mental health problems can render children at risk of harm and complex trauma. Poverty all too frequently intersects with ACEs. Although poverty is viewed as a social marker regarding the distribution of domestic violence risk, the association is not causal ( Ray, 2011 ). Domestic violence cuts across all socio-economic groups and all backgrounds. Victims of all backgrounds, predominantly women, face common difficulties when leaving an abusive partner. Research demonstrates that it is at the point of leaving, or after she has left, that a woman is in most danger ( Calder and Regan, 2008 ). It is not uncommon for victims of domestic violence to remain living with perpetrators, even risking their own safety, rather than risking themselves, and their children, becoming homeless.

Teachers are well placed to play a pivotal role in identifying and responding to domestic violence since they have contact with children more than any other service. As emphasized by Sterne and Poole (2010 , p. 17), ‘although staff in schools may not be able to stop the violence at home, they are in a position to make a considerable difference to children’s lives.’ Statistics from the Department for Education [DFE] (2017a) show that of the 646,120 children referred to children’s social care in England 2016–2017, the highest number of referrals, 27.5%, came from the police. The second highest percentage of referrals came from schools at 17.7% followed by health services at 14.4%. School referrals combined with education services referrals of 2.6% means that education accounted for 20.3% of referrals overall. Once referred and assessed, statistics show the percentage of children in need according to identified factors. In 2016–2017 ( Department for Education [DFE], 2017a ) the most common factor was domestic violence which applied to 49.9% of children in need; this incorporated violence directed at children or adults in the household. The second most common factor was mental health at 39.7% which likewise encompassed mental health of the child or adults in the household. The prevalence of domestic violence is not only high among children in need but also among the wider population with as many as one in six young people in the United Kingdom reporting experiencing it during their childhood ( Radford et al., 2011 ).

Exposure to domestic violence generates a multitude of responses and needs and it is important for children and young people not to be regarded as a homogeneous group or lacking the capacity for posttraumatic growth and recovery: ‘it is wrong to stereotype all children as inevitably and permanently damaged by living with domestic violence’ ( Mullender et al., 2002 , p. 121). Although some children experiencing domestic violence will exhibit difficulties in their schoolwork, the education of others will not be adversely affected: ‘some children living with domestic abuse achieve highly in school; throwing themselves into school life and work can provide an escape’ ( Sterne and Poole, 2010 , p. 23). Similarly, while some students affected by domestic violence will experience educational settings as a source of continuity and security, others will experience them as challenging. It is therefore essential to take into account the range of responses to domestic violence among children. This article firstly looks at how domestic violence is conceptualized with regard to children, and how it affects them across different ages. This is followed by an examination of multi-agency working between schools and other organizations. The importance of recognizing individual and family contexts is considered before analyzing prevention education in schools. Finally, recent developments in policy and practice in the United Kingdom are examined in terms of both the challenges and opportunities they pose.

Conceptualizing Domestic Violence in Relation to Children

Domestic violence is manifested in various ways and has been conceptualized by some as taking direct and indirect forms. Indirect abuse can result from inter-parental violence where children are not the subject of direct abuse. However, children witnessing inter-parental violence, and hearing it without necessarily seeing it, can still feel its effects: ‘While often characterized as witnesses to inter-parental violence, which implies a passive role, children actively interpret, attempt to predict and assess their roles in causing the violence’ ( Baker and Cunningham, 2009 , p. 199, emphasis in original). Indeed, the terms direct and indirect abuse have been interpreted as potentially misleading and perhaps simplistic. Callaghan et al. (2018 , p. 1566) argue it is too restrictive to view domestic violence as abuse between partners in an intimate dyad whereby children are perceived as ‘affected by’ the abuse: ‘Far from passive witnesses, they are not “exposed” to violence and abuse; rather they live with it and experience it directly, just as adults do.’ Regarding children as ‘affected by’ domestic violence diminishes its impact on them. Instead, Callaghan et al. (2018) call for children to be recognized as direct victims of violence and abuse which in turn could improve professional responses to their needs.

Impact of Domestic Violence on Young Children, Children, and Young People

Domestic violence occurs at all ages. Sterne and Poole (2010) point out that the duration of children’s encounters with domestic abuse has a greater bearing on their stress levels than the severity of the abuse. Harm caused by domestic violence can be physical, emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and social, and effects are usually overlapping and interrelated. Although harm can be present across all age phases, I will differentiate by three age groups, namely young children aged 1–4, children aged 5–10, and young people aged 11–16 since challenges and issues arising from domestic violence are different across these ages. It should be noted, however, these age groups are approximate and children’s experiences and responses will be influenced by individual needs and context.

Impact on Young Children

The effects of domestic violence can be felt in early childhood. Research shows that psychosocial development is more problematical among toddlers exposed to IPV who additionally experience physical abuse ( Harper et al., 2018 ). In some cases domestic violence during early childhood leads to emotional problems. Among pre-school children it can cause separation anxiety from the non-abusing parent, commonly their mother. Pre-school children’s restricted ability for coping due to their young age means that behavioral and psychological disengagement is one way they react to inter-parental violence ( Baker and Cunningham, 2009 ). Pre-schoolers sensitized to the noise of family violence may cope by tuning out noise, consequently posing difficulties for those wishing to interact with them in the school setting. According to Baker and Cunningham (2009) , pre-school children will react to inter-parental conflict in a variety of ways including becoming withdrawn, anxious, engaging in repetitive play, regressive behavior, having inhibited independence, sleep problems, tantrums or impaired understanding. The signs and symptoms of domestic violence and inter-parental violence are not always easily detectable. Moreover, it is difficult for staff in pre-school to know whether children’s conduct is associated with experience of domestic violence or regular behavior expected of this age group. If staff suspect abuse, and/or notice changes in pre-school children, background checks into the home environment will help inform their professional judgment. Staff can check if the child has a previous history of abuse and if a parent has a history of violence including toward adults or animals since they are likely to be violent toward children as well ( Beckett, 2007 ). It is important for pre-school staff to exchange information with other healthcare professionals such as health visitors who work with children from birth to five. Guidelines in the United Kingdom recommend health visitors undertake routine screening for domestic violence and share information with pre-schools and schools as appropriate. The quality of the parent–child relationship also needs to be considered by pre-school staff, for example is the child reluctant to go home or fearful in the presence of a parent. Early years teachers and support staff can develop strategies for supporting pre-school children displaying symptoms through giving positive feedback, focusing on desirable rather than undesirable behavior, validating the child’s feelings, and preparing for transitions during the day ( Baker and Cunningham, 2009 ).

Impact on Children

Separation anxiety due to domestic violence is not limited to pre-schoolers and young school-aged children experiencing such anxiety could be clingy, and feign illness or be disruptive at school in the hope of being sent home. In relation to the physical impact of domestic violence Calder and Regan (2008) state effects include, but are not limited to, injury, eating problems, and stress-related conditions such as asthma and bronchitis. Emotional effects, they note, are manifested in disruption to schooling including non-attendance, attention and concentration difficulties, sleep disturbance, withdrawal, insecurity, guilt, depression and low self-esteem. Behaviorally, the impact might be changes in conduct, unpredictable behavior, aggression, anger, and hyperactivity. Being the perpetrator or victim of bullying can also ensue ( Children’s Commissioner, 2018 ). Some children facing trauma at home display hypervigilance and hyperarousal at school, constantly watchful and fearful of danger ( Sterne and Poole, 2010 ). Domestic violence can negatively affect cognitive skills, language development and educational attainment.

Impact on Young People

In older children potential indicators of domestic violence include self-blame, depression, self-harm, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, risk-taking behavior, criminal behavior, poor social networks, disaffection with education, and eating disorders ( Children’s Commissioner, 2018 ). Research indicates that experiencing domestic violence has a differential impact along gender lines. Girls are more likely to internalize symptoms in the form of withdrawal, anxiety and depression, whereas boys, though still susceptible to anxiety and depression, are more prone to externalizing symptoms through violence against peers or antisocial behavior ( Baldry, 2007 ). Research with young people found that being listened to, taken seriously, and jointly involved in finding solutions were key means of helping them cope; in cases where no one listened, young people felt ‘doubly disadvantaged’ ( Mullender et al., 2002 , p. 121). The effects of domestic violence clearly have implications for student wellbeing and learning examined in more detail in the following section.

Research With School Teachers

Research has demonstrated how domestic violence impacts on students’ engagement in learning when living within, as well as leaving, abusive homes. Those leaving domestically violent homes face the additional threat of temporary homelessness or overcrowded accommodation. Research with school teachers in England has shown that the sequential issues of domestic violence and homelessness can lead to unstable accommodation, with children being re-housed frequently, obliged to live with relatives or friends, or living long distances from school due to lack of local housing ( Digby and Fu, 2017 ). Non-permanent accommodation has an impact in the classroom through children’s lack of ability to participate socially and academically. Primary and secondary school teachers in Digby and Fu’s (2017) sample spoke of the effects of homelessness on children they worked with such as lack of space at home to study, limited access to a computer for homework, increased anxiety and stress, and living in noisy, overcrowded accommodation which affected their sleep. The teacher participants also noted that while children in younger age groups became withdrawn, the tendency was for older pupils to exhibit anger and aggression. The study revealed the adverse effects on teachers themselves who described feeling emotionally exhausted as well as frustrated at not always being able to help their students. Children living in a refuge are additionally vulnerable to being teased and bullied at school due to the stigma associated with refuge accommodation ( Sterne and Poole, 2010 ). Given the multiple effects of domestic violence, teachers and support staff in schools need to be equipped with knowledge, understanding and skills to identify and respond to internalized and externalized symptoms discussed next.

Domestic Violence, Schools and Multi-Agency Working

United Kingdom government guidelines underline the importance of multi-agency working in child protection ( HM Government, 2015 ). In order to strengthen education as part of multi-professional team working the government recently made a commitment to giving schools a greater role in forthcoming statutory guidance for safeguarding children ( HM Government, 2018 ). Despite this emphasis ‘Surprisingly little attention has been paid to the inter-organizational information exchange in the educational context’ ( Baginsky et al., 2015 , p. 355) which this article seeks to examine. The United Kingdom government’s statutory guidance for schools and colleges titled ‘Keeping children safe in education’ ( Department for Education [DFE], 2016 ) emphasizes that safeguarding children is everyone’s responsibility. Rather than being the exclusive concern of the Designated Safeguarding Lead in school ‘any staff member can make a referral to children’s social care’ ( Department for Education [DFE], 2016 , p. 7). However, it is evident from research and Serious Case Reviews (SCRs) into child abuse and child deaths in the United Kingdom that school staff are sometimes unclear about their role in the child protection process, and that effective training is needed to enable school staff to better support children and their parents.

Serious case reviews have repeatedly cited failure to respond to early signs of abuse, poor record keeping, and sharing information too slowly as contributing to ineffective practice ( Department for Education [DFE], 2016 ). The SCR into the death of 4-year-old Daniel Pelka in 2012 found that recording systems in his school were not used consistently, different social work and health organizations held partial information which was not collated to enable the formation of a coherent assessment, and insufficient training of school staff resulted in their not being clear of their role in child protection, nor whom to contact with concerns ( Wonnacott and Watts, 2014 ). Daniel was frequently hungry when he went to school where he searched for food, including in bins ( Lock, 2013 ). Although his mother said he had health problems, he had further unexplained injuries which did not prompt a referral. His mother’s experiences of the ‘toxic trio’ of domestic violence, substance misuse, and mental ill-health complicated matters further still. Lack of professional confidence among child protection workers can be a barrier to multi-agency working as in the case of Daniel Pelka ‘where uncertainty and apprehension lead to inaction’ ( Baginsky et al., 2015 , p. 355). Effective child protection requires understanding of collaborative roles: ‘children are best protected when professionals are clear about what is required of them individually and how they need to work together’ ( Holt, 2014 , p. 56).

Collaboration across agencies is similarly examined in a report entitled ‘The multi-agency response to children living with domestic abuse’ (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills ( Ofsted et al., 2017 ) which calls for health practitioners, social workers and the police to share child protection information more readily with schools. Evidence from inspections in six local authorities in England demonstrated aspects of good practice within schools for addressing domestic abuse including: schools having awareness-raising assemblies; disseminating posters and information booklets; hosting visits from charities and the police; counselors, play therapists and learning mentors working with child victims; and providing parents with support service information. The latter took the form in one school of giving out pens with a telephone number disguised as a bar code. Having support resources available in school is an important way of informing young people’s friends of how to respond to disclosure since young people experiencing violence sometimes confide in their friends ( Refuge, 2008 ). Impediments identified by teachers in the inspection report by Ofsted et al. (2017) included limited resources for working with children affected by domestic abuse; and psychological harm being taken less seriously than physical harm. The report calls on schools to prioritize education about healthy relationships which was not always in evidence from the inspections. Schools responding to domestic violence also entails working with parents, especially mothers who tend to be the non-offending parent. Working with parents requires a context-sensitive approach which forms the focus of the following section.

Recognizing the Child and Family Context

Parental non-disclosure of domestic violence coupled with wariness toward social services have a deep-rooted history, due in part to feelings of guilt, shame and fear of children being taken into care. Young people themselves have expressed fears of being removed from home ( Ellis et al., 2015 ). Research shows that making a disclosure to professionals or other adults can be traumatic for children, with instances of family members becoming angry and upset and holding the child responsible for consequences ( Children’s Commissioner, 2018 ). Cultural taboos can render disclosure of domestic violence, including ‘honor-based’ violence, even more difficult for members of certain communities. Interventions by social workers are sometimes perceived, if not directly experienced, as punitive rather than supportive. In order to facilitate identification and disclosure of domestic violence victims must be treated in a non-judgmental way and their complex needs recognized. Professionals, including teachers who are the Designated Safeguarding Lead in their school, require knowledge, training and strategies for inquiring about abuse, and how to manage both disclosures and non-disclosures.

The range of needs among those living with domestic violence requires a professional response informed by victim context. Welfare services need to adopt an intersectional approach to domestic violence and its attendant issues ( Ramon, 2015 ) whereby disability, race and ethnicity, gender, age, socio-economic status, immigration status, and sexual orientation of children and parents alike are taken into account. Immigration status, for instance, can be a factor in non-disclosure. In recognition of the importance of intersectionality Etherington and Baker (2018) advocate service providers engage in reflexivity by examining whether their provision ignores or attends to children’s multiple social locations. The needs and access to resources of a middle-class child, for example, will differ to those of a child living in persistent or recurring poverty. An intersectional, child-centered approach is promoted by Etherington and Baker (2018) , one which takes into account the specificity of children’s individual experiences, and is sensitive to the characteristics shaping their experiences. Where interconnected factors such as domestic violence and mental health problems affect a family’s context, they need to be understood and documented in conjunction with each other rather than in isolation ( Lloyd et al., 2017 ).

School Engagement With Domestic Violence Prevention and Education Work

In addition to making referrals to social care ‘Schools also have an essential role in educating children about domestic abuse’ ( Ofsted et al., 2017 , p. 28). Yet research has revealed a lack of work in school on domestic violence. A survey commissioned by the domestic violence charity Refuge (2008) involving 513 young women aged 18–21 revealed that just 13% had learned about domestic violence while at school and nearly 70% responded they would have welcomed such lessons.

Engaging in prevention education and awareness raising in school can increase domestic violence disclosure from young people, though research shows mixed outcomes, with increased disclosure following some educational programs but not others ( Ellis et al., 2015 ). Moreover, participating in a school-based program results in some young people more likely to disclose to a family member than to professionals ( Ellis et al., 2015 ). Trust in professionals plays a key role in domestic violence disclosure. Experiences of abuse can lead to young people having diminished trust in adults and in their ability to support and protect them, sometimes a consequence of teachers in school not acting upon student disclosure of abuse in the home ( Swanston et al., 2014 ). Teachers building trust with young people is therefore of vital importance.

Prevention programs in school are more effective when promoted through whole-school policies and practices than through single-component programs or individual teachers ( Harne and Radford, 2008 ). Program evaluations also show that while one-off education initiatives have some value in raising awareness of domestic violence, attitudinal change is better sustained when learning is revisited and reinforced in subsequent years ( Harne and Radford, 2008 ). Adopting a gendered approach is another preferred format for changing attitudes as it underlines that domestic violence is rooted in unequal power relations between men and women; although men can be victims too, the majority are women and they are subject to domestic violence in more severe and repeated forms ( Women’s Aid, 2009 ). Furthermore, where prevention programs in schools include a male facilitator, there is a higher likelihood of boys changing their attitudes ( Ellis et al., 2006 ).

A more recent evaluation of a United Kingdom school-based domestic violence prevention program was undertaken by Fox et al. (2016) . They evaluated a 6-week education program (1 h each week) delivered by domestic abuse practitioners in seven secondary (high) schools and compared participant questionnaire responses with those of participants in six schools not receiving the intervention program. The study had a total of 1,203 participants. When pre- and post-test responses were statistically analyzed, findings showed that boys and girls alike who had participated in the intervention program became less accepting of domestic violence and were more likely to seek help for abuse in comparison to those in the control group. Comparable degrees of attitude change occurred across those who had experienced abuse and those who had not experienced it. Although those in the intervention group indicated a higher likelihood of engaging in help-seeking behavior from pre- to post-test, this trend was not maintained at the 3-month follow-up data collection stage leading Fox et al. (2016) to argue that young people require more than a one-off program to persuade them of the benefits of seeking help for abuse. Congruent with previous evaluation research, Fox et al. (2016) emphasize that in order to help ensure the sustainability and effectiveness of prevention education teachers need to be trained and supported to integrate such education into the school curriculum.

For prevention and support work in school to be effective, teachers themselves evidently need to feel supported by school processes and management ( Sterne and Poole, 2010 ). When addressing the needs of children living with domestic violence school staff should be prepared with information about services, signposting to external agencies, ensuring student safety, and knowing what to do next following disclosure. Without this information, students could be put in a worse situation than before ( Howarth et al., 2016 ). Just as teachers need to have a clear understanding of their role in safeguarding children, so too they need to know the boundaries of their role. Research warns of the dangers of teachers acting beyond their professional scope such as asking a child to talk about their experiences without being suitably qualified which can have a traumatic effect on the child ( Swanston et al., 2014 ). A sensitive approach is needed to help both students and their parents already living with domestic violence. Yet teachers’ responses to research reveal they often lack the professional confidence and expertise to provide domestic violence prevention education and intervention support, highlighting the need for effective staff training at both initial and continuing professional teacher education, and to include school nurses ( Refuge, 2008 ).

The content, manner and personnel delivering domestic violence education in schools clearly require careful consideration to enhance student engagement and handle student vulnerability ( Fox et al., 2014 ). Different models of educational program delivery have been employed in school. Some entail teachers delivering school-based initiatives themselves, others favor delivery from external specialists, while some opt for collaborative implementation. Although external facilitators have specialist knowledge, expertise and experience of discussing sensitive topics with young people, teachers have more in-depth knowledge of students and their individual circumstances ( Fox et al., 2014 ). Working in partnership with external facilitators provides a way for teachers to develop their professional learning and confidence. The respective strengths of external specialists and teachers can be complemented through collaboration:

…preventive interventions when co-delivered with specialist organizations might offer the possibility for school staff to increase their skills in dealing with disclosures and subsequently help improve the health and well-being of children and young people. ( Ellis et al., 2015 , p. 60)

The need for effective professional learning and training of school staff applies to the issue of interpersonal violence too. Cross-national European research in secondary (high) schools found that teachers frequently had limited confidence and knowledge to address the problem of interpersonal violence and abuse ( Barter et al., 2015 ). Findings from the study echoed domestic violence program evaluations in that rather than interpersonal violence and abuse being left to the efforts of an individual teacher championing the cause, the issue should be addressed at institutional level as a whole-school concern. Schools have an essential role to play, then, in tackling domestic violence and the following section examines how recent policy and practice have the potential to influence work in this area.

Developments in Policy and Practice

Following long-running campaign calls for the introduction of mandatory relationships and sex education (RSE) in schools, the United Kingdom government announced in March 2017 it will introduce compulsory lessons in all schools in England (in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland RSE is expected but not compulsory). Current guidance on sex education in England was introduced in 2000 but content has not kept pace with social change, especially in respect to social media, online pornography and ‘sexting.’ While parents will still have the right to withdraw their child from sex education, draft government proposals have suggested parental withdrawal should only be possible until three terms before the child is aged 16, after which the child should be able to decide to attend ( Department for Education [DFE], 2018 ). Subsequent to a consultation period schools will be required to teach the new RSE content from September 2020 ( Department of Health, and Social Care and Department for Education, 2018 ). Statutory curriculum content in schools promoting healthy relationships, and raising awareness of unhealthy relationships and the unacceptability of violence in relationships, is a positive step toward equipping young people for modern-day life.

Another move in the right direction is the United Kingdom government’s consultation document which proposes the implementation of a designated senior lead for mental health in every school and college ( Department of Health, and Department for Education [DOH and DFE], 2017 ). Educational settings present a valuable opportunity to promote mental wellbeing and prevent mental ill-health since half of all mental health conditions start by the age of 14 ( World Health Organization, 2013 ). Although 61% of schools currently offer counseling ( Department of Health, and Department for Education [DOH and DFE], 2017 ), concerns have been raised about schools’ ability to resource such support coupled with the length of time students sometimes need to wait. There have also been long-standing concerns around high referral thresholds for external support services such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) which some children affected by domestic violence have not been accepted for due to referral criteria ( Swanston et al., 2014 ). Long waiting times to access such services have been a further source of distress; the average waiting time is 12 weeks but the longest is up to 100 weeks ( Department of Health, and Department for Education [DOH and DFE], 2017 ) during which time problems can escalate requiring more intensive and more costly support. The government’s consultation document proposes a 4-week waiting time for National Health Service mental health services for children and young people, and recommends content on mental wellbeing be part of the Personal, Social, Health and Economic education syllabus in schools. The government’s aim to implement training for the designated senior lead for mental health to all areas by 2025 has been criticized for being too slow. Concerns have been raised about the added pressure these proposals would place on an already overstretched teaching workforce facing recruitment and retention difficulties, and about the level of funding needed to ensure teachers have well-developed training for the vital role of designated senior mental health lead ( Education and Health and Social Care Committees, 2018 ). While training programs can improve teachers’ confidence and skills to deal with children’s emotional needs ( Place2Be, 2015 ), budgetary and workload pressures mean training opportunities are unlikely to be available in all schools, discussed further below. With the number of young people with a diagnosable mental health condition standing at one in ten ( Department of Health, and Department for Education [DOH and DFE], 2017 ), strategies aimed at addressing the causes and symptoms of mental health problems must be adequately resourced if they are to be effective.

Another area for consideration when tackling domestic violence in children’s lives is the role of school nursing. The number of school nurses has been reduced in recent years. They are not always represented at child in need meetings, nor is relevant information always shared with them ( Ofsted et al., 2017 ). Furthermore, term time working arrangements for school nurses mean they are not available during school holidays. Their restricted availability was referred to in the SCR of Daniel Pelka. School nurses attending relevant meetings and being employed during school holidays could facilitate greater consistency of care, better informed assessments, and improved multi-agency working.

Coming to school hungry is not conducive to learning and some schools provide breakfast and breakfast clubs. Since those living in poverty are at increased risk of domestic violence, having breakfast at school at no cost, or reduced cost, can be a valuable means to aid learning. For those impacted by domestic violence breakfast clubs can be an opportunity for quality time for parents and young children attending together ( Sterne and Poole, 2010 ). An evaluation of breakfast clubs set up in high deprivation areas in the United Kingdom found reduced hunger in students, enhanced concentration and behavior, and improved social skills ( Graham et al., 2017 ). Many schools offer homework clubs too. Those in temporary accommodation as a result of domestic violence may lack space or computer access to do homework and homework clubs at school can be a facilitator of learning. Extra-curricular activities and after-school clubs can also provide positive experiences. While the cost of extra-curricular activities is sometimes prohibitive, schools can provide confidential financial assistance, although some parents may be reluctant to seek financial help. Domestic abuse based on coercive control is another possible impediment to participation. Because coercive control can result in the abused parent, predominantly mothers, and their children becoming isolated and lacking opportunities for relationships with those beyond their immediate family, after-school clubs might be denied to these children but where participation is permitted they can be a means for children to develop social skills and confidence ( Katz, 2016 ).

Paramount to effectively supporting students is the adoption of a holistic, child-centered approach. If teachers are aware of issues in students’ home lives, they will be better informed to provide tailored support to meet the individual needs of students regarding their learning, and social and emotional development. School staff need to be able to confidently ask students if anything is wrong at home and take appropriate action ( Mullender et al., 2002 ). Research with young people affected by domestic violence found they valued teachers, tutors, learning mentors and school counselors in helping to identify abuse and access support ( Howarth et al., 2016 ). In terms of educational attainment, additional learning support, perhaps in a one-to-one or small group context, could help improve the educational outcomes of students. This would require a sensitive approach, however, particularly as students get older and may not wish to be singled out from peers.

Early intervention strategies to help children and young people experiencing domestic violence can be strengthened through organizations engaging in joined-up thinking and working. An illustrative example is Operation Encompass, an early intervention initiative being piloted in selected areas of the United Kingdom which entails police notifying a school by 9 am if a child has witnessed or experienced a domestic abuse incident the previous evening 1 . A key adult at school (the Designated Safeguarding Lead or Deputy) is informed of the case and cascades information to teaching staff to allow immediate and ongoing support to be given to the child. As a trauma-informed charity Operation Encompass takes into account the child’s past trauma, where applicable, and the child’s responses and coping strategies. Operation Encompass can explain to the school why a child is absent or has been dropped off at school by someone else. The initiative is enabling police and schools to work in partnership to mitigate the impact of abuse and has the potential to be an exemplar of collaboration.

The Freedom Programme 2 is another initiative being run, including in schools, to teach and empower victims of domestic violence to recognize signs of abuse and make positive changes in their lives. Organizations interested in the program need to make a commitment in terms of ensuring their staff are trained in the program and have time for implementing it. The Freedom Programme can also work with children due to start school and has proved effective in bringing about positive change in women’s and children’s lives.

Schools play a role in providing help when dealing with the fallout of domestic violence in others ways too, such as setting up practical arrangements to minimize the risk of child abduction by the offending parent following parental separation ( National Children’s Home, 1994 ). Volunteering at their children’s school, where appropriate, can serve as a way of non-abusive parents spending more time with their children and helping to protect them ( Hamby, 2014 ).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some teachers feel overwhelmed dealing with issues facing both children and their parents. Pressure on teachers to address problems among children and parents, such as increasing mental health issues, have left some feeling they are becoming like social workers. Mullender et al. (2002 , p. 219) emphasize the importance of teachers listening to children vulnerable to domestic violence and offering emotional support:

This is not the same as becoming social workers, which teachers understandably fear in an already over-stretched working life and without the necessary training. Rather, it means being an effective channel for children to gain access to welfare services outside of school, by opening up an early opportunity for them to confide that something is wrong.

Despite good practices taking place in schools and with partner organizations, funding cuts in the United Kingdom have meant some support services for victims of domestic violence are no longer available ( Lloyd and Ramon, 2017 ; Ofsted et al., 2017 ). Survey findings from domestic violence support services in England show that 60 per cent of respondents cited funding cuts, and the associated uncertainty, as their most significant challenge ( Women’s Aid, 2018 ). Reduced funding has led to services being unable to offer support to all women and children referred to them, loss of welfare service staff, and lower capacity to deal with increasing referrals of women with complex needs. Children and parents, predominantly mothers, living with domestic violence have been impacted by cuts to services resulting in schools taking on a greater role in supporting them. The role played by schools in supporting vulnerable children has implications for how teachers work with other agencies and in the next section I will look at how there can be tension between increased school autonomy and agencies working together.

The Paradox of Greater School Autonomy and Working Together

Difficulties documented in research and governmental reports concerning inter-organizational working may be exacerbated by government policy devolving greater power to individual schools. Previously, state schools were funded by government and run by the local authority. Academy schools, initiated under the Labor government, and free schools under the Coalition government and subsequent Conservative government, are still state-funded but are not overseen by the local authority; they receive funding directly from central government affording them increased budgets. With budgetary independence and increased autonomy for their own governance these schools are able to set the pay and conditions for staff rather than abiding by national teacher pay and conditions required of local authority-run schools. Academies and free schools are attended by over two-thirds of secondary school students and a quarter of primary school students ( Department for Education [DFE], 2017b ). Despite academy and free schools still being expected to liaise closely with local authorities on matters such as child protection and safeguarding, they have greater self-determination in shaping the relationship they have with local authorities ( Baginsky et al., 2015 ).

Academy and free school status also has a bearing on school staff training and continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities. Although local authorities are still a provider of CPD, increasingly schools are buying-in, frequently expensive, CPD and training from private providers ( National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers [NASUWT], 2018 ). Schools are thus operating in a market system, especially pertinent now the majority of secondary schools are academies with budgetary autonomy. Schools can choose between ‘market-leading’ training providers who offer consultancy services. Funding for school staff training comes, in part, from Pupil Premium grants given to schools in England to support the education of the most disadvantaged students. Based on rates for 2017–2018, for each student eligible for free school meals, their school will receive a payment of £1,320 (primary) and £935 (secondary). Current school practice is for the cost of staff training to be paid for by Pupil Premium and from a school’s own budget. Their budgetary independence means academy and free schools will have greater freedom to determine the nature and extent of staff training by external private providers. There have, however, been cuts in real terms in United Kingdom funding for education since 2010 ( Belfield et al., 2018 ) posing implications for school budgets and accordingly for staff pay and training. A survey of 1,615 teachers found budgetary and workload barriers impeded their access to training: ‘Teachers report that their school does not have enough money to fund training/CPD and that external training/CPD is often very expensive’ ( National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers [NASUWT], 2018 , p. 14).

Greater school autonomy has additional implications for Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs) whose role is to coordinate local work to safeguard children. As a multi-agency body LSCBs are attended by representatives from the local authority and relevant organizations such as health services and the police. However, research by Baginsky and Holmes (2015) indicates that increasing fragmentation of educational services has seen academy schools (including free schools), and private fee-paying (non-state) schools being represented on less than half of LSCBs. While over 80 percent of boards were represented at senior level by local authority schools, the same was true of only 20 percent of boards attended by academy schools ( Baginsky and Holmes, 2015 ).

Domestic Violence and Student Wellbeing Within an Attainment-Driven Education System

Given the spectrum of behavioral responses to domestic violence teachers need to be attuned to changes in children, some becoming withdrawn, others disruptive. Confrontational responses can, however, be difficult to account for: ‘If underlying contributory factors are not obvious or understood, those children are likely to be labeled as problematic’ ( Ofsted et al., 2017 , p. 14). This can lead to school staff misinterpreting students’ behavior and disciplinary action might ensue. Indeed, data show a growing number of students excluded from school have mental health needs ( Education and Health and Social Care Committees, 2018 ), and children impacted by domestic violence ( Ofsted et al., 2017 ) and/or living in poverty ( House of Commons Education Committee, 2018 ) are more likely to be excluded from school in comparison to their peers. This is worrying in the context of schools focusing on examination results and league tables. Teachers and educationalists lament the marketization of education whereby examination results have become a key measure by which schools define themselves and are defined by others, and schools are set in competition with each other in the form of league tables ( Berry, 2016 ; Berry, 2017 ; Scott and Scott, 2018 ). Research with teachers shows such changes are negatively impacting teacher-student relationships and student wellbeing, with teachers reporting having less time to attend to the needs of individual students, and reporting that their own stress levels sometimes adversely affect their interaction with students ( Hutchings, 2015 ). Baginsky et al. (2015 , p. 358) discern tension between the prioritization of examination results and children’s wellbeing:

Potentially there may be an inherent conflict between, on the one hand, pressure on institutions to demonstrate high levels of academic attainment and discipline by pupils in a competitive educational “market” and, on the other, the role of schools in recognizing and meeting the pastoral needs of children who are vulnerable or disadvantaged.

Where teacher performativity and student outcome measures in the form of examination results are at variance with the more holistic nurturing of students, efforts to support those impacted by domestic violence could be hampered and diminished. Concerns about schools becoming ‘exam factories’ have led to calls for a rebalancing of the education system whereby schools do not give precedence to academic outcomes at the expense of student wellbeing and personal development.

What happens in childhood and adolescence has profound implications for wellbeing in adult life. The prevalence of domestic violence as the most common factor cited in cases of children in need in England in 2016–2017 ( Department for Education [DFE], 2017a ) emphasizes the need for addressing this enduring problem through prevention, early intervention and education. So too is wider attitudinal and social change needed whereby domestic violence is no longer trivialized as ‘just another domestic’ or portrayed as the fault of, predominantly women, victims, as evidenced in our earlier research into media representations ( Lloyd and Ramon, 2017 ). Domestic violence must be addressed as a public health concern and not only as a privatized, individualized problem. The ways in which gender violence is based on and reinforced through women’s wider structural inequality and lack of power in relation to men needs to be recognized if violence within the domestic sphere is to be tackled effectively.

Encouragingly there is some evidence of domestic violence research in the context of education, though it remains relatively under-investigated. The continuing fragmentation of the United Kingdom school system and plurality of school types highlight the need for increased research to evaluate schools’ engagement in multi-agency working and to gain insight into effective practice. Some teachers and school support staff are themselves victims of domestically violent relationships and workplace support would be beneficial both for individuals and the school setting as a whole. Future research could usefully ask teachers and support staff their views on their professional learning and training needs in this important area of work.

Too frequently blame, shame and guilt cast a shadow over lives affected by domestic violence. Multi-agency working and in-school education and support can help prevent abuse and optimize outcomes for children, young people and their families living with the consequences of domestic violence.

Author Contributions

The author confirms being the sole contributor of this work and has approved it for publication.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

1 http://www.operationencompass.org/

2 http://www.freedomprogramme.co.uk/

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Encyclopedia of Domestic Violence pp 1–10 Cite as

Academic Achievement and Domestic Violence

  • Ishita Chatterjee 2 &
  • Disha Halder 3  
  • Living reference work entry
  • First Online: 11 January 2023

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Dictionary of Education by Carter (1959) defines “ Academic Achievement as the knowledge attained or skills developed in the school subjects, usually determined by test scores or marks assigned by teachers or both.”

Dictionary of Psychology by Chaplin (1959) defines “ Educational or Academic Achievement as specified level of attainment or proficiency in academic work as evaluated by the teachers, by standardized tests or by a combination of both.”

According to the Government of Netherlands, “ Domestic Violence is violence committed by someone in the victim’s domestic circle. This includes partners and ex-partners, immediate family members, other relatives and family friends.”

According to Dutton ( 2011 ), “ Domestic Violence refers to any violence occurring between intimate partners (same sex or other sex, married or unmarried) and against children. The abuse can take many forms: physical, sexual or emotional.”

Introduction to Academic Achievement

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Dutton, D. G. (2011). Rethinking domestic violence . Ubc Press.

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McGaha-Garnett, V. (2013). The effects of violence on academic progress and classroom behavior: From a parent’s perspective. VISTAS Online, 10 (1), 1–9.

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Ishita Chatterjee

Department of Psychology, Bangabasi College, University of Calcutta, Kolkata, India

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Chatterjee, I., Halder, D. (2023). Academic Achievement and Domestic Violence. In: Shackelford, T.K. (eds) Encyclopedia of Domestic Violence. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-85493-5_6-1

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Domestic Violence and its Effect on the Academic Performance of Students in Jordan

The study aimed at investigating the effect of domestic violence on the academic performance of students from the advisors' point of view, and also to know the effect of experience, gender, qualification of educational advisors and the students' financial level.

The sample of the study consisted of 90 educational advisors, 46 males and 44 females from  Jordanian public schools in Amman, Irbid and Karak. Means and standard deviations and T-test were used to analyze the results.

Results showed that there are statistically significant differences in educational advisors' attitudes towards the effect of domestic violence on students' achievement, it also shows that there are statistically significant differences at (a= 0.05) in their attitudes due to experience variable, and no statistically significant differences at (a= 0.05) in their attitudes due to gender variable, there are a clear statistically significant differences in educational advisors' attitudes towards the effect of domestic violence on students' achievement due to their qualification and the students' financial level variables.

Key words: Educational Advisors, Domestic Violence, Academic Achievement

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Effects of Domestic Violence on Children Thesis Research Paper Example

Table of contents, significance of the problem, purpose of the study, definition of terms, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional/psychological abuse.

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Violence has become a characteristic of the culture and society of America. The United States ‘ global picture is constructed on countless tales of mindless violence. It includes, among others, reports of tourists murdered randomly in Florida, a young mother killing her two young children, a society whose popular heroes are aggression incarnate in portrayals played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, and a society whose children have facile access to fire arms. The U.S. societal violence has also surrounded family life. Violence slips quietly and firmly through TV and its contents into the living spaces. This source misleads viewers by embracing unrealistic and filmic use of violence in real-life circumstances in homes and outside. Viewers invariably have the entire family and perhaps none of the family members escape this all pervasive and negative influence. Children are increasingly experiencing real-life violence with impressive and tender psyches, either in their homes, streets, schools, workplaces, and almost everywhere. This violence has not only taken on epidemic proportions, but is also a sad and painful reflection on our culture when kids are the recipients of violence, especially in the home setting. An environment which is otherwise supposed to protect and nurture young ones instead works to leave deep scars of hostile violence. To top it all provocations may be extremely trivial . This state of affair is a public health crisis as well as a moral / philosophical one.

The Effects of Domestic Violence on Children Thesis Research Paper Example

The United States (US) has the highest homicide rate in the world. The US homicide rate for young men is 73 times greater than that observed in comparable industrialized nations. Largely uncontrolled proliferation of guns and other lethal weapons is linked directly, for one, to the increased homicide rates among children and for two, to the numbers of violent incidents that children may witness. On an average each day in the US, 9 children are murdered, guns wound 30 children, and 307 children are arrested for violent crimes.

As the impact of violence on young children is the focus of this study, it is important to consider the culture in which children and their families are embedded. The social history of the US has always given more emphasis to traditions of individual rights and individualism over any perceived or real collective good. This philosophical stance underlies the tolerance of violence against women and the practices of corporal punishment in families. Historically, the emphasis on individual rights dictated that a man had unfettered rights on affairs of his household and that issues in family discipline were not the business of government or the courts. Prior to the late 1800s, children had few rights distinct from their families of birth. In fact it is an irony of societal logic that agencies were established to protect the rights of animals before agencies were established to protect the rights of children. It was not until the 1960s that state agencies were set up with specific legal mandates to protect children from familial abuse and neglect. This historical tradition of the supremacy of individual rights also contributed to the inability of the US to regulate gun ownership and possession. It is within this culture that families raise children.

The term violence encompasses a broad spectrum of behaviors and events, some of which are beyond the scope of this chapter. This chapter focuses on family and community violence. It also includes a perspective on violence in the media. Family violence must, by definition, include child maltreatment and spousal abuse. Community violence involves attacks, shootings and violence related to drugs and gangs. Author has specific interest in the impact on children when they are mere witnesses to domestic violence. Physical scars of violence as recipients are separate from the psychological scars impressed by an act of violence being witnessed. The latter are deeply rooted and long undetected and find expression elsewhere in reactionary and adjusted violent behaviour. This is particularly true of children who have delicate and impressionable psyches and develop childhood memory bank of violence and use it for seeking solutions to adult situations when they grow up. Such children are the special focus of this chapter.

Media violence is the most ubiquitous source of violence coming across majority of children. Approximately 99% of U.S. households have at least one television; 66% have more than one television. An average child views about 12,000 acts of violence on television each year.

In the United States, an estimated 1.6 million children are seriously injured or impaired each year as a result of abuse or neglect; 1,100 children die as a result of child abuse each year. One third of all child abuse victims are younger than 1 year of age. An additional 3.3 million children witness domestic violence indulged in by adults in the confine of homes. Nearly one half of the men who abuse their female partners also abuse their children. It transpires that domestic violence is an equal opportunity phenomenon and occurs in rural and urban areas quite regardless or either the class or ethnicity.

A study of elementary school children in New Orleans, Louisiana, revealed that more than 90% of the children had witnessed violence; more than 50% had been the victims of some form of violence; and 40% had seen a dead body. In Los Angeles, California, it is estimated that children witness 10%-20% of all homicides. Interviews with parents of children ages 6 years and younger at Boston City Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts, revealed that 1 in 10 children had witnessed a stabbing or shooting by 6 years of age (Taylor, Zuckerman, Harik, & Groves, 1994).

Myths about Children’s Exposure to Violence

Several myths about violence in the lives of children and families bear careful consideration. The first myth is that young children, because of their age and developmental stage are more inure than older children, when exposed to violence. Clinical experience suggests otherwise and reveals that young children, who witness violent events, are deeply affected by such witnessing; particularly when either the perpetrator or the victim of violence happens to be a family member. Young children also demonstrate a remarkable capacity for maintaining memory of traumatic events. Often young children volunteer vivid accounts of domestic violence whereas the parents’ belabor under the impression that their children either did not witness the act of violence or are quite unaware of it. It seems children keep substantial family secrets without even the knowledge of adult family. It is not uncommon for a parent to report that his or her child did not see or hear a violent episode in the home.

Separate interviews with the child reveal the opposite: The child gives vivid details about the violent incident. Denial and minimization also occur with professionals who work with young children. At some level, such denial is understandable. Adults wish that children did not see violence; it is a reminder to them of their failure to provide adequate protection for children. Adults also hope that if the violence is not talked about, the children’s memories of the violence will disappear.

A second myth is that violence is solely an urban problem. Violence has touched the lives of families and children across the United States in rural areas, in suburbs, and in inner cities. Domestic violence can occur anywhere. Child abuse and community violence occur with more frequency in areas where there are high concentrations of people with inadequate housing and income and high rates of drug abuse. This correlation exhibits the need to address the issues of poverty and inequity in the United States as one strategy for reducing violence.

A third myth is that violence is a racial problem that exists primarily in ethnic communities. Research suggests that violence is more a function of poverty than race. When people at the same income level are compared, few differences among races are found. This finding suggests that the context of poverty and financial deprivation, and not race, is the main risk factor for violence.

In order to obtain fair and judicious treatment of domestic violence with in the custody courtrooms; it is required that the courts overcome the strongly held myth that a veil of privacy should shield intimate family matters, particularly those which relate to the physical details of the parents’ relationship. Courts must be forthright about such issues for the cause of dispensing appropriate justice. It also requires judges to reconsider myths they may have about victims of domestic violence.

The tradition of family privacy, of a separate and private sphere for family life, is deeply embedded in the law. As Lisa Lerman has pointed out, “(t) he use of mediation to remedy family violence is one contemporary expression of a traditional policy that the state should not intervene in husband-wife conflicts, because the family is `a private ordering system with a capacity for solving its own disputes.'” Although many states have enacted laws to help battered woman, “a great deal of behavior that would be criminal or tortuous between strangers may still be done with impunity within a family.” (Cahn, 1994)

In combination with this traditional reluctance to intervene in the family sphere, is an inexplicable focus in custody decision-making only on parental behavior that affects the child. This focus, together with no-fault divorce (which excludes evidence of fault), provides an obfuscating justification for judges to squarely reject evidence of domestic violence as irrelevant. By examining only factors that affect the child, courts can continue to ignore the pervasiveness of domestic violence and refuse to peer behind the marital curtain into the domestic violence morass.

Judicial reluctance to intervene in the family is also encouraged by a general misunderstanding of domestic violence and battered woman. Primarily, because judges may not understand the battered woman’s behavior, it is easy to dismiss the deleterious impact of battering. There is a general belief that if the woman was seriously abused she would leave the family sphere.  If she stays, then it is presumed that the abuse did not occur. Under these conditions, even if the female can provide reliable proof that she has been battered, a tribunal can nevertheless reject the seriousness of the accusations, blame the victim for enabling the abuse to proceed, or even think that she has consented.

Finally, as with child sexual abuse, courts may think that females make accusations of abuse in order either to obtain an benefit in legal proceedings or to retain some kind of vindictive intent. A major part of the problem is that people can not sympathize with the fact that victimized females may tend to deny the truth because it is simply too terrible or embarrassing to acknowledge it.

Those who believe that battered women lie about the violence against them fail to understand the impact of domestic violence on the lives of mothers and children, and instead rely on their own stereotypes and beliefs about battered women and their families. Based on their misconceptions about what kinds of females are being battered or the presence of battering and its impacts on kids, judges continue to create decisions that may not be in the best interests of the child ; even if they give custody to a battered woman, they may not properly safeguard her with regulations on visitation. Battered women and their children need a legal system that accepts their terrifying reality, and that, if it awards the victim custody, also finds it is in the children’s best interest to prevent additional battering against their mothers. This is difficult. Judges must consciously uncover the fact that the battering exists, must accept that this battering adversely affects the child, and only then they should craft decisions reflecting this reality.


The last two decades have been associated with ever more frequent reports in the scholarly and press literature regarding instances of family violence. Initially, children of battered women were recognized as affected by violence only when they too, generally inadvertently, became injured during a violent episode. Researchers now suspect that children who witness physical abuse of their mothers may substantially outnumber survivors of child abuse. Carlson (1984) estimates that at least 3.3 million children in the United States between the ages of 3 and 17 are at risk of exposure to violence between their parents. Others suggest that 40 to 60% of abused children witnessed abuse of their mothers by their male partners on one or more occasions.

Exactly how much children see or hear of the battering of their mothers is unknown. In 41 percent of the national disturbances in which police intervened, Davidson (1978) revealed that kids were present. Hilton (1992) observed that 70% of parents in her research felt that their kids were witnessing the violence or that it was after impacts. Clinical experience with battered women and their children suggests that the figure is closer to 100%. The extent of the scope and effect of family violence on the children of battered women is only now being comprehended for its adverse impacts.

The understanding in respect of children of battered women and their responses to domestic violence is fast developing. Children’s responses vary. Although some children manifest signs of distress, anxiety, and worry, others are able to overcome the deleterious effects of family violence with the help of inner resources and the support of caring people and support organizations. Knowledge of these factors offers helpful suggestions in carrying out nursing practice with battered women and their children. Those who care for battered women and their children must seek them out, listen, and offer information, encouragement, and understanding. In short counseling empathy should be of very robust standards.

“We overheard a tremendous argument, lot of yelling and screaming and at one point we got scared for my mother because it sounded like she was being hit or something, and we both ran out of the camper and went to the house in time to see her fall into the bathroom, into the bathtub and she had just blood coming all down her face and her eye was cut and she was just crying and wailing and my step dad was standing over her like he was going to hit her again ” Daughter of battered woman (Humphreys, 1991).

The precise impact on children observing the abuse of their mothers is unclear. Research has described even young children’s sensitivities to conflict and distress in their homes. In addition, interviews with children often reveal that children were much more aware of the violence in their homes than their parents believed. Multiple studies have stated that children who come from violent homes are also likely to experience violence in future relationships. Most batterers have witnessed abusive behavior in their families of origin, and the rate of wife- beating is considerably higher in case of ‘sons of batterers’ than for ‘sons of peaceful fathers’.

However, not all sons growing up in violent homes become batterers when they grow up, and in fact many siblings of batterers may live peacefully in non-violent marriages. Although specific numbers are not reported in the literature, Stark and Flitcraft (1988) maintain that to conclude that violence in childhood definitively produces violence in adult lives too is erroneous. After reexamining the data from a national probability sample of 2,143 currently married or cohabiting persons, they concluded that although boys who experienced family violence as children were disproportionately violent as adults, 90% of all adults who were brought up in violent homes as children and 80% from homes described as “most violent” did not abuse their wives.

Traumatic consequences have been reported for children who are either abused themselves or have observed their mothers being abused. This is especially true in case of young children. Stark and Flitcraft (1988), in a feminist analysis of mothers of child abuse victims, concluded that battering is the most common and perhaps leading context for child abuse, and that the battering man is also the typical child abuser.

Initial reports about children of battered women tended to focus upon their presumed problems. The source of these difficulties was either explicitly or implicitly identified as the violence in their homes. Some authors compared children’s responses to abuse of their mothers with those of children who have been exposed to other types of trauma. Emery (1982) concluded that children from homes characterized by interparental conflict are at greater risk than are children from either the broken or even the intact homes that are relatively harmonious. He also suggested that both the type and amount of interparental conflict to which children are exposed are important determinants of the effect of conflict on the children. In particular, conflict that is embedded with open hostility (e.g., quarrelsome versus apathetic) and lasts for a long period of time exposes children to greater risk.

Other research suggested that children of battered women demonstrated a wide variety of behavioral difficulties such as

  • disturbed sleeping patterns
  • excessive screaming
  • clinging behaviors
  • failure to thrive
  • vomiting and diarrhea
  • speech disorders and
  • cognitive difficulties including decreased verbal and quantitative abilities.

However, such and other studies have limitations in that they interviewed only the mothers and did not evaluate the children first hand, an approach that has been identified as problematic. Furthermore, the majority of studies did not include a comparison group or consider the role of family instability, socioeconomic status, child’s stage of development, or other influencing factors in their methodology. Of late, the number of studies concerning the children of battered women has increased. These studies now directly address children’s responses to battering from broader perspectives that include more comprehensive methods and consider the various contexts in which violence occurred.

A trend was observed in the 1980s wherein several research studies used the Child Behavior Checklist (Achenbach & Edelbrock, 1983) to compare the children of battered women with matched control groups. Exposure to marital violence was associated with a variety of behavior problems, although the findings were not consistent. Across such studies, significant group effects differ by subscale and also by gender of child. However, other studies found no such effects. Wolfe and Korsch (1994) noted, “children of battered women, as a group, do not show any particular form of behavioral disturbance or emotional problem that is unique only to them” (p. 595). They did, however, note several general patterns of children’s responses to battering of their mothers.

Infants and toddlers typically respond adversely to violence in general. Particular symptoms of the disruptions caused by witnessing domestic violence include poor weight gain, poor sleeping habits, irritability, and other evidence of general distress. Preschool children may manifest anxiety and phobiatic behavior. Gender differences may be significant with boys demonstrating more aggressive and disruptive behaviors than girls.

The Child Behavior Checklist generally measures School aged children’s responses to violence (Achenbach & Edelbrock, 1983). School aged children have been reported to manifest anxiety, distress, and problems in school; with boys displaying such symptoms with added aggression. Much less is known about adolescents’ responses to the battering of their mothers. However, data suggest that especially for male adolescents, aggression directed at self and others continues to be a problem.

These findings are disturbing especially given the pervasiveness of woman abuse and the historic lack of attention given to affected children. Some investigators are now exploring the possibility that children who observe violence against their mothers react in a pattern similar to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of PTSD in children include: re-experiencing of the trauma, emotional blunting or overall numbing of responsiveness and persistent symptoms of increased arousal (e.g., hypervigilance, sleep disturbance, difficulty concentrating, irritability etc), all lasting at least one month. Although PTSD may provide a useful explanation for some children’s delayed responses to violence, this author is concerned that such labels may promote restricted pathology-oriented views rather than holistic perspectives that aim to build upon strengths and invigorated wellness.

There are, however, reasons to be hopeful for the children of battered women. Although multiple investigators using various methods have noted the problems of many children of battered women, they also report that 50% to 70% of these children do not demonstrate evidence of problems which might be clinically significant. This suggests that for the majority of children in violent homes other mitigating factors or circumstances may mediate or moderate the potentially damaging effects of growing up in a violent home.

Garmezy (1983) examined the role of resilience and other factors in children’s responses to stressful life events. He defines resilience as “attributes of persons, environments situations, and events that appear to temper predictions of psychopathology based upon an individual’s at-risk status”. His review of the literature consistently identifies a constellation of the following three factors that seem to mediate the effects of even chronic stress upon children:

  • dispositional attributes in the child
  • family milieu and
  • supportive environment

Although Garmezy does not speak specifically of children of battered women, his conclusions may be applied to them as well.

Dispositional attributes refer to a child’s temperament (e.g., flexibility of response, a positive mood, positive sense of self, active profile), personality (e.g., cooperative, non-aggressive), and cognitive style (e.g., reflectiveness, not impulsive). Family milieu refers to family warmth (e.g. protective, praising, close knit etc), support (e.g. assistance with problems and school), and organization (e.g., orderliness of roles and home, rules setting). It was important to note, ” an intact family was not an identifiable consistent correlate” (p. 75). According to Garmezy (1983), there was a striking lack of any consistent evidence in the studies reviewed that father-absence had an adverse effect on children. It was, on the contrary, mothers’ styles of coping with and compensating for absent fathers which had a powerful and decisively positive effect on children.

Several studies have concluded that a particularly warm relationship with one parent, adult, or even a caring friend can mitigate, if not eliminate entirely, the effects of marital turmoil on children. Finally, supportive environment refers to external support (e.g., from peers, significant adults, school system etc) and a sense of identification with the community. “Significant adults provided for the children a representation of their efficacy and ability to exert control in the midst of upheaval” (Garmezy, p. 76). According to Garmezy, in multiple studies using different methods with various groups these factors have been shown to mediate the detrimental effects of stressful life even upon children. Kaufman and Zigler (1987) concluded that a history of abuse does not automatically imply that a child will grow up to be an abusive adult. Instead of this one factor, there are multiple determinants of future abuse (e.g., history of abuse, poverty, stress, lack of support etc). When there is a history of abuse, the presence of significant positive relationships with one or more persons (support) can substantially mediate the detrimental effects of family violence. Knowledge of these factors present valuable insights for nursing practice with battered women and their children.

Whatever might be the effects on children, growing up in a violent home involves higher probability of being hit or seeing one’s mother beaten. Bennett (1991) in a phenomenological study, of five adolescent girls’ experiences as witnesses of marital violence, noted a general decrease in their quality of life. “From the perspective of participants in this study, the impact of experienced violence cannot be understood in terms of exposure to recurrent episodes of violence interspersed with periods of family peace. It was the day-to-day life in between the violent episodes that accounted for their experience as much as the violence itself” (p. 436-437). The adolescent girls generally narrated an absence of a sense of family, social isolation, awareness of their mothers’ unhappiness, the witnessed violence, and in some cases even their own and direct abuse. Generally these were all interacting dimensions of their overall experience.

Humphreys (1996) conducted life histories over two sessions with 10 adult daughters of battered women; daughters who had overcame their childhood exposures to violence and achieved personal and professional successes. Informants ranged in age from 20 to 40 years, with three women in their early 20s, two women in their late 20s, and five women in their late 30s to early 40s. One woman characterized herself as an African-American, one as an Asian-American, and the other eight described themselves as White. The majority of the informants came from working and middle class families, though two of the women clearly lived in conditions of poverty. All were born into heterosexual coupled marriage families and grew up in homes where their mothers were battered. Four of the informants were abused themselves, and two of those also had one or more siblings who were abused.

Humphreys’ informants reported a life filled with tension, unhappiness, and fear. Even if the informants themselves were not abused, seeing their mothers and possibly their siblings beaten was frightening enough and frequent. But, even when violence was not present, it’s after effects were frequently present. “I knew that whenever he came home all the good feelings were gone. Before he came home things were fine, people were talking and happy and laughing and things were working well…As soon as he walked in it’s like a giant cloud came over everything and it was changed, everything was over.” (Humphreys 1996)

Growing up in a violent home has a devastating effect on children. Children in homes where domestic violence happens are physically abused or neglected at a rate significantly higher than the national average for children from all homes. Such children are at higher risk for alcohol and drug abuse and juvenile delinquency than children from non-violent homes. Juvenile delinquents turn out to be four times as likely as non-delinquents from homes where the father battered the mother.

These children often suffer emotional effects, including constant anxiety, fear of abandonment and guilt for not being able to stop the abuse or for continuing to have affection for the abuser. Without professional help, these problems continue well into adulthood. Children also learn abusive ways from their growing up days in violent homes. Boys who witness domestic violence are more likely to batter their female partners as adults than boys who were brought up in non-violent homes. Therefore, domestic violence of today is a precursor of future domestic violence. Children raised in violent homes are 74% more likely to commit assaults in future.

Far too many children in the United States may be direct victims of violence or helpless bystanders to domestic violence. In either case, there is a lasting psychological damage. The mechanisms by which children react to violence are perhaps best understood by considering how children respond to emotional trauma and by examining the psychological processes children use to adapt to the trauma.

Childhood trauma is defined as “the mental result of one blow or a series of blows, rendering the young person temporarily helpless and breaking past ordinary coping and defensive operations” (Terr, 1991, p. 11). For children, trauma may include witnessing or being victims of natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, hurricanes etc), human disasters (e.g., automobile accidents, fires etc), or physical abuse or assaults. Traumas impact irrespective of the age of the affected person; both adults and children respond to traumatic situations in certain predictable ways.

Historically, research on the effects of trauma has been confined to studies of soldiers involved in wars. For centuries, there have been references to a set of symptoms associated most frequently with combat veterans. Terms such as shell shock, combat neurosis, and battle fatigue are all referred to in a mental state observed in soldiers after wars. After the Vietnam War, however, researchers initiated a more systematic look at the effects of trauma on returning soldiers. The work of van der Kolk (1984) greatly expanded the understanding of how external events of overwhelming terror or threat can produce enduring internal emotional changes in individuals. He found that the trauma of war evoked a constellation of symptoms and reactions that were remarkably consistent and similar in each soldier. This constellation of symptoms is known as PTSD.

There was, however, disagreement among child researchers about the extent to which children could experience effects akin to those found in PTSD. Significantly it was thought that children’s reactions to trauma were more transient than were adults’ reactions, and, therefore, the diagnosis of PTSD was not so appropriate for children.

In the early 1980s, Pynoos (Pynoos et al., 1987) and Terr (1983) undertook separate studies of children who experienced trauma. Pynoos studied the effects on children of a fatal shooting in a schoolyard; Terr (1983) studied a group of children who were kidnapped in California (the Chowchilla kidnapping). Both researchers wanted to understand more about how a single, unforeseen, out-of-the-ordinary, terrifying event would affect children. They wanted to learn how children’s responses to disaster might differ from adults’ responses. They were interested in seeing whether factors such as age, gender, social class, or ethnicity affected children’s responses.

They also examined whether proximity to violence or previous exposure to violence affected the response. Both researchers found an enduring pattern of response in children that was very similar to the set of symptoms associated with PTSD in adults. This research laid to rest the controversy over whether children could, in fact, experience PTSD. In the 1990s, PTSD has become an acceptable diagnosis for children and is frequently used to classify children who experience violence or abuse.

Symptoms of PTSD may vary in intensity, depending on the specifics of the exposure to the trauma, including a child’s proximity to the event, the victim’s relationship to the child, and the presence of a parent or care-giver to mediate the intensity of the event. PTSD symptoms that may emerge in children include:

  • diminished ability to concentrate in school because of intrusive thoughts and images
  • persistent sleeping disturbances
  • disordered attachment behaviors with significant care-givers and
  • nihilistic, fatalistic orientation to the future, which encourages increased risk-taking behavior

Witnessing violence adversely affects children’s development in many areas, including the ability to function in school, emotional stability, and the ability to establish peer relationships. Clinical experience with these children suggests that they later engage in aggressive behavior and/or indulge in abuse as adolescents and adults.

The major research projects that have studied the effects of traumatic exposure to violence on children have focused on elementary school-age children and adolescents. Preliminary evidence suggests, however, that preschoolers are also vulnerable to the effects of traumatic exposure to violence. There are clinical reports of children as young as 18 months who remembered traumatic events and were later affected by these memories.

Limited psychological and biological resources of young children’s run imminent risks of being easily overwhelmed, which may make them particularly vulnerable to the trauma associated with witnessing violence. Young children lack the cognitive and physical abilities to fully anticipate trauma or to protect themselves. Their sense of time is undeveloped. Young children live in the present and are unable to anticipate the future. They are not only the most defenseless victims but also find that they are least capable of communicating their fears.

One of the more sobering findings of the research studies conducted by Pynoos, Terr, and subsequent researchers is the extent to which exposure to trauma in children changes the way they view the world. Terr (1983) found that, even after four years had elapsed since the kidnapping, the children carried with them a pervasive and debilitating pessimism about the future. It seems that exposure to trauma produces a fundamental change in how children feel about the world and their place in it. This change in outlook has important implications for children’s behavior, ambition, and wishes for the future.

Research has suggested that a full 50% of the children exposed to trauma before the age of 10 years develop psychiatric problems later in life. Children who are victims of violence and those who are witnesses to violence are vulnerable to this symptomatology. The following sections describe two types of children who live with violence: children who are abused and children who witness violence.

The first category of children who live with violence is of those who experience maltreatment. Child maltreatment covers a spectrum of parental behaviors toward children that includes yelling, intimidating or shaming the child, neglecting the child, and physically abusing the child. Most researchers divide the broad topic of child maltreatment into two parts: parental acts of omission (neglect) and parental acts of commission (emotional and physical abuse). In fact, the majority of children who are abused experience more than one form of maltreatment.

In one study of families in which children were mistreated, in 50%- 60% of the families, children experienced both abuse and neglect; in 15% of the families, children experienced abuse only; and in 20% of the families, children experienced neglect only; in the remaining 5%-15% of families, children experienced “marginal maltreatment” (Crittenton, 1989). As stated above, young children, in particular, are at risk for child abuse. In 1990, almost 90% of those children who died from abuse or neglect were younger than 5 years of age; 53% were younger than 1 year of age.

Child maltreatment is the result of a complex set of interacting conditions, stresses, and other factors that affect families. Historically, the causes for child abuse and neglect were thought to rest within the family: The parents were emotionally unstable, had histories of abuse and neglect themselves, or lacked adequate knowledge about parenting. Some studies looked at factors associated with the children. Children who were abused were more likely to be highly active, to have been born prematurely, or to have a difficult temperament. Since the 1980s, sociologists and child development specialists have come to appreciate the influence of the community and larger culture and how these milieu factors may contribute to child maltreatment.

Garbarino and Sherman (1980) demonstrated that there are higher rates of child abuse in areas of poverty and inadequate housing. These communities, which are short on resources and have a more fragile infrastructure, were less able to offer support to families, thereby demonstrating that child abuse is not only a product of parental inexperience or previous trauma, but is also caused by stressful and unsupportive environments. This understanding of the ecological context of child abuse has important implications for its treatment and prevention. It is inadequate to address the problem of child abuse solely through parent counseling, because this approach assumes that the problem is entirely psychological. The ecological view of child abuse would, instead, target intervention to the environmental stressors of poverty, isolation, and inadequate services as major components of treatment. An Ecological treatment is more likely to effective than any other approach which is entirely psychological.

The United States has been reluctant to come to terms with child maltreatment. Few laws govern how parents may discipline their children. In many states, it is a felony to assault one’s wife but not to abuse one’s children. In a survey of attitudes across the United States about corporal punishment for children, 85% of the respondents believed that children could benefit from “a good spanking” occasionally. Regulation of family discipline is generally thought to be outside the scope of government intervention.

Barring malnutrition and disease, there is probably no other risk factor for children that might have greater consequences for their development than maltreatment by their parents. Children who are maltreated are at risk in the domains discussed below.

  • Development of secure attachment relationships: The basic foundation for a child’s sense of self and capacity to form caring relationships lies in the establishment of a secure, trusting relationship with a primary care-giver in the first year of life. Secure relationships are not only necessary for children to learn to trust but also for allowing them to know that they are inherently lovable and worthwhile. Many maltreated children come to see themselves as unlovable. They mistrust others, they are anxious, and they develop insecure attachments. This insecurity has implications for children’s adjustment to preschool. These children may be extremely wary of forming relationships with adults; they may have great difficulty with separations from care-givers.
  • Development of peer relationships: Because of their experiences at home, maltreated children may expect the same treatment from others. They engage in aggressive behavior because they are fairly accustomed to it having picked and seen a lot from their violent homes. They may misread even pacific social cues from their peers because they have learned to expect aggression from others. They have trouble making friends, which confirms their inadequacies and feelings of failure.
  • Cognitive and language developments: Numerous studies have documented links between maltreatment and cognitive delays. Children who have experienced chronic neglect are at particular risk for delays. Maltreated infants begin to show cognitive delays in the first year of life. There is also evidence that these children experience language delays. Neglecting parents do not use language with their children as frequently as do those who are caring. A childcare center for maltreated children at Boston City Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts, reports moderate language delays for all of the children at the center. These children go to school without a basic grasp of language as a tool. This can cause obvious handicaps in school routines. Such children do not come to view learning of a language as facilitative, nurturing, or even rewarding.

Children who have been physically abused may show symptoms generally associated with PTSD. Severe and chronic abuse may lead to more serious and intractable psychological states, including dissociative states and multiple personality disorders.

The second category of children who live with violence is of those who witness violence. As with maltreated children, there are fluid boundaries between the categories of children who are victims of violence and children who are witnesses to violence. Children who grow up in high- risk neighborhoods or families may be both victims and bystanders at various points in their childhood. Little has been written about children who witness violence.

The Child Witness to Violence Project at Boston City Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts, was founded in 1992. This project grew out of concern from pediatric health care providers about the children they saw. Increasingly, providers heard stories from children about shootings on the street or about violence in their homes. Their response to this problem was to establish a program specifically aimed at young children who were witnesses to violence. This program offers counseling to children and support for families in a way that considers the particular developmental capacities of young children. In the 2 years of the project’s existence, its staff has evaluated approximately 80 young children who have been exposed to violence. A great deal has been learned from these children about how violence affects their worldviews.

The Child Witness to Violence Project was conceptualized initially to help children cope with the phenomenal rise in drug-related assaults, street crime, and gang activity. The founders of the project were responding, in part, to the media attention to community violence. However, an analysis of the types of violence witnessed by children, referred to the project, reveals that domestic violence may be a far greater risk for young children than even street violence. Approximately two thirds of the children referred to the Child Witness to Violence Project had witnessed domestic violence. It seems, therefore, that the earliest lessons a child learns about violence are learnt at home and their tutors are primary care-givers.

Findings also show that even the youngest children referred to this project exhibit symptomatology associated with PTSD. Young children do not fully comprehend what they witness; they show clear evidence, however, of being frightened, confused, and anxious. Young children may exhibit sleep disturbances and increased anxiety at separations from care-givers. Their behavior may change dramatically. They either become highly anxious, active, and distractible or they withdraw in a shell and become emotionally passive and distant. Children show increased distress at anything that reminds them of the traumatic event. They also suffer from intrusive recollections of the event, which are the childhood equivalent of flashbacks in adults.

The following case example illustrates some of these symptoms in a very young child: Karen, age 2 years, 5 months, was referred for an assessment after she had been found by police in her home with her mother, who had been fatally shot. Apparently, she had been with her mother during the assault, which occurred several hours before police were summoned. In the beginning of the first assessment session, Karen immediately announced that her mother had been shot and was lying on the floor. She became overwhelmed and began to run around the room. For each of the next four sessions, she played out sequences in which she would call the police on the telephone, tell them about her mother, and describe how she was lying on the floor.

Her grandmother, with whom she now lived, reported that Karen had difficulty falling asleep at night, verbalizing before bedtime her intense wishes to see her mother. She had nightmares, some of which seemed to involve themes of shooting and crawling on the floor. Her grandmother described what appeared to be traumatic reminders of the event, such as her becoming anxious whenever she saw police because of her association of police with her mother’s death. Her grandmother also reported that her demeanor and personality seemed to have changed since the shooting. She was subdued, passive, and preoccupied and did not play with spontaneity or pleasure. Her grandmother contrasted this behavior with her previous cheerfulness and energy. Karen shows a range of symptomatology that is consistent of PTSD symptoms in older children and adults.

One of the more impressive findings from the children seen in the Child Witness to Violence Project (Groves, 1994) is the clarity with which they may recall the violent events. It is not unusual for a child to narrate the event or even to draw a picture of it that includes detailed information about the environment or the events immediately preceding the traumatic experience.

For example, an 8-year-old girl drew a picture of a shooting on the street in front of her house in which her younger sister was injured. In the picture, her family members were located exactly in the positions where they had been when the event occurred. She even remembered the color of the cars on the street. As she drew, she talked about how the sun was shining at an angle across the buildings. She recalled that her sister had lost a slipper just before the shots rang out. She began to replay the events immediately preceding the shooting, perhaps in an effort to achieve and justify another outcome of the tragedy. It was as though the event were imprinted in her memory with the clarity of a camera. All of the details were intact for her recall.

Children’s memories of events are greatly shaped by their cognitive appraisals of those events. Children may use all of their senses in remembering an event. Their views of the event may be distorted and idiosyncratic. For example, a 3-year-old boy was sitting in the front seat of a car when his adult care-giver, seated next to him, was shot. There was no forewarning of the event. His perspective of the event focused on his tactile memory of feeling the blood and his auditory memory of hearing the gun: “The gun went POW,” he said (Groves, 1994). He had no other perspective of the event.

These responses in young children have several implications for their development. First, children are forced to learn early lessons about loss, death, and body injury. These lessons present themselves even before the child has cognitive apparatus to understand them. How does a 3-year-old understand murder? What explanation can a 5-year-old create to understand why his father has just beaten and kicked his mother? Most importantly, children who witness violence also learn at an early age that the world is a dangerous and unpredictable place.

Their natural curiosity about exploring and moving out into the world is affected. An 8-year-old boy who witnessed the shooting of his younger sister told his therapist that he did not think he would ever feel safe again going outside. This message about the world is exactly the contrary of what we desire for young children. We know that young children begin to explore the larger world by cautiously moving out and sampling new experiences and sights. However, when children feel unsafe in this exploration, their curiosity is thwarted and their desire to learn by exploring is affected.

Second, children come to view the adults in their lives as incapable of protecting them. They extend such view and begin believing that they must take the responsibility on themselves, a prospect that causes great anxiety in children. A 5-year-old girl drew a picture of her mother, who is a victim of chronic domestic violence, lying on the floor beside her bed. The girl then told a story about how she and her little brother were playing alone in the next room. She began to worry that something might happen to her brother and that  how her mother would be unable to help her or her brother.

Third, children who witness violence experience overwhelming helplessness in the face of the trauma. This helplessness leads to feelings of incompetence and worthlessness. A 9-year-old boy who was shot in the leg on a playground managed to leave the playground during the melee. He did not tell his parents about the injury until they discovered blood several hours later. When asked about this astounding secrecy, he replied that he just wanted to hide because he feared he might be shot again.

Finally, children who feel so helpless and terrified sometimes turn to aggression and hostility as a means of coping with and transforming such vulnerability. They tend to believe that it is safer to be aggressive than to be a helpless bystander. In the Child Witness to Violence Project , children who witnessed violence drew pictures of playground fights being settled with guns or pictures of themselves armed with weapons. It is,therefore,quite possible that the 4-year-old bystander to violence grows up to be a 14-year-old perpetrator of violence because of his or her early experiences with violence.

Parents often mirror the same helplessness in the face of violence that children exhibit. Parents speak of guilt at their failure to protect their children from witnessing violence. In the Child Witness to Violence Project , it has been found that there are significant differences between how parents cope with domestic violence on the one hand and community violence on the other. Although some of these differences are self-evident, they bear scrutiny in terms of their impact on children. Families that are torn apart because of domestic violence are less able to psychologically support children in times of crisis than are families that face trauma from an external community source.

In the former family, the child may have no one to turn to for protection or reassurance. When one parent is the terrified victim and the other the perpetrator of violence, what choice does that child have? Mothers who are victims of domestic violence are worried about basic issues of survival and may be unaware of the extent of their children’s terror and phobia. For women who do not leave their partners, constant tension and fear exist about the next violent episode. Children are hypervigilant and anxious. Their mothers may be equally anxious and may focus most of their psychic energy on making sure there is no recurrence of violence.

When mothers and their children are forced to leave their homes and go into shelters, children face the additional trauma of loss of familiar space, facilities and belongings. They lose the support of their school or childcare network. They are forced to live in shelters with other families who are equally traumatized. The daily routines of shelters are necessarily regimented and strict to accommodate the needs of groups and to ensure the safety of the women. However, these rules and practices may not be the best for children. Their most expectations about a safe and peaceful alternate home are put paid to in such shelters. Therefore, shelters often are stressful and chaotic for children.

Families who have witnessed community violence, but who do not live with domestic violence, respond to the violence differently. A violent event may throw a family into turmoil, temporarily rendering the parents unable to perform some basic parenting tasks. When the violence occurs outside the home, however, parents may be able to offer better emotional support and protection to children than those parents who are directly involved with violence.

For example, one family with three children ranging in age from 8 to 17 years experienced the traumatic loss of a family friend as a result of a drive-by shooting. The shooting occurred on the family’s front porch; the adolescent friend died in the front hall of their house. All of the children witnessed this incident. Immediately after the trauma, the parents reported that they were preoccupied with the incident, they experienced intense guilt; they felt they should have been able to save the adolescent’s life.

They described themselves as emotionally paralyzed. With intervention, however, these symptoms abated; the parents were able to help each child cope with the aftermath of this tragedy by encouraging the children to talk about it and plan a memorial to this young friend. The fact that both parents were emotionally available to the children made a crucial difference in the children’s ability to accept and bear this traumatic event.

The burden for parents who live in chronically dangerous environments becomes more complicated and onerous. Parents are forced to adapt their parenting styles to the realities of the environment. This adaptation might even mean not letting children play outside, invoking strict curfews and other limits, and teaching children to be vigilant. Conflicts may arise between the children’s need for autonomy and the parents’ worries about their safety. Children may end up spending a great deal of their ‘no school hours’ trapped in the house, perhaps watching television or playing video games. These impersonal pastimes do not promote peer relationships or a sense of accomplishment and purpose in children.

Children are harmed in many ways through the abuse of their mothers. They are both physically and psychologically harmed. Often they are accidentally harmed by blows or flying objects aimed at the mother, or are stepped on or stumbled over, dropped when the mother is attacked, or injured before they are born when the mother is expectant. Batterers often deliberately abuse children physically and verbally to make the mother react and to establish an overall reign of terror and supposed discipline .

Aside from these direct forms of abuse, whether accidental or intentional, children are harmed by exposure to the abuse and by periodic or constant disruption of their daily lives. Abuse of the mother affects children most severely in their cognitive, affective and social development, which has a negative impact upon the child’s identity formation as a whole. The abuse also means a greater likelihood that the child will grow up to abuse his spouse.

Many studies have found a significant overlap between wife beating and child battering. This causes double trauma. These children suffer personal abuse from the perpetrator as well as experience the added trauma of abuse of their mother.  An abuser’s violence toward his mate causes a variety of psychological problems for his children, whether the violence is also directed at the children, whether the children are merely witnesses to the abuse, or whether the children do not witness the abuse directly but do suffer its consequences or aftermath. This psychological damage takes the form of

  • immediate trauma
  • adverse affects on the development of the children
  • living with high stress, including fear of injury to their mother and themselves and
  • exposure to violent role models. In addition they may be victims of abuse themselves as well.

Reports by battered mothers show that 87 percent of children witness the abuse. Many children actually see their father, stepfather, or mother’s boyfriend not only beat their mother, but rape her as well. Parents who contend that the children did not know are only deceiving themselves, and insulting the intelligence of their children. Many parents minimize or deny the presence of the children during the violence by suggesting that the children were asleep in bed or playing outside. Interviews with children have, however, revealed that children can accurately describe incidents of violence. The range of direct witnessing runs from a fleeting glance to witnessing the murder of their mother. While studies show that 87% of children knew about the abuse, it is likely that a significant proportion, if not all, of the other 13% were suppressing, denying, not telling, or didn’t recognize it for what it was at the time.

Those children, however, who do not directly witness their mothers abused, but who hear her screams and crying, the abuser’s threat, sounds of the impact of fists hitting flesh, glass breaking, wood splintering, or cursing and degrading language, are in fact a witness to the abuse. Events can be witnessed in many ways, not just by sight. Children also witness the consequences of the abuse after the abuse has actually occurred. For example, they may observe blood, bruises, torn clothes, broken glass, splintered furniture holes punched in walls, and their mothers’ tears, swollen faces and puffy eyes. They witness the tension in the house, apprehension of their mother when the abuser enters the room, and the way their mother jumps or tenses up when she hears his car pull into the driveway. Even the smallest infant is a “witness” to the abuse.

“We want to believe that children are affected by violence only if they witness it…. all the children I have seen over the years … were just as frightened hearing their mother’s screams as they were witnessing the abuse. I have heard repeatedly from children how they cover in the corners of their rooms, hide under their beds, curl up in the covers, hide in closets fearful that the violence will end in their mother’s death, and terrified of their fathers. That they will do and say anything their father wants them to do so he will not turn his violence on them.” (Cahn, 1994)

According to the New York Task Force on Women in the Courts , children who witness their fathers beating their mothers suffer slowed development, sleep disturbance and feel helpless, fearful, depressed and anxious. Studies show that these children also suffer (psycho)somatic symptoms; they have more hospitalization, colds, sore throats and bedwetting than children from peaceful homes. Lenore Walker (1979 concludes, “impressive data demonstrate that children who live in a battering relationship experience the most insidious form of child abuse. Whether or not they are physically abused by either parent is less important than the psychological scars they bear from watching their fathers beat their mothers.”

Children who live in a home where abuse occurs are always affected by it. It is easy to understand that children who are abused suffer a great deal from this abuse. However, direct witnessing of the abuse of their mother affects the children in a similar manner to children who are abused. Some of the most traumatizing experiences are when children are themselves abused and also witness the abuse of their mothers. These are instances of double traumatic whammies.

Initially, children exposed to violence experience trauma, shock, fear and guilt. When a violent incident occurs, they may try to intervene, subjecting themselves to possible injury, or respond with “immobilized shocked staring, with running away and hiding, or bedwetting and nightmares.” Preschool-aged children manifest intense fear, screaming, and resistance in going to bed, identifying nighttime with the occurrence of violence. As children grow older, they feel guilty about their inability to prevent the violence, loose respect for their apparently helpless mother, and feel anger towards her. Boys are aggressive and disruptive, fighting with their siblings and schoolmates; girls become clinging, withdrawn in a shell, passive, and anxious.

Children of all ages also present somatic complaints, ranging from insomnia, diarrhea and generally higher rates of illness in infants to higher incidences of colds, sore throats, abdominal pain, asthma, headaches and bedwetting in older children. Part of the pattern of spousal abuse may itself involve sleep or nutritional deprivation for the mother or children. Not surprisingly, then, children who are exposed to violence between their parents also experience delayed development of speech, motor and cognitive skills, and their school peer performance may suffer.

It is true that most of children of a divorced family suffer emotionally and physically as a result of their parents’ separation. However, Judith Wallerstein (Cahn, 1994), one of the few researchers to track such children over time, has found that children actually benefit when they are geographically separated from psychiatrically disturbed parents. This finding is consistent with Walker’s 1979 study of children who formerly lived in violent homes and now they expressed great relief at living with one parent-which was by and large peaceful. “The damage to a child from living in a violent household, even if he is not himself abused, should not be underestimated. This child is, for all intents and purposes, exposed to the same milieu as the battered child.”

Children exposed to wife abuse may be similar to those children described and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. DSM-III-R (American Psychiatric Association, 1987) contains a detailed definition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumata that may result in PT threat to one’s life or physical integrity; or harm to one’s children, spouse or other close relatives and friends; … or seeing another who has recently been, or is being, seriously injured or killed as the result of … physical violence. In some cases the trauma may be learning about a serious threat or harm to a close friend or relative…”.

Growing up in a violent family creates problems in later life because of the defective values, attitudes and coping mechanisms it teaches. Children who see their own parents engage in violence, as well as children who are abused, are more likely to be violent with their mates. The more violence they see, the lesser they will tolerate as adults. More often than not the children in a violent family attribute all power to be on the side of the wrongdoer. The witnessing pattern of violence reinforces the lesson that violence is an acceptable solution. The children also learn unhealthy, untrue notions of sex and love, and equate relating in a sexual manner with rape, that is, as an expression of power or anger.

The studies do not prove a cause and effect between observing one’s father beat one’s mother and being an abuser or victim of spouse or a perpetrator of child abuse when one marries. However, they reveal various correlations and suggest that witnessing violence in one’s family of origin is an important variable associated with becoming either an aggressor or a victim. Children of violent fathers are more likely to be violent themselves. Thus, for children who live with a batterer, the continuing pattern of violence reinforces the lesson that violence is acceptable and puts them at risk for becoming abusers.

The first national survey on family violence suggested the connection between violence in childhood and the later use of violence. For example, men who had seen their parents physically attack each other were three times more likely to hit their wives than those who had not (35% vs. 11%). The sons of the most violent parents had a rate of wife beating 1000 times greater than that of the sons of non-violent parents. Hotaling and Sugarman (Cahn, 1994) found that of thirty-eight possible risk factors, three in particular had a very strong association with men’s use of violence towards wives or female partners. Two were the use of other forms of violence or aggression (the use of violence against children and sexual aggression against wives). The other was having witnessed parental violence as a child or adolescent. Wallerstein and Blakeslee (Cahn, 1994) found that almost half of the children from abusive families became abusive in their own intimate relationships later on.

Some suggest that the correlation is higher for boys becoming aggressors than girls becoming victims. Pagelow, in a paper presented before the Society for the Study of Social Problems, in 1982 stated: “…there appears to be much stronger evidence that boys subjected to or witnessing paternal violence in homes of orientation are more likely to become violent in their homes of procreation.”

Domestic violence has a severe impact on children. Children are often bystanders to the abuse. The psychological damage of witnessing abuse manifests itself in a variety of cognitive, psychological, and physical symptoms including eating/sleeping disorders, depression, aggressive acting out, stuttering, and destructive behavior. One study documenting the intergenerational incidence of domestic violence found that 81% of abusive husbands came from violent families of orientation. Another study reported that sons of the most violent parents have a rate of wife beating 1000% greater than that of sons of non-violent parents.

In addition to the psychological abuse, children also experience physical abuse. Recent studies documented a 60-70% correlation between spouse and child abuse. Children in abusive homes are at times isolated, forced to engage in the abuse of the other parent, threatened, interrogated, abducted, or physically and sexually abused. The abuse has irreparable effects on the minds and futures of these children. Sixty-three percent of young men in prison for homicide are serving time for killing their mother’s batterer.

The damage incurred by children due to domestic violence can start before birth. A study revealed that more birth defects result from the mother being battered than from the combination of all diseases for which pregnant women are normally immunized. Thirty-seven percent of all obstetrical patients across ethnic, class, and educational lines are physically abused while expectant. Domestic violence is an epidemic. All institutions of our society must collaborate in an effort to contain and eradicate it. If action is not taken, domestic violence will continue to claim thousands of lives each year, as well as damage the futures of many more.

Violence in the home translates into violence in the streets. A high proportion of juveniles who commit serious crimes come from homes where physical and sexual abuse of spouses and children had occurred. Violence, like the first alphabets, is something which children learn first and best at home. Little boys who witness or suffer domestic abuse too often grow up to be batterers themselves; little girls grow up to be victims. Breaking this vicious cycle is one of our most important goals. But the effects of domestic violence spread much farther than that. Children who experience abuse themselves, or who are helpless witnesses to violence against a parent, suffer shame, guilt, rage and self-hatred; a boiling mix of pent up emotions that especially during adolescence, can erupt into violence and serious criminal behavior.

If adults can reduce the incidence of domestic violence – physical and sexual against children – they can help reduce the incidence of crime outside the home as well. The most feared and troubling criminal today is the “juvenile predator,” the young offender who commits shockingly violent crimes, seemingly without remorse or hesitation. Most of the focus has been on how to punish such behavior. More attention has to be paid on its prevention.

The solutions are not easy. But surely one place to commence is the very first place that young people witness or experience violence. It is in the home that many young people learn that guns, knives or fists are a means of power, aggression and control. It is in the home where they learn to take out their rage and frustration on helpless and innocent bystanders. It is in the home where they learn that violence works to intimidate. It is up to resident adults to teach a different and sobering lesson. And they can possibly do that when they begin treating domestic violence as the serious criminal behavior that it actually is.

Children can be more distressed by seeing someone they hold dear being beaten or being hit, a study has found. Researchers Gabrielle Maxwell and Janis Lind surveyed 259 children aged 11 to 13 for the Office of the Commissioner for Children, to research children’s experience of violence (Forde, 1997). They presented their results to the Psychological Society’s annual conference in Palmerston North. Half of the children in the survey had seen adults fight. Many of these fights were physical and violent, and most happened in their homes.

The children rated seeing violence between adults as among the four worst things that had happened to them. The other three things were as worse as the death of someone close to them, separation and/or divorce of their parents, and bullying by other children. Ms Maxwell said this underlined the serious effect domestic violence had on children, even if they were not the ones being hit. New Zealand had a high level of family violence, and children witnessed this violence. “It’s an unrecognized form of violence towards children, yet children report this as having a greater impact on them often than being beaten themselves by adults.” (Forde, 1997)

Children found it deeply upsetting to see violence inflicted on someone close to them. It made them feel fearful and uncertain about their place in the world. Ms Maxwell urged schools, parents and other relatives to notice if children were the victims of violence, whether it be domestic violence or bullying, and respond positively to such children. To help children deal with a violent event, adults could encourage them to talk about what had happened, detect their inner feelings taking them seriously and respond (measure and provide) to their need for safety and protection. Children should be imparted skills to cope with their feelings and ways to make themselves safer, including knowing who to turn to if they felt frightened or threatened.

New Zealanders must do more to prevent children suffering psychologically from exposure to domestic violence, Child Youth and Family says. In a speech, to the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers recently, CYFS head social worker Shannon Pakura warned children were the silent victims of domestic violence. “The behaviors we see in children who have witnessed domestic violence are the same as those we see when children have suffered abuse themselves, ” she said. “Infants and toddlers are likely to exhibit psychosomatic disorders such as stomach aches, diarrhea, nightmares, and regressive behaviors.” (Forde, 1997)

Older children were likely to cope better with domestic violence because of support outside the home, but their educational achievements could nosedive. Ms Pakura said everybody in the community needed to be more aware of domestic violence. “We have to stop thinking that domestic violence just happens to adults and somehow the children in the family are unaffected, maybe don’t even notice. Growing up in a family with domestic violence has devastating effects.” (Forde, 1997)

She also pledged to improve the standards of social workers. A registration scheme with focus on raising professional standards would help achieve this. Wellington’s Sexual Abuse Help Foundation manager Marian Kleist said it was crucial that social workers received a strong level of support. “I think we have to stop just looking at the extreme examples of child suffering and focus on the very basic things we do to affect kids, ” she said. (Forde, 1997)

When women are battered, children in the home are profoundly affected. Almost all of the children know about the abuse. Battered mothers report that 87% of their children witness the mother’s abuse or see their injuries, but those working with the children report that virtually every child sees, hears, and/or observes the painful consequences of their mother’s abuse. Many children actually witness their father; stepfather or mother’s boyfriend not only beat her but rape her as well. Even when they do not see the abuse, they are profoundly affected by it.

The mother’s nurture natural and realistic fears for her children’s safety. Many violent fathers inadvertently injure children while throwing about furniture and other household objects while abusing the mother. The youngest children tend to sustain the most serious injuries, such as concussions, broken shoulders and ribs in such violent throw outbursts. Very young children, held  physically by their mothers in an attempt to protect them, are hurt when the men continue to beat the mothers disregarding the children’s safety. In a 36-month study of 146 American children aged 11 to 17, who came from homes where wife beating was a major problem, all sons over the age of fourteen attempted to protect their mothers from attacks – 62% of them sustained injuries in the process.

In addition, abusers of women often deliberately abuse their children. More than half of woman abusers beat their children; Walker (1979) found 53 percent; Bowker, Arbitell and McFerron (1988) found 70 percent. These studies also found that the more severe the wife beating, the more severe was the deliberate child abuse, with the strongest indicators being severity and frequency of wife beating and the frequency of marital rape. In homes where domestic violence occurs, children are abused at a rate 1,500 percent higher than the national average.

In addition, significant numbers of men who batter women also sexually abuse their children, especially their daughters. Fathers sexually abuse children in a quarter to a third of all domestic abuse cases. Studies show that almost half of all battered women were sexually abused as children, generally by a male relative. Studies of children who are sexually abused (usually by their father) find that the fathers frequently beat their mothers and sometimes the children as well. Hewitt and Friedrich (1991) reported on 108 midwestern children under the age of five seen at hospitals for suspected child sexual abuse. Of the 64 children who probably had been sexually abused, 59.4 percent of their fathers had beaten the mothers and 37.5 percent had beaten the children. Where the sexual abuse was uncertain, 76.9 percent of the men had beaten the mothers and 62 percent had physically abused the children.

Domestic abuse has severe psychological effects on children even when the children are not themselves physically being abused. Pagelow (1982) found that children show insecurity through clinging, crying, nervousness, and a constant need to know where their mothers are. They display somatic symptoms- colds, sore throats, bedwetting, insomnia and fitful sleep, which clear up soon after they get back to a battered women’s shelter. Like Walker, Pagelow (1982) found that children suffer fear, terror and guilt because of the violence they observe.

Many children from violent homes suffer low self-esteem, sadness, depression, stress disorders, poor impulse control, and feelings of powerlessness, and they are at high risk for alcohol and drug use, sexual “acting out,” running away, isolation, loneliness, fear and suicide. Sons become aggressive, act out, display disobedience and behave defiantly and destructively, whereas daughters become depressed, withdrawn, clinging, and dependent. Some adolescent boys assault their mothers and siblings. Older children, especially girls, take on the burden of protecting their younger siblings whenever the father resorts to violence against them. They feel constrained and are apprehensive of leaving home.

Walker found that children carry the psychological scars from watching their fathers beat their mothers. They learn to abet in a dishonest conspiracy of silence. They learn to lie to prevent inappropriate behavior, and they learn to suspend and suppress fulfillment of their needs rather than risk another violent confrontation. They expend a lot of energy avoiding problems, living in a world of their own make-believe. Children also become homeless as a result of domestic violence. Woman battering is the cause of homelessness for half of all homeless families in America.

The children’s lives are frequently disrupted by locational moves because of the abuse. In the study of 146 children referred to above, most children were living in battered women’s shelters with their mothers when first interviewed, and only a few were in protective homes for children or living with a friend or relative. In the year before they entered that location, two-thirds of these children had changed homes twice. Over 85 percent had stayed twice with friends or relatives. Some had even resorted to living in the family car when shelters were unavailable. Three-quarters of the children over the age of fifteen had run away twice a year. Most of these children had lost on considerable schooling because of the frequent moves and the disruption, or because they were too ashamed or embarrassed to go to school, having fled home without their books, money, or any changes of clothing.

Despite an enabling federal law which allows homeless children to attend school in the district where they presently or previously resided, many children are kept out of school for security reasons, because violent fathers use school records or the presence of the children at school to track down the accompanying mothers or kidnap the children to duress the separated family portion. The use of school records will continue to be problematic until all states have laws to protect the unqualified access to such records-especially the home addresses-from children’s abusive fathers. In a state without such a statute, a judge could order that the child’s records not be released.

Other children are unable to enroll in schools in their new district because they lack birth certificates, immunization records or other documentation- paperwork usually unavailable or left behind when fleeing homes from abuse. Abusers, who are extremely domineering and controlling, frequently keep or destroy such documentation as part of their control strategy of the family, thus preventing or seriously delaying the receipt of either welfare benefits or housing assistance by the breakaway family. Those children who do go to school are often stigmatized socially, and they are usually too distracted and inattentive to learn much.

Many women become homeless when courts award custody to their batterers or put their children in foster care. Such custody changes are especially likely to happen when the child has been sexually abused by the batterer, because many judges refuse to believe that fathers sexually abuse their children, or believe the myth that mothers fabricate allegations of sexual abuse in order to gain tactical advantage in divorce or custody cases. Yet studies belie these myths and find that only a few allegations do not involve abuse, and even those allegations are made in good faith. Removing the children from the mother’s custody generally deprives her of AFDC or child support or both, and may even obligate her to pay for child support. Even if she receives AFDC because she has children from another man, her economic situation may so worsen that she is still rendered homeless.

Babies as young as two weeks who witness domestic violence need as much help as their conflicting parents, a psychologist told a conference on violence. Clinical psychologist Dr Jennifer McIntosh said that infant victims of domestic violence had been “grossly overlooked” in favor of their parents. “We’ve got this situation in Australia where there’s a huge taboo about intervening directly with children in domestic violence situations,” Dr McIntosh told reporters at the Children, Young People and Domestic Violence conference (Babies…violence, APP N news, 2000).

Dr McIntosh said recent research had shown that infants affected by violence in the home were far younger than was previously thought. “As young as two weeks of age, children have been noticed to try to defend themselves physically when parents are having physical conflict,” she said (Babies…violence, APP N news, 2000). Children who are abused or just witness domestic violence are likely to then become perpetrators of violence in later life. More immediately, child witnesses suffer developmental and mental health problems, Dr McIntosh said.

“It’s pretty sobering – what we’ve known for a while is that children who’ve grown up in violent homes are at least four times more likely than other kids to develop mental health problems in childhood and adolescence and that might even continue into adulthood,” she said (Babies…violence, APP News, 2000). In later years, children had difficulty dealing with earlier accumulated fear and aggression, Dr McIntosh said.

Parents, who were themselves trying to cope with domestic violence were not quite in a position to help their children overcome the effects of trauma, Dr McIntosh said. Dr McIntosh called for increased support and attention to be given to victims of domestic violence who were as young as pre-school age. “I think the greatest group at risk are the pre-schoolers and infants because we think – because they’re so little – `oh, they didn’t notice’. It’s simply not true,” she said (Babies…violence, APP News, 2000).

Dr McIntosh said it was wrong to think that support for the parents involved in domestic violence would automatically help their children. “The missing link, in my view, is the direct work with the child when things are happening,” she said (Babies…violence, APP News, 2000).

The State’s Department of Community Services spokeswoman Carol Peltola said children could become victims of violence when parents are out of control (Children … violence, AAP News, 2001). Ms Peltola said often children could be injured because they try to intervene when their parents are fighting. She says the direct intention may not be to harm the child, but the child may be in the mother’s arms.

Committee chairperson of the event, April Pham, says 63 per cent of the 316 children murdered in Australia in the past decade died at the hands of a parent. Ms Pham said changes to the Family Law Act and massive cuts to legal aid mean an increasing number of children are placed in the doubtful care of violent fathers (Children … violence, AAP, 2001). Ms Peltola says there’s also serious concern for the long-term psychological effects of domestic violence on children. She says their high level of stress means they’re not able to achieve a lot of the milestones that children normally do achieve.

Researchers say family violence occurs in 3 million to 4 million homes in the United States, and they estimate that 3.3 million children and teenagers may be witnessing that abuse. Their mother fatally stabbed, their father charged with her murder, Sydney, 9, and Justin, 6, have been enveloped by an extended family and apparently shielded from the publicity. Like their parents, Sydney and Justin Simpson now join the victims of domestic abuse in this country.

The effects of domestic violence on children caught in the crossfire have been well documented. “Those two little kids are in serious need of major treatment for them not to be scarred for life,” said Elaine Fisher, executive director of Parents Anonymous in Maryland. “I see it all the time. What’s shattered is the child’s sense of safety and a sense of self-esteem.” (Children … Say, The Baltimore Sun, 1994)  The coordinator of the Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence , Rita Smith, said, “The hardest thing for them is going to be reconciling the fact that they love their father with what potentially he might have done.” (Children … Say, The Baltimore Sun, 1994)

O.J. Simpson has pleaded not guilty in the slayings June 12 of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Lyle Goldman. No one can presume to know how the children are faring; they are in the care of their maternal grandparents. What the children may have witnessed of their parents’, at times, abusive relationship also is unknown. During O.J. Simpson’s arrest in 1989 for beating his wife, Sydney would have been a preschooler and Justin still in diapers.

But, according to studies of battered women, anywhere from 68 percent to 87 percent of their children witness the abuse. Even if a child does not observe it, he or she instinctively knows it is happening. They wake to shouting in the night or to their mother’s blackened eye in the morning. “Kids who witness violence are really `at-risk’ kids for developing emotional and behavioral problems-more anxiety, less empathy, less self-esteem and more depressive symptoms,” said Diane Davis, a psychologist who runs group therapy sessions for children at the Domestic Abuse Project in Minneapolis. “Often these children live in fear and terror of when’s the next thing that’s going to happen. They’re always on guard.” (Children … Say, The Baltimore Sun, 1994)

According to Davis and other counselors, the level of risk depends on several factors-age of the child at the time the abuse began, gender, role in the family, developmental status, extent of violence, repeated separations and moves, the level of emotional support in and outside of the family, and the family’s economic and social status. Children exposed to domestic violence feel isolated and rarely talk about “the family secret.” (Children … Say, The Baltimore Sun, 1994)   Davis, the Minneapolis psychologist, believes the Simpson children may have been under even more pressure to keep the secret because their father was famous and beloved. “Kids often feel responsible for the violence,” she said. “It’s much easier to blame themselves (than admit their parents cannot provide a safe home for them).” (Children … Say, The Baltimore Sun, 1994)   The number of children who lose a parent in such incidents is not known, although, in 1992, boyfriends or husbands, according to the FBI, killed 1,431 women.

Davis said that, in her treatment of children who have lost parents, “the kids glorify the deceased parent and deny the abuse occurred. They want to hold on to the good part of their parents. But they have to go back to the grieving process. You have to help a child work through the process that what (his father did) was bad, but I can still love my dad.” (Children … Say, The Baltimore Sun, 1994)  Witnessing the abuse may leave much more than mere psychological scars. A child can learn to batter or learn how to take it. “They can either think that that is the appropriate way to respond and replicate the behavior or they can be so turned off by it,” said Sylvia Gafford-Alexander, of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence . “But the majority seems to live it out.” (Children … Say, The Baltimore Sun, 1994)

Millions of children may be suffering long-term psychological and emotional damage as a result of being exposed to frightening scenes of domestic violence. Many become aggressive, fearful, withdrawn and anxious, with severe sleeping problems. They experience difficulties at school and find it hard to form close relationships, a new study has found. The research by NCH Action for Children -examining the effects of domestic violence on children-found that two-thirds of the children of battered mothers had witnessed their mothers being beaten and more than a quarter had themselves been attacked.

One in ten mothers surveyed said they had been raped in front of their children. The survey, based on the experiences of 108 mothers with 246 children, also showed that their exposure to violence was prolonged – the average length of violent relationships was seven years. Based on reported domestic violence, 750,000 children are growing up in an atmosphere of fear and violence. But with most going unreported the figure could well be the tip of an iceberg, Tom White, director of NCH Action for Children , said (Mills, 1994).

”Society will ignore these ‘hidden victims’ of domestic violence at its peril. Unless we step in to provide positive, practical help, tens of thousands of children will grow up bearing the psychological scars that domestic violence has wreaked on young lives,” he said. The survey found that four out of five mothers believed that the violence had inflicted long-term damage on their children. Nearly one-third reported that their children had subsequently turned violent and aggressive. One child told researchers: ‘‘my sister went sort of haywire and my brothers went very nasty . . . he would run up and punch you.” Another said: ‘‘my sister does stupid stuff, like she lights a match and burns her hand with it.” (Mills, 1994)

The survey had found that all the children in the families were aware of the violence. Even if they had not witnessed it directly, 99 per cent had seen their mother upset or crying. Mr. White said: ”The disastrous outcome is that by 16 or 17 some of these children end up with no qualifications, poor employment prospects and may have become homeless and estranged from their families.”

The charity called upon the Government to amend the Children Act to categorize children in violent households as ”children in need” (Mills, 1994) so that they could gain priority access to social services and other support services. The report also called for a national strategy providing more support for victims, counseling of children, better access to housing for families who leave violent homes, more funding for women’s refuges, the establishment of a 24-hour domestic violence helpline, cheaper childcare for lone mothers and more training for professionals who come into contact with such children.

In the recent tragedies that affected the Asia-pacific communities, children were clearly the direct victims of domestic violence in their homes. In the worst possible scenario for children affected by domestic violence, six innocent children were senselessly murdered and seven children were left orphaned. This surely must have happened after a lifetime of witnessing and bearing the burden of the violence in their homes.

These tragedies demonstrate how serious an issue domestic violence is in our community. They also demonstrate the close relationship between domestic violence and child endangerment. How many more of our children are struggling daily with violence at home, as primary victims or as witnesses to beatings, punches, straps, and verbal threats? Many children living in violent homes face a double whammy-not only are they witnessing the violence; they are often the direct victims of the violence.

Studies have shown that children from violent homes are 15 times more likely to be abused or neglected than children from non-violent homes. Several factors contribute to this. As a bystander during a violent episode, a child may become the unintended victim. He also may get injured when he attempts to protect his mother from continued aggression. Children are sometimes put in the middle of fights and used by one parent against the other, forcing them to take sides in arguments.

A 1990 study indicated that nearly half of men who abuse their wives or girlfriends also abuse their children. Also, women who are battered are less able to care for their children since they are distracted as they are busy dealing with their own physical and emotional injuries and mental states. Estimates vary on the number of children who witness domestic violence, from 3.3 million to 10 million children per year. At least half of all residents of battered women’s shelters are children. Many parents fail to see or minimize the extent to which their children are affected by violence in their homes until it is too late.

Children from violent homes often provide their advocates/clinicians with detailed accounts of abusive incidents their parents never realized they had witnessed. The effects of being witnesses and victims of domestic violence on children are enormous and lifelong. Violence witnessed at home is often repeated later in life. A study found that 75 percent of boys who witness parental abuse have demonstrable behavior problems (Jaffe, et al., 1987). They are more likely to commit violent acts than those not abused. In another study, abused children were arrested by the police four times more often than non-abused children.

A child’s presence during violent episodes alone raises the possibilities for the child to sustain injuries. Children are traumatized by fear for their mother’s and their own safety. They are depressed over their own helplessness. They are confused by their hatred and love for the abuser and blame themselves for not preventing the violence and even for causing it. They are so preoccupied with what is happening at home that they may not do well in school, and may drop out and participate in anti-social activities.

They display adverse health symptoms ranging from sleep disorders, headaches, stomach aches, ulcers, and enuresis etc. Children from violent homes develop coping skills to survive. They may take on roles and responsibilities of parents and give up being children much earlier than warranted. They keep harmful secrets and are seen but not heard. They cannot have friends over because of the need to hide the violence in their homes. They are fearful of expressing their feelings lest they provoke or expose. Children learn from their experiences and surroundings. Children from violent homes learn to express anger in ways that are violent and abusive. Boys tend to copy the abuser’s domineering and abusive behavior, while girls tend to imitate their abused mother’s passive and submissive behavior.

In order to effectively address domestic violence in the Asian Pacific communities, adults must include the children’s perspective on the issue in their discussions and strategies. People must be careful about making rash judgments and penalizing battered women who neglect their children because of their own victimization. The responsibility for battering must rest squarely on the shoulders of batterers. The legal profession is failing to protect millions of children each year from the devastating physical and psychological effects of seeing a parent battered, according to an American Bar Association(ABA) report.

The report on “ The Impact of Domestic Violence on Children ” calls on lawyers to take a lead role in bringing about legal reforms designed to safeguard parents and children who are victimized by domestic abuse, and it recommends increased training for judges and lawyers involved in these cases. “We are essentially blowing the whistle on ourselves,” said ABA President R. William Ide III, who commissioned the study. “Too often, public attention has focused on family violence only when it surrounded a case involving a celebrity,” Ide said, referring to the O. J. Simpson case, which has permeated many of the programs at the ABA’s weeklong annual meeting. “Yet such cases provide vivid reminders that the legal system commonly fails to protect the victims of family violence.” (Kilbourne, 1994)

Many of the findings and recommendations of the above referred study   on heightened awareness of the problem, tougher enforcement of existing laws, and additional training for Family Court judges dovetail with a five-part series published last year by The Record . The New Jersey Assembly approved a package of bills that included legislation-requiring sensitivity training for judges, police officers, and judicial personnel who handled cases of domestic violence. The bills would add stalking to the list of offences defined as domestic violence, and also afford new protections to victims of abusive dating relationships.

The report estimates that anywhere from 3.3 million to 10 million children a year see domestic violence. Researchers believe that 87 percent of the children in homes with domestic violence witness the abuse. “They’re seeing it, they really are,” said Susan Murrell, who is with the Battered Women’s Project in Baton Rouge, Los Angeles. “The mothers don’t want to think so, but they are.” (Kilbourne, 1994) Murrell was one of the panelists at an ABA program on “Stopping the Spiral of Violence.” The session included heart-wrenching drawings by children that depicted husbands beating wives and fathers beating children. The effects of domestic violence on children range from the physical, such as birth defects, to the psychological, which can include anxiety, aggression, behavioral problems, lowered self-esteem, stuttering, and depression, the report stated.

Statistics released by the ABA show that children who witness domestic violence are likely to perpetuate the cycle:

  • Of American males aged 11 to 20 that are behind bars for homicide, 63 percent were convicted of killing their mothers’ batterers.
  • About 75 percent of boys who witness domestic violence were found to have demonstrable behavioral problems.
  • Domestic violence is found present in the families of 20 to 40 percent of chronically violent adolescents.

“Children see a whole lack of response to the battery, and it makes them lose respect for the system,” Murrell said. “This is a powerful, powerful message that they are getting.” “The time has now come for the entire legal profession to scrutinize and respond to this problem,” the report states. “The law must protect children who live in violent home environments.” (Kilbourne, 1994) The report calls for a number of changes in domestic violence laws and policies, including:

  • The adoption of domestic violence laws that require police and courts to adequately protect children.
  • Support for enhanced education, treatment, and awareness efforts related to domestic violence and children.
  • More legal representation for adult and child victims of domestic violence.
  • Prohibitions against the purchase or possession of firearms by perpetrators of domestic violence.
  • Consideration of domestic violence in all custody and visitation hearings.

“For too long, domestic violence was America’s quiet, ugly secret,” Ide said. “Police were not adequately prepared to handle domestic violence calls, prosecutors assigned junior attorneys to handle cases, and many judges shrugged their shoulders and looked the other way.” (Kilbourne, 1994)

A great deal of research has addressed the effects of television violence on children, the impact of maltreatment on children, and the scope of violence among adolescents. There has, however, been less systematic research on the effects that witnessing violence has on young children. Research projects underway in the 1990s in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Washington, DC, sought to gain a better understanding of children who witness violence. Harvard School of Public Health has begun a 10-year prospective study to learn more from young children about the precursors to violent behavior (Buka & Earls, 1993).

There are descriptions, in the literature, of children who have witnessed domestic violence. Methodological problems, however, exist with these studies. Most of these studies examined groups of children who were in domestic violence shelters, thereby making it difficult to determine whether behavior was the result of witnessing violence or was exacerbated by the stress of shelter living. Sample sizes were small; few data were available about young children.

Perhaps the most useful research about the effects of exposure to violence has been conducted by clinicians who were interested in learning more about the effects of trauma on children. Notable contributions in this area have come from Robert Pynoos (1987) and Lenore Terr (1983). Both researchers have provided in-depth looks at the effects of single disasters on children ranging in age from 5 to 12 years. Their findings have added greatly to the clinical understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The effects of chronic exposure to community violence have been less well studied. James Garbarino (1980) and others have described eloquently the difficulties of growing up in environments of chronic danger. There is, however, a lack of systematic research that assesses the impact of growing up with this kind of violence.

Data from the National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect (Cahn, 1994) show that where there is child abuse concurrent with spouse abuse, 70% is committed by the man. The important fact is that, in most cases of child abuse, removing the children from the batterer’s environment and placing them with the mother virtually ends the child abuse. When children live in violent surroundings this affects them as individuals, but their bond with their primary caretaker is also affected. This bond between the primary caretaker and the child is critical to the child’s development. When abuse of the mother makes her unavailable to the child, not only is the child directly affected, but the bond formation also suffers a severe setback.

It is important that the child be allowed to form an unfettered and strong bond with the primary caretaker. The courts must consider the severity of harm involved in separating a child from the primary caretaker when making custody decisions. The courts should not separate the child from the primary caretaker unless the primary caretaker is shown to be patently unfit. To separate them or to let the child live in a violent environment is a double threat to the child’s ability to develop as a well-adjusted adult.

The parent to whom the children primarily look for day-to-day physical care, emotional nurturing, and approval is a significant figure to them. Most mental health professionals believe that attachment to the parent who performs these tasks, the primary caretaker, is the essential cornerstone for a child’s healthy emotional development. At the earliest stage, it is critical to the child’s learning to place trust in others and to have confidence in her own capacities. Later on this trust and confidence plays a central role in the child’s capacity to establish emotional bonds with other persons.

The facts can often establish the battered mother as the children’ s primary caretaker. Mothers today are still more often the primary child rearing parents. As in all families, bonding to the mother begins before birth. Undeniable biological facts — that only the woman carries the children, undergoes childbirth, and nurses the children create a much higher likelihood that the mother will have a stronger psychological tie with the infant than the father at the time of birth. Yet continuity of care with the primary caretaker should not be confused with constant availability. These are two different aspects. A mother who spends part of the day working may nonetheless be the child’s primary caretaker, and the fact that the child spends time in day care does not alter the significance of the relationship for the child.

The research on parents in violent families suggests that there is likely to be a substantial difference between the batterer and the victim both in their actual bonding and capacities for future bonding to the children. A batterer’s violence does not cease during pregnancy (it often commences or exacerbates at that point), and injuries that may be intended to cause miscarriage are common. After the child’s birth, the father’s unjustified sense that he must compete with it for the mother’s attention, or his arguments with mother about the children may precipitate violence. Further, while a batterer father may take a loving interest in his young children, as they grow older he is less able to tolerate the separation and individualization necessary for the children’s healthy development. He may try to exert control in the same intrusive manner as he had always used with the mother.

  A Sample Study

A compiled battery addressing the issue of domestic violence was administered to 30 randomly chosen children frequenting public places(public parks,gyms,sports stadium etc). The method of administration essentially comprised of multiple face to face interactions with teenagers over a period of one month seeking predetermined times for interactions after first random interaction. Based on the responses of interactions various responses to battery questions were recorded. The children who fell in the random sample were aged 6-14 years. Of these 17 were boys and 13 girls. The sample comprised of 13 white and 17 ethnic background teenagers. The random sample had 12 ghetto residencies, 11 apartment residencies and 7 shelter residencies. A total of 60% of the sample responded in affirmative to incidences of domestic conflict at least once a month. However 40% negated any presence of domestic violence in their families of orientation. Of these 40% a majority 90% were apartment residents indicating of relatively affluent standards of living and confirming the above held view that level of affluence of the family has much to do with incidence of domestic violence; whereas the ghetto residents reported the incidence of domestic violence in 83% of the cases. All of the shelter residents reported domestic violence in their erstwhile homes. Both ghetto(80%) and shelter residents(100%) reported frequent incidence of domestic violence in that they responded in affirmative to having such violence more than twice in a month. Of the ghetto residents reporting high frequency of domestic violence 75% affirmed that they had missed schooling for more than a month in the last one year on account of incidence of parental conflicts and only 25 % reported that they had schooling absence of less than a month; 100% shelter residents reported having missed regular schooling for more than a month.50% of ghetto residents reporting high frequency of domestic violence admitted to have been booked by police for minor crimes in the last one year on more than three occasions whereas the other half reported to have been booked less than three times; none was crime free. In case of shelter residents only 30% admitted to have committed minor crimes in the past three years on less than three occasions; 70% were free of crime and none had indulged in any category of crimes on more than three occasions during the past one year.

While 75% of ghetto residents reporting high frequency of domestic violence admitted affiliation to a street or school gang indulging in violence and petty crimes only 30% of shelter residents reporting high frequency of domestic violence admitted such membership. It was surprising to note that even those ghetto residents and apartment residents who had either reported mild frequency of domestic violence or no occurrence were also gang members but they had not been involved in any crimes.100% of those suffering high frequency of domestic violence-both in ghetto and shelter residences-reported steep fall in scholastic achievements since domestic violence became a regular feature in their families. A few of them wistfully recollected their high achievements from the period when their familial environments were peaceful. Again almost 100% of the respondents suffering high frequency of domestic violence reported an attachment with firearms and felt excitement in its use . All of them admitted to have used firearms since violence began plaguing their homesteads on more than one occasion-particularly in gang environment.40 % of ghetto residents suffering high frequency of domestic violence felt that they might move to shelter if their family environment continued the way it was; whereas only 10% of shelter residents felt that they might move to a regular home with in next three months. The response of ghetto residents indicates that 60% of the children, despite high frequency of domestic violence, had high resilience and were able to cope with adverse circumstances.88% of ghetto residents, suffering high frequency of domestic violence, believed that fathers were responsible for most of the domestic violence whereas 100% of shelter residents felt as much. The recall rate of number of incidents of violence was highest in the age group 12-14 years and poorest in the age group 6-8 years thus not supporting the conclusion that younger kids are able to recollect such details comprehensively. They tended to grope and recollect events that too vaguely. Even recent incidents were not clearly recollected. Only those having suffered high frequency of domestic violence were examined from this point of view. Girls suffering from high frequency of domestic violence were more locked, so to say in their homes when compared to boys. 50% of ghetto residents reporting high frequency of domestic violence admitted to have suffered abuse themselves either as physical,sexual,emotional or sheer neglect or in combination of these;100 % of shelter residents had suffered thus in their erstwhile homes.30% of the girls reporting high frequency of domestic violence reported sexual abuse in one or the other form.  The data summarizing major conclusions is contained in tables 1 to 10 at Appendix A. These conclusions more or less support the findings carried in other studies and research.


Recognition of the surprising depth and intensity with which violence permeates the American home began to emerge over the past two decades. Society began to slowly and reluctantly unlock the secret doors of family life. Reports of woman battery, child abuse and incest continue to increase in number. These crimes are reported more, in part, because the public has become aware that these acts are, in fact, crimes punishable under the law. As these family secrets are now seen as crimes, people are more likely to report what had previously been hidden and denied. Nevertheless a great need still exists to educate the public, as well as law enforcement personnel, child welfare personnel, judges, lawyers, doctors and mental health professionals.

All types of reported child abuse cases increased from 416, 000 in 1976 to 1.7 million in 1984. The number of reported child sexual abuse cases rose from 12,480 in 1976 to approximately 221,000 in 1984. Studies show that children are often involved, either directly or indirectly, in family violence, and are often the subject of the initiating arguments that lead to the violence. One study indicates that at least 3.3 million children in the United States, between the ages of 3 and 17 years are at risk of exposure to parental violence. Many parents minimize or deny the presence of the children during the violence by suggesting that the children were asleep in bed or playing outside. From interviews with children, however, it is show that children can accurately describe incidents of violence. The range of direct witnessing ranges from a fleeting glance to witnessing the murder of their mother.

In what promised to be a landmark decision in Massachusetts and important in the rest of the nation, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled that domestic violence must be given substantial consideration in custody determinations. The decision, offered trial judges further guidance in applying the “best interest of the child” (Witt, 1995) standard in determining custody awards in that it identities domestic violence as one issue that must be considered. In doing so, the court recognized that domestic violence directly causes harm to the child who observes it and may reflect on the parenting capability of the perpetrator of the violence.

The decision, written by judge Charlotte Perretta, concluded “that in cases where, as here, there is credible evidence of physical abuse to a household member by a person seeking custody of or visitation with a child, a trial judge must make detailed and precise findings which demonstrate that the effects of the domestic violence on the child have been evaluated and, in the event physical or legal custody is awarded to the perpetrator of the abuse, how such an award advances the best interests of the child.” (Witt, 1995) On that note, the Appeals Court reversed the trial court judgment awarding physical custody to the father and remanded the case for a new hearing on the issue of permanent custody in keeping with its opinion.

The case arose out of a complaint for paternity that was filed by a father 24 hours after the mother obtained an abuse prevention order that required the father to vacate the home they shared and gave her custody of the minor child, a boy, age 9 at the time of separation. The parents subsequently entered a written stipulation as a temporary order in the Probate & Family Court which provided for shared legal and physical custody, divided the child’s time equally between the parents’ households, and provided for a sharing of all the child’s expenses. The mother’s abuse prevention order remained in effect, as modified by the temporary order relating to custody entered in the Probate Court. After a guardian ad litem appointed by agreement of the parties filed a report indicating the “child’s desire to spend more time with Dad than Mom,” (Witt, 1995) the trial court gave the father temporary physical custody, subject to visitation by the mother to pay child support to the father.

At the time of trial, the mother presented testimony through her adult children who had lived in the household and  had observed the father abuse the mother and child, as well as expert testimony from a foremost authority on the subject of battered woman’s syndrome. Dr. Peter G. Jaffe, Director of London Family Court Clinic, in London, Ontario, Canada and co-author of books entitled Children of Battered Woman (1990, Sage), and Ending the Cycle of Violence: Community Responses to Children of Battered Woman (1995,Sage), testified based upon interviews and testing of the parties and the child that the mother suffered from battered woman’s syndrome, and that the child “suffers from some of the emotional and behavioral problems experienced by who have witnessed abuse of their mothers.” (Jaffe et all, 1987)

Dr. Jaffe expressed his opinion as referenced by the Appeals Court in its decision that “the child should not be permitted to live with the father who perpetrated violence against the mother, (emphasis added) because: ‘Children who live with batterers basically are learning that violence and threats of violence and intimidation is a way to get what you want. So they’re really having a number of inappropriate behaviors being modeled for them about the use of threats of violence both in general and, in particular, violence within relationships. Children of that age also learn that if the person who has been abusive during the relationship receives custody for them … it says that the violence has been condoned or reinforced in some way; that if somebody is really aggressive and intimidating, they can eventually get what they want.” (Witt, 1995)

Therefore, the Appeals Court acknowledges not only the need to examine evidence of direct harm to the child, which was also evident in this case but not considered significant by the judge, but the effect of domestic violence within the family unit on the children exposed to it. In fact, the Court cites Dr. Jaffe’s testimony that “research indicates that ’80 percent of all men who battered their partners have witnessed violence in their family of origin’ and ‘boys tend to model their father’s behavior … especially boys who identify strongly with their father try to model their father’s behavior.'” (Witt, 1995) The implication of this case for breaking the vicious cycle of violence disclosed by this research is significant. For the first time, the trial court is being directed to examine an area that previously has been ignored, or more often misunderstood.

Prior to this case, the only guidance the trial court had was an express reference in Massachusetts law that the court consider all relevant factors including “whether any member of the family has been the perpetrator of domestic violence” (Witt, 1995) in determining whether temporary shared legal custody would be in best interest of the child. Although the Massachusetts law does not specifically cover paternity cases, applying the rational of a similar case, the Massachusetts law, arguably requires that the same rights and protections be afforded to a child born in or out of wedlock. While this opened the door for the trial court to consider domestic violence on the issue of permanent custody, it did not promote consistency in the treatment of this issue by trial judges, some of who did not understand the effect of violence on the children or mistakenly believed that domestic violence was no longer an issue after the parties separated.

In the Massachusetts court case the Appeals Court addresses the failure of the trial court “to make detailed and comprehensive findings of fact on the issues of domestic violence and its effect upon the child as well as upon the father’s parenting ability.” (Witt, 1995) The opinion indicates that the trial court’s finding that the father was the primary care giver “should not be afforded substantial weight without a determination as to the quality of that care.” (Witt, 1995) There was testimony that the father had usurped much of the mother’s parenting responsibilities and actively interfered in her relationship with the child in an effort to control the mother and the child.

Although the “best interest of the child standard” (Witt, 1995) has traditionally weighed heavily in favor of the primary care parent, the court appears to acknowledge, based upon the expert testimony, that in a situation such as this, where a woman suffers from battered woman’s syndrome, the parenting relationship is affected and traditional ways of determining which parent is the “primary care parent” (Witt, 1995) do not apply. In fact, the evidence indicated that the father used fear and intimidation to control the tangible duties of parenting by violent and abusive behavior, and that the mother could claim only those areas that the father was unwilling to take. The reference to “father’s parenting ability” (Witt, 1995) seems to imply that a history of being a batterer may go to the issue of fitness to parent a child, in much the same manner as drug or alcohol abuse or mental instability affects such determinations.

The argument advanced on behalf of the mother, both at the trial and appellate levels, was that the father’s history of committing violence against the mother and the minor child impaired his fitness to parent the child. The specific risk to the child that were alleged by the mother, through her expert witness, were the likelihood based on past experience that the father would continue to verbally and physically abuse the child, and the likelihood that the child would adopt these inappropriate behaviors in his future relationships and become a batterer as an adult, thereby perpetuating the cycle of violence represented in this family.

While the Appeals Court talks about the impact of domestic violence on the parenting capabilities of the father, it does not rule out that the father could obtain custody. Rather, The court leaves open the possibility of custody if “detailed and precise findings of fact … demonstrate that the effects of domestic violence on the child have been evaluated and, in the event physical or legal custody is awarded to the perpetrator of the abuse, how such an award advances the best interest of the child.” (Witt, 1995) To date, proposed legislation that would create the kind of statutory presumption that it is not in the best interest of a child to be placed in the custody of a batterer has not been successfully advanced in our legislature although the need for such legislation was identified in the 1989 Gender Bias Study of Courts in Commonwealth of Massachusetts conducted by the Supreme Judicial Court.

The Gender Bias Study also made the following pertinent findings relative to domestic violence and custody of children as argued to the Appeals Court by the mother in this case:

  • there is a tendency of judges to doubt the testimony of domestic violence victims, and to blame them for their predicament, thereby holding them responsible for their own abuse
  • ignorance about the psychology of female victims of domestic violence interferes with the ability of the legal system to respond in an effective way because judges do not understand “battered woman’s syndrome” and therefore believe that women exaggerate the extent of violence or abuse when in reality they tend to minimize or deny its severity;
  • a mother seeking custody is held to a different and higher standard than a father, with the result that fathers who actively seek physical custody receive either primary or joint physical custody 70% of the time; and
  • custody of children is often used by a batterer as a bargaining chip to control a victim.

Although this decision involved the paternity case, it is clear from the opinion that it has application in all cases involving custody of children, whether marital or non-marital. In fact, in addressing the inappropriateness of shared legal custody under the facts of the case, the court did not rely on the earlier Massachusetts law clause which was dispositive on the issue, but said specifically that “the award of joint legal custody is inconsistent with the overwhelming undisputed evidence of hostility between the parents and their disagreement on matters pertaining to the child.” Interestingly, the court also reviewed the post-judgment docket entries and orders in noting that the ongoing conflict had continued after the judgment was entered.

The Appeals Court further found that the trial court was clearly erroneous in its finding that there had been mutual battering, which “suspect finding … appears to have formed the basis for the trial judge’s imprecise finding that the child `could be said to be at risk with either’ of the parents.” (Witt, 1995) The opinion considers that while technically correct in finding that there was force used by each party against the other, the finding of “mutual battering” (Witt, 1995) was “inconsistent with the evidence about which the trial judge made no findings, that is, that the mother suffers from battered woman’s syndrome and that most of her physical acts of force were defensive.” (Witt, 1995) (emphasis added) Although the guardian ad litem and the mother’s expert witness, Dr. Jaffe, both testified that the mother suffered from battered woman’s syndrome, the trial judge made no finding in that regard. Rather, in arriving at his decision concerning custody, he gave weight to the child’s stated preference to live with his father, and the fact that the father had been the primary care parent in recent years.

Domestic violence is a societal problem that requires a multi-disciplinary approach to solve. It requires attorneys and judges to join together with mental health professionals to first identify and then protect its victims, including the children. Once we acknowledge the potential harm to the child, appropriate services must be provided to protect the child. This requires that the trial court fashion judgments that will address treatment for the batterer, and counseling and protection for the victim and children. The need to protect victims necessitates examining the need to supervised visitation. In this particular case, the domestic violence expert stated his opinion that supervised visitation was warranted if the father was not in counseling for batterers and capable of acknowledging his inappropriate behavior. However, services for batterers are not readily available throughout the Commonwealth, which makes protection even more critical for victims and their children.

The United States Commission on Civil Rights (Cahn, 1994) indicated that the generational cycle of violence should be broken by focusing on the children of abusive families. In custody cases involving domestic violence judicial process can be best accomplished by placing the children with the non-abusing parent for several reasons. Battered women themselves usually do not come from violent homes; batterers do. In fact, most battered women’s first exposure to domestic violence is with their husbands.

Thus, violent behavior and tolerance for violence is less ingrained in the mothers than in the fathers. Most former victims of violence are extremely careful not to choose another violent man for an intimate relationship, and so are likely to lead violence-free lives after separating from the children’s father. Abusers, on the other hand, are poor candidates for counseling. They are unlikely to believe their conduct is wrong or should be changed, and so are less likely than their mates to break the pattern of violence.

There is a high correlation between spouse abuse and child abuse. Men who abuse their wives are often also violent towards their children. One study found the rate of child abuse to be 129% higher in families with spouse abuse. Another found that 45% of assaults on women are accompanied by physical assaults on a child as well. Also, it is not unusual for batterers to sexually molest their victims’ children. Therefore the custody decisions should be grounded on the realities of all of the above stated reasons in order to get secure environment for their children.

Prescott and Letko (Cahn, 1994) report that 43% of women in a shelter had children who were victims of physical violence by the same offender. Roy reports that 45% of the children of battered women are physically abused. Jaffe, Wolfe and Wilson (1987) summarize the rate of overlap between witnessing and being a victim of physical abuse as between 30% and 40%.

Several other studies support the correlation theory. A study of 27 abused women and their children in an upstate New York battered women’s shelter found a distinct correlation, finding that 63% of the batterers had also used abusive tactics on the children during the previous year. Abusive tactics were such as to result in injuries viz. from kicking to the use of a weapon. While 55.6% of the women had also used such tactics, the study found that men engaged in this conduct almost twice as often. After completing a follow-up on the women when they left the shelter, it was concluded that the data provide encouraging evidence that the risk of child abuse may be significantly reduced following the intervention of shelter staff and services. The no-violence policies at shelters, and the assistance which shelter staff provide mothers seeking financial and emotional independence, are two helpful features of shelter intervention that may reduce the risk of child abuse.

Another study compared 87 servicemen who had been reported and confirmed as batterers, and 95 who had not been. Using the Child Abuse Potential Inventory (CAPI), the researchers found that 36.5% of the spouse abusers had elevated scores, indicating a higher potential for child abuse, and their mean scores were higher (Cahn, 1994). The CAPI, developed in 1979, is a 160-item, self-administered screening tool, which requires the individual to agree or disagree with various statements. In other studies, it has correctly identified confirmed child abusers 89% of the time.

The results of a women’s magazine-solicited survey of 1,000 battered women showed 77.5% of them had children in common with their abusers and 70% of the wife beaters also had abused the children. The mother’s ability to protect the children from abuse was closely related to the father’s tendency to prevail in disputes between the two (a factor labeled “husband dominance” by the researchers). The greater the husband dominance, the greater the likelihood of child abuse. The more serious the wife abuse, the more serious the child abuse was likely to be.

Over $30 million has been awarded through Fiscal Year 1998 to rural states and jurisdictions to assist in strengthening the investigation, prosecution, and delivery of victim services in domestic violence and child abuse cases. An additional $20.6 million was awarded. In Bonner County, Idaho, where no domestic violence program existed prior to a 1997 rural award, advocates respond with law enforcement to domestic violence calls and provide outreach and follow-up services to victims.

Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) also targets children. Grants are made available to limit the effect of violence on children, including runaways and homeless children, and to create safe places for children. VAWA funds have also supported the opening of a shelter for battered women and their children. In the first year, advocates served 172 victims, and the shelter served 65 women and 67 children. In 1998, the advocates served 215 victims, and the shelter served 56 women and 64 children.

In rural Massachusetts, health and human service providers, law enforcement officials, clergy, and others are receiving training to address domestic violence and child victimization in their communities. The goals of the project include prevention through community education and outreach, advocacy and counseling to children and non-offender parents, and coalition building to address victims’ safety and access to community resources.

Rural communities are reaching farther to respond to child abuse and to identify how technology can help address the geographic isolation that limits services. Many rural areas are seeking to establish supervised visitation centers, where court-ordered visitation can occur without putting children at risk. Others are recognizing the needs of under-served communities and plan to develop bilingual police or advocacy units.

While the central goal of VAWA is to improve the criminal justice system’s response to violence against women, victims face related problems in civil matters such as custody and visitation, abuse and neglect, child support, divorce, and other civil cases where domestic violence is involved. Child custody cases involving domestic violence pose particularly difficult challenges for judges, battered women, and children. In October 1998, the Department awarded $11.5 million to victims and legal services organizations, battered women’s shelters, law school clinics, and bar associations to strengthen civil legal assistance for victims of domestic violence. The Department awarded another $21.9 million in June of this year.

An emerging body of research shows that children who witness domestic violence manifest a range of behavioral and emotional problems, and there is some evidence that they are more likely to use violence as adults. Studies also demonstrate a significant co-occurrence of domestic violence and child abuse, revealing that in 30 to 60 percent of cases where women are abused, their children are also maltreated. If we are going to help our young people to lead lives free from violence, we must intervene early to make sure that abused and neglected children and children who witness domestic violence do not turn to violence themselves. The Department is supporting efforts to break the inter-generational cycle of violence, guided by the principle that more often than not, when moms are safe, their kids are safe too.

Under VAWA’s rural grant program, grantees are using federal funds to develop partnerships between child protection workers and battered women’s advocates to help address the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child abuse and to ensure the safety of battered children. For example, a community partnership in Oregon places domestic violence advocates in three local child welfare offices to provide consultation to child protection workers and direct service to clients.

In Miami-Dade County’s Juvenile Court, VAWA funds are supporting a demonstration project that provides domestic violence screening and advocacy for battered women in child abuse and neglect cases. The result is the coordination of intervention services for battered women and their children, making it possible to protect children while reducing the likelihood that battered women will be revictimized or held accountable for the actions of their abusers.

Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder is leading the Department’s Children Exposed to Violence Initiative , which involves a range of efforts that promote justice system reform and encourage a new level of multi-disciplinary collaboration to address the needs of children who are victims of, or witnesses to, domestic violence. In June of this year, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services, Eric Holder convened a national summit on children exposed to violence that brought together scholars, clinicians, service providers, policy makers, law enforcement, and judges to share best practices and develop a blueprint for local action. The summit highlighted the need for communities to support and protect battered women as a critical component of any effort to protect children.

As part of the Children Exposed to Violence Initiative , the Department is supporting New Haven, Connecticut’s Child Development-Community Policing Project, in which police “first responders” at a violent crime scene receive mental health training and work with child development specialists to give traumatized children the needed support. VAWA funds for this project support advocacy and therapeutic services for battered women, as well as for their children who have witnessed violence in the home.

States increasingly recognize that domestic violence hurts children, too. Forty-two states plus the District of Columbia now include domestic violence as a factor in custody decisions. This is an emphatic reform addressing the needs of children who live in violent homes. Parents are educated about the effects of domestic violence on their children. The Dade County, Florida, Domestic Violence Court (DCDVC)-in partnership with a facility associated with the University Of Miami School Of Medicine (The Mailman Center for Child Development, which has developed a 10-week age-specific counseling program for children who have witnessed domestic violence)-makes completion of the group counseling by the defendant’s children a condition for the defendant’s probation. Through these and other efforts, the Department will continue to support innovative community collaboration to intervene effectively in cases involving children’s exposure to domestic violence as well as the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child abuse.

Wayne County has an excellent program for dealing with domestic violence, and people are learning how to do it better all the time. The prosecutor’s office, including the Child and Family Abuse Bureau , known as C-FAB, deals with more than 4,000 cases annually. That is four times as many as they had handled only three years ago. Changes in state law and their own procedures have made it easier to track and prosecute abusers and to protect their victims. More people need to be aware of them.

In a continuing effort to involve all segments of the community in the effort to combat domestic violence, the Wayne County Coordinating Council to Prevent Domestic Violence is in Livonia. The council is comprised of 35 law enforcement, health and social service agencies.

Future Implications For Research

Several areas for research in the area of violence and children are important. These areas include a focus both on prevention and intervention. Evidence shows that aggression in young children is a strong predictor of aggressive behavior in adults and those aggressive patterns of behavior become more pronounced and stable over time. Prevention efforts in early childhood must, therefore, focus on how children learn aggressive behavior and how best to intervene to change these patterns of interaction before they become entrenched. A burgeoning number of violence prevention curricula exist for children, and there are ongoing efforts to evaluate these programs. Do these programs work? Are they more effective for certain ages than others? Are certain approaches better to use than others? Which ones are developmentally appropriate for younger children? Additional research is needed in this important area of prevention.

Another area of research in prevention is a family support program. Many professionals are deeply committed to the notion of enhanced social supports to all families as a way to eliminate some of the stresses that lead to family violence. These supports include parent education resources, universal supportive intervention after the birth of a child, access to high-quality child care and after-school care for children, and access to a range of other community support services. The belief is that these programs relieve stresses in families, decrease isolation, and give specific information about child rearing. Such interventions improve the quality of life within families and reduce violence in the family. Research is needed to develop different models of family support and to determine which models of family support are most effective.

Yet another area of research lies in the exploration of the factors that help children cope with exposure to violence. It is widely known that not all children who grow up in violent environments have poor scholastic or life outcomes. Some children survive great adversity and grow up to lead productive and nonviolent lives. What are the protective factors that enable children to cope with adverse environments? A greater understanding of the factors that promote resilience in children would give valuable direction for treatment and prevention of debilitating effects of domestic violence.

The final area in which research is needed is the analysis and evaluation of various treatment approaches for children who have been exposed to violence. No studies exist on the efficacy of treatment for young children who have witnessed violence. There are clinical and anecdotal descriptions of successful treatment of children, but there are no controlled studies of intervention.

Any effort to address the problems of violence and their effects on young children and families must involve comprehensive and multidimensional strategies. A single dimensioned intervention will fall short of its goals. Between 1993 and 1995, several commissions and professional organizations have produced detailed recommendations for addressing the issues of violence in U.S. society. These reports share substantial agreement. All of the reports include recommendations for community-wide collaborative approaches to dealing with violence. No single institution can take on the task on stand alone basis. Schools must unite with health, mental health, and law enforcement agencies to provide services and support to affected families. Social institutions, such as churches and civic groups, must join the efforts as well. Across the United States, for example, there are new collaborations among child development and law enforcement professionals and coalitions of ministers to address the issue of violence.

These recommendations also call for family-centered approaches to intervention. These approaches affirm that parents are often the most important influences for children and that parents themselves also need help in coping with violence; they need information about what, when and how to tell children. They need universal support and education in child rearing to improve parenting skills and learn about non-violent ways of conflict resolution. When possible, parents should have access to this information and support before they do have children so that this philosophy is well woven into the context of parenting from the beginning.

It is also important to recognize the sharp impact of poverty and racism on the epidemic of violence in the United States. Living in poverty increases the likelihood of both experiencing child abuse in families and of experiencing violence in the community. Any strategy to reduce violence must address these root causes. In Boston, Massachusetts, a community- based child abuse prevention program conducted a community survey to find out from families what services they needed the most. The responses included requests for basic services: food pantry, adult literacy and English classes. When families do have access to more concrete and assured services, stress is reduced and the likelihood of violence is likewise reduced. Perhaps because of this all comprehensive violence prevention programs must first address basic family needs.

In the arena of public policy, five recommendations can be put forward:

  • The issue of media violence must be addressed. The Federal Communications Commission should review, as a pre-condition of license renewal, the efforts of television stations to decrease the amount of violence on television and to increase the amount of positive, pro-social media content. Individual citizens should make their voices heard in protest against excessive projection of violence in the media. Families and schools should sensitize children to the negative effects of television violence and teach children critical and selective viewing skills.
  • Efforts to support legislation to regulate gun ownership and licensing are critical. Such efforts have been difficult to achieve because of the powerful lobbying efforts of organizations such as the National Rifle Association. However, it is imperative that the United States enacts legislation that reduces the proliferation of guns and limits access to weapons-particularly for certain tender age groups.
  • A campaign to reduce institutional violence, particularly restraining the use of corporal punishment in schools, must be initiated. As of 1993, corporal punishment was still legal in many states. If schools are to be a refuge for children, they must be models of non-violence.
  • Legislative efforts to address the social causes of violence, ­poverty and racism ­must be initiated. An alarming number of children are growing up with persistent poverty; the majority of these children are from variety of ethnic groups. Poverty has been directly linked to family and community violence. Any efforts to reduce violence must, therefore, address the problem of poverty first.
  • Programs that offer an effective intervention, right from the stage when children are still young, are critical in the overall efforts to reduce violent behavior. This intervention may include family support, parental education, and specific and targeted violence prevention programs. Legislators seem reluctant, however, to allocate funding to programs that intervene early in children’s lives. The 1995 debate in the United States on the federal crime bill provides a case in point. The debate is whether to put money into building more jails and hiring more police or to put money into programs for children that would reduce delinquent behavior. It seems short sighted to treat the results of violence without addressing its causes. If intervention were to occur early in children’s lives to provide adequate support for parents so that they could raise children in a healthy, safe, and nurturing way, then the need for jails would also be reduced as there would be logical reduction in the number of criminals.

Noted psychiatrist and author, Judith Herman (1992), writes,” When traumatic events are of human design, those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between victim and perpetrator. It is morally impossible to remain neutral in this conflict. The bystander is forced to take sides” (1992, p. 7). The caregivers of young children, therefore, must not be passive bystanders to the violence with which young children live. Those who care for children must raise their voices in protest at the ballot box, in the media, in the community and in their work with families to make the world a safer place for children.

The children of battered women as a group have not received the attention in professional literature accorded to other survivors of family violence. Although incidental references, anecdotal reports, and descriptions of shelter-based programs have been published since the late 1970s, research focusing primarily upon the children of battered women did not appear until later. The understanding of these children has changed since then. Recent research is both enlightening and encouraging. The potential to make a difference in the lives of these children has never been better.

Nurses can intervene with primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention strategies. The interventions that follow are organized according to level of prevention and can be used by individual nurses in clinical settings. Primary prevention includes all interventions that prevent abuse of women and children or diminish their impact. Societal level interventions that decrease tolerance for violence in all settings reduce the risk to children of battered women. Most primary level interventions necessitate changes in public policies. However, individually, nurses must include detailed assessment of and empathetic discussions with family affected by violence as part of their routine practice.

The U.S. Surgeon General (1990) identified family violence as a serious public health problem. Yet, as a group, health professionals have not done all that is possible to alleviate this problem. To help children of battered women, nurses must first broach the subject of violence in families. Therefore, at a minimum, nurses need to ask every client and be prepared to listen ever so patiently and respond when family violence is found.

Routine assessment for safety should also include probing questions about firearms. Nurses should enquire about the presence of firearms in the home, and if they are present, they should find out how such firearms are stored. Nelson, Grant- Worley, Powell, Mercy, and Holtzman (1996) found that in Oregon alone 40,000 children lived in households with firearms which were either always or sometimes stored loaded and unlocked. The child should be asked if he or she knows anyone with a gun or sees guns at school. Wintemute (1996) noted the frequent association between gang membership and risk of firearm related injury. Children, especially school-aged children and adolescents, should be assessed routinely for gang involvement.

Literature on resilience in children suggests that, in the presence of challenging life events, a sense of self-efficacy and the help of supportive adults significantly contribute to positive outcomes. Children who are not experiencing successes in their lives and/or who lack contact with supportive adults may benefit from involvement in programs that address these areas. Girls and Boys Clubs, Big Sister and Big Brother programs, church youth groups, sports clubs, or other similar activities may provide children at risk with the opportunity to feel capable and connected outside their families. An informant related the importance of this type of support (Humphreys, 1996) “… they always encouraged me and said that I could do whatever I wanted to do and that I would be somebody. So this was always being affirmed all the time by so many people that is was something I accepted and I expected, It got to the point where I expect it and there was no less.”

The goals of secondary prevention are early diagnosis and intervention to prevent aggravation and recurrence. Battering of mothers has already occurred at the level of secondary prevention. Once woman abuse is discovered, nurses can help the children by offering to help and support the mother. Doing so helps to diminish the effects of violence upon the woman, decreasing the burden upon her and freeing her to help her children.

In every practice setting, health care providers should have specific information about available agencies and services for battered women. Typically, these agencies provide a variety of services and are well aware of the resources and means of access in the community. Health care providers should have those phone numbers readily available and share them with victim women.

Nurses must be prepared to listen to battered children. Children of battered women may be fearful and afraid of disclosing “secrets” in the family. Abuse of children themselves further complicates communication. This finding necessitates reporting in every state to the appropriate child protective service agency. To foster a trusting relationship when confidences cannot always be kept and are fragile, nurses must be forthright and honest about their role. They should convince both mother and child that anything they say will be kept confidential excepting where child abuse is suspected. Nurses can assure them that this is the only circumstance that would warrant sharing of what is told with an outsider. They should be informed that if it becomes necessary to tell outside agencies, they would always be advised beforehand. In addition, nurses should assure them that they would continue to work with the family even though other agencies may enter into to participate as well. The health and safety of both mother and children is the nurse’s primary interest. As one informant suggested (Humphreys, 1996): “Well as a child in terms of advice, I mean the first thing is just for a child to be able to talk about it. (Talking about it) would be the first step that would be hard to get to, to break through.”

Nurses should ask battered women and their children about their worries. Mothers and children should also be encouraged to talk with each other. In two separate studies, Humphreys (1991; 1995) described battered women and their children’s worries about each other. Although these worries and fears involved violence in the home, they also included other concerns that can be shared between mother and child and addressed with the help of the nurse. When asked what helped create order for their children out of chaos, battered women replied love and communication.

Battered women often make the decision to leave abusive relationships based upon perceptions that the abuse is having detrimental effects upon their children. Nurses can assure them that while some children who live in violent homes have problems, many more seem to be able to overcome these difficulties with requisite nurturing and support. A realistic discussion about the children can be initiated with the following questions:

  • How are the children reacting?
  • How well have they adapted to changes in their lives in the past?
  • How are they doing in school?
  • What are the children’s strengths?
  • As and when they had difficulties in the past, how did you come of know of them?
  • What helped them in those situations?
  • What other people and activities do the children have in their lives?
  • What do they enjoy, have fun doing, and find rewarding?

The intent here is not to imply blame but, rather to broaden the discussion about the violence, resources, coping strategies, and strengths in the family. The nurse’s interest ought to be in helping the battered woman and her children.

Great variability exists in the services provided by battered women’s shelters. Due to fiscal constraints some shelters can provide only direct assistance to women residents, offering only minimal child care or playroom opportunities. Other more fortunate shelters provide extensive children’s programs which include mother-child counseling, mothers’ groups, children’s groups, and individual treatment sessions. Ideally, shelters include educational, recreational, and therapeutic programs for mothers and children. Participation by nurses in shelters is generally wanted and needed. Developing nursing practice in battered women’s shelters has been documented elsewhere, as has been the use of shelters as clinical sites in nursing education. The potential for a mutually beneficial relationship between nursing programs and battered women’s shelters is substantial.

Nursing practice with battered women and their children in shelters encompasses both primary and acute care. The needs of these mothers and children are similar to those in the general population. However, in addition, some battered women and their children require support for resolving their traumatic injuries, interventions to alleviate pain and swelling, and advice on navigating the health care system as they grow in confidence and develop feelings of empowerment.

Tertiary prevention occurs when children of battered women experience irreversible effects from violence. The goal at this level is rehabilitation to maximum possible levels of functionality. Children exposed to violence need help for the trauma they have experienced. Interventions need to be intensive and long-term in nature. Peled and Edleson (1992) advocate for family work that involves all members; children, mothers, and fathers. Other children may benefit from both group and individual therapeutic relationships. Some kind of therapeutic relationship is particularly important in situations where legal disputes regarding visitation and/or custody are involved, as children may perceive that they are the cause of ongoing parental conflict.

The understanding of children of battered women and their responses to violence is developing. While some of these children manifest signs of distress, anxiety, and worry, others are able to overcome the deleterious effects of family violence with the help of inner resources, resilience and the support of caring people. This is even more remarkable given the enormous amount of violence both inside and outside homes. Nurses who care for battered women and their children must seek victims out, listen, and offer information, encouragement, and understanding.

A great deal has been reported on the impact of violence on children and families. The findings are grim; many professionals may be tempted to feel helpless and hopeless, mirroring the emotions parents feel. Research and clinical intervention efforts are, however, yielding valuable information about how to help children and families who are affected by violence. In general, caring professionals can help children and families who are affected by violence in several ways. A few among them can be listed below:

  • Communicate a willingness to talk about the violence and to be an impartial listener carefully avoiding to pass hurried judgments at any stage. Children need to know that it is permissible to talk about violence. Sometimes caregivers may subtly discourage children from talking about violence in their lives. Reasons for this may include, it may be very upsetting to hear; caregivers may feel they do not have the answers, or they may believe that it will be less upsetting for the child if he or she does not talk about it. On the contrary, children often feel relieved and unburdened by sharing this information with trusted adults. It may also be useful, therapeutically, for children to review events, clarify misunderstandings, and air their fears by recounting the story about the violent event. Although it is inadvisable to coerce children to recollect or recount their stories; once they have brought it up, reassurance or validation is very helpful for children.
  • Support families by helping them stabilize the environment for their children. Women who are in domestic violence situations need help finding safety and/or making safety plans. These women may be unable (both financially and emotionally) to leave the situation. Helping them think about a safety plan is important. A discussion about help and support for the children is also important. Women who have left their abusive partners need assistance with planning and with securing concrete services. It is also imperative to help these mothers think about how to broach and talk to their children about the decision to leave the abusive situation. Usually, the circumstances crowding a woman’s departure from her home are chaotic and possibly dangerous. Children may be very frightened and confused and often may not understand what is happening. Helping the mothers to be sensitive to their children’s perspectives at this juncture is vital but normally overlooked aspect.
  • Remind parents that they are the most important emotional protectors for their children. Parents can do a much better job of psychologically reassuring their children when compared to any class of professionals. Research on children in World War II documented the importance of the parents’ role in helping children feel safe, even in the face of war and other trauma. Parents can help their children talk about their fears, reassure children that they (parents) will do whatever is possible to protect their children, and allow children to stay close by after frightening events. These interventions will be very helpful for children.

The fact that many children live with violence both in and out of the home has implications for schools, childcare centers, and community- based programs. It is no longer unusual in many urban areas for children to use circle time to talk about a violent incident in their neighborhood. Service providers express their discomfort with such revelations and their uncertainty about how much to let  the children talk and how to help these children. In general, teachers have been trained inadequately to meet the challenges of working with young children who have been exposed to violence.

Practitioners need training in the following areas:

  • Understanding the effects of violence on children. Teachers need information about how to recognize children who are showing symptoms associated with exposure to violence.
  • Effective intervention with these children. Teachers need information about how to use the classroom setting to intervene effectively with violence affected children. Teachers need to talk to children either individually or in groups about violence. Teachers need guidelines on appropriate timing for referring children for special help.
  • Principles for establishing a nurturing classroom and teaching conflict resolution skills need to be understood by teachers. When children feel safe and nurtured in school, they are able to cope more effectively with stress which enhances their learning curves as well. It is also important to teach children alternatives to violence as a means of resolving problems. A burgeoning number of programs and curricula teach conflict-resolution skills to children. These programs encourage children to be aware of conflict and to develop positive methods of solving conflict. Teachers must themselves acquire skills in administering or participating effectively in such conflict-resolution programs.
  • Honed skills must be gathered at recognizing and supporting resilience in children. A great deal has been written about the importance of recognizing and supporting resilience in children. These strategies to support children’s healthy adaptation and efforts to cope with adversity are important in working with children who are affected by violence.

In addition to training, teachers need ongoing support and supervision in their work. It is ironic that, in many instances, the schools with the highest numbers of children who are environmentally or psychologically at risk also are the schools with the most meager resources and the least amount of structured support for teachers. Working with children who are exposed to violence can be overwhelming for teachers. They may prefer avoidance and may even deny the realities of their students’ lives. Some of the issues children face may resonate with teachers’ personal experiences aggravating the avoidance syndrome.

Teachers, then, begin to mirror the same hopelessness and helplessness seen in the children. This perceived hopelessness leads to emotional numbing and burnout in teachers. To avoid this reaction, teachers must have regular support and supervision designed to help them think about intervention with specific children. This would tend to give them a place to talk about how this work affects them personally and reflect on the many intense feelings that may be stirred up when working with students at high risk.

In addition, all children need schools that are safe and nurturing. Schools can be a critical refuge for children who live with violence. Schools can provide training in conflict resolution skills and communicate clear values about the importance of non-violence. School administrators must set an environmental tone within schools that emphasizes respect, nurturing, and tolerance amongst and for all students.

Minnesota and West Virginia have responded to the general findings about parent-child bonding by adopting a primary caretaker preference. They have recognized that the continuity of care with the primary caretaker is not central and crucial to the best interest of the child; however, it is perhaps the single predictor of a child’s well being about which there is agreement, and which can be competently evaluated by judges.

The Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act (UMDA) (Cahn, 1994) uses the best interest of the child standard. It does not mention the primary caretaker, but does not require that courts consider the child’s relationship with each parent. The primary caretaker factor is appropriate for the consideration. In Washington, a UMDA state that has not explicitly recognized the primary-caretaker preference, a trial court may give significant consideration to the child’s need for a warm and loving relationship and to each parent’s unique ability to fulfill that need.

As increasing numbers of studies begin to show the deleterious effects of exposure to violence on children, the legal system has been forced to change many of its former policies and practices in family law cases. Progress is being made at both the federal and state levels. However, many myths and stereotypes prove hard to dislodge. Federal acknowledgment of the detrimental effects of violence witnessed by children appeared as early as 1982, when the United States Civil Rights Commission concluded that children in spouse abuse situations suffer at least as much as other family members.

And in 1984, the United States Attorney General’s Task Force on Family Violence found that: “Violence in the home strikes at the heart of our society. Children who are abused, or who live in homes where parents are battered carry the terrible lessons of violence with them into adulthood. To tolerate family violence is to allow the seeds of violence to be sown into the next generation.” (Cahn, 1994)  As more studies have been completed and the empirical data compiled, the federal government has moved to further protect women and children exposed to violence.

Both Houses of the Second Session of the 101st Congress acted to protect children in custody litigation from further exposure to violence by unanimous passage of Concurrent Resolution 172 which stated its purpose as-expressing the sense of the Congress that for purposes of determining child custody, credible evidence of physical abuse of one’s spouse should create a statutory presumption that it is detrimental to the child to be placed in the custody of the abusive parent.

The provisions of the Resolution go on to state that courts have failed to recognized the effects of witnessing abuse on children, and have failed to consider the abuse in custody cases, taking note of existing bias against abused spouses in current custody trends such as joint custody and mediation. The Resolution acknowledges the relationship between spouse abuse and child abuse, and the actual and potential emotional and physical harm to children. In the same provision, the Resolution also takes note of the negative effect on children of inappropriate role modeling.

It is discussed within that, aside from the initial trauma, and damage to self-esteem, impairment of developmental and socialization skills are part of witnessing abuse, even where the abuse is not directed at them personally. Witnessing violence may have intergenerational consequences, warns the Resolution and may communicate to children that violence is an acceptable tool for resolving marital conflict. The Resolution intends to convince courts to consider evidence of physical abuse of a spouse in child custody cases.

The concerns and mandates of the Resolution have been mirrored in numerous state statutes which have recently been enacted and which will be discussed in the following section. Congress also passed the Immigration Act of 1990 , which includes under Title VII, Miscellaneous Provisions, Section 701, a provision, which waives the joint petition requirement for conditional residence for battered women and children in immigration cases. The law would limit the ability of abusers, who are sponsors of immigrant women and children, to “blackmail” them by threats of impending deportation if they do not continue to submit to the abuse and continue to live in the family residence.

This provision would have been a great help to many battered immigrant women and their children. However, in the rulemaking procedure to implement the Act, the rule was written so stringently that only some immigrant-abused women will be helped by it. The rule requires that abused immigrant women prove by documentation that they or their children were battered or treated in an “extremely cruel” way by their husbands. They must prove extreme cruelty through an assessment of a licensed professional, and must submit proof that the assessor was licensed. Such obstacles would be practically impossible to overcome for most battered women.

The House and Senate have before them proposed federal legislation to offer relief to women in some areas of domestic violence in the form of Senate Bill 15 , “To Combat Violence and Crimes Against Women on the Streets and in Homes,” (Cahn, 1994) and corresponding legislation in the House. Senate Bill 15 , which would offer this relief, passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, and is facing a floor vote this spring. Meanwhile, Representative Boxer’s version of the bill, H.R. 1502 , is still in five committees of the House.

Fourteen states have adopted laws, which require consideration of a batterer’s violence as a factor in intra-family custody cases. Some states explicitly recognize that spousal abuse is detrimental to the children’s best interests. Some states have made it a presumption against an award of custody to the abuser. Some states make it a factor or presumption in only joint custody (e.g., Alaska, New Hampshire and Ohio). In some states where a civil order of protection has issued, the court must consider supervised visitation, or generally order that visitation arrangements protect the victim and the children. Two states make domestic violence a defense to a claim that the victim abandoned the child.

Language making domestic violence a factor in determining child custody has been added to existing custody statutes that differ in their structure. New Hampshire’s new law creates an exception to an existing presumption in favor of joint legal custody if domestic violence exists. Washington made violence against a spouse or a child part of a list of factors for consideration in determining post-divorce parenting responsibilities.

States have enacted three types of provisions that explicitly require consideration of domestic violence before joint custody can be awarded: under the first, and least protective of battered women, the state requires a court to consider spouse abuse as one factor in the joint custody decision. According to the second, the court must provide evidence that, notwithstanding the existence of abuse, joint custody is in the best interest of the child. Finally, under the third approach most protective to battered women, a court cannot award joint custody if there is evidence of abuse. The Alaska statute is an example of the first form of the legislation; it lists eight factors that must be considered by the court in deciding whether to award “shared custody.” (Cahn, 1994)  They include “any evidence of domestic violence, child abuse, or child neglect in the proposed custodial household or a history of violence between the parents” (Cahn, 1994) as well as “friendly parent” (Cahn, 1994) provision. The Alaska statute is similar to the ABA’s Model Joint Custody Statute, which lists several factors to be considered in an award of joint custody, including the existence of domestic violence.

The impact of the statutes is not easy to assess. They may not always improve the likelihood of domestic violence evidence being admitted at trial. However, the case law interpreting these provisions has, in most states, been largely favorable to battered women. Further, a growing body of case law makes evidence of spousal abuse admissible in custody determinations, regardless of whether the children witnessed or were old enough to be aware or comprehend the violence.

In contexts other than parental custody disputes, courts have similarly held that a batterer’s violence-usually after he has murdered the spouse-has rendered him unfit to exercise parental control over the children. Often courts do so only to the extent of analyzing the impact of the act on the abuser’s parenting abilities. In a case of first impression the West Virginia Supreme Court held that a child who witnesses the father’s verbal abuse and physical abuse of the mother has a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress and even absent physical injury to him. On the balance it would appear that the trial courts are gradually recognizing that domestic abuse is harmful to children. However, there remains considerable resistance. While the findings attempt to excuse or justify (father’s) assault on (mother), neither this court nor any other court can excuse or justify or approve intra-family violence or spouse abuse. An assault is equally serious and equally incriminating whether committed between family members or between strangers.

Iowa law provides that a court should award custody in a way that provides maximum contact between the parents and the child unless “direct physical harm” (Cahn, 1994) or “significant emotional harm” (Cahn, 1994) would result for a parent or a child. The law requires the court to give “primary consideration” (Cahn, 1994) to parent and child safety when awarding custody and visitation under an order of protection. “If the court finds that the safety of the victim or the children will be jeopardized by unsupervised or restricted visitation, the court shall condition or restrict visitation as to time, place, duration, or supervision, or deny visitation entirely, as needed to guard the safety of the victim and the children. The court shall also investigate whether any other existing orders awarding custody or visitation rights should be modified.” (Cahn, 1994)

The law in Kentucky makes “information, records, and evidence of domestic violence a relevant factor to be considered in custody determinations between each parent.” (Cahn, 1994) The law clearly states: “The court shall not consider conduct of a proposed custodian that does not affect his relationship to the child. If domestic violence and abuse is alleged, the court shall determine the extent to which the domestic violence and abuse has affected the child and the child’s relationship to both parents. If domestic violence and abuse has been alleged, the court shall, after a hearing, determine the visitation arrangement, if any, which would not endanger seriously the child’s or the custodial parent’s physical, mental, or emotional health.” (Cahn, 1994)

The law’s governing custody modifications, states: “In determining whether a child’s present environment may endanger seriously his physical, mental, moral, or emotional health, the court shall consider all relevant factors, including but not limited to: If domestic violence and abuse is found by the court to exist, the extent to which the domestic violence and abuse has affected the child and the child’s relationship to both parents.” (Cahn, 1994)

The law in Louisiana states:

  • There is a created presumption that no parent who has a history of perpetrating family violence shall be awarded sole or joint custody of children. The presumption shall be overcome only by a preponderance of the evidence that the perpetrating parent has successfully completed a treatment program as defined herein, is not abusing alcohol and the illegal use of drugs, and that the best interest of the child or children requires that parent’s participation as a custodial parent because of the other parent’s absence, mental illness or substance abuse, or such other circumstances which affect the best interest of the child or children. The fact that the abused parent suffers from the effects of the abuse shall not be grounds for denying that parent custody.
  • If the court finds that both parents have a history of perpetrating family violence, custody shall be awarded solely to the parent who is less likely to continue to perpetrate family violence. In such a case, the court shall mandate completion of a treatment program by the custodial parent. If necessary to protect the welfare of the child, custody may be awarded to a suitable third person, provided that the person would not allow access to a violent parent except as ordered by the court.
  • If the court finds that a parent has a history of family violence, the court shall only allow supervised child visitation with that parent, conditioned upon that parent’s participation in and completion of a treatment program. Unsupervised visitation shall only be allowed if shown by a preponderance of the evidence that the violent parent has successfully completed a treatment program, is not abusing alcohol and psychoactive drugs, poses no danger to the child, and that such visitation is in the child’s best interest.
  • If any court finds that a parent has sexually abused his or her child or children, the court shall prohibit all visitation and contact between the abusive parent and the children, until such time, following a contradictory hearing, that the court finds that the abusive parent has successfully completed a treatment program designed for such sexual abusers, and that supervised visitation is in the children’s best interest. Any testimony by a licensed mental health professional with training, experience, and expertise in treating sexual abuse victims, who is also the therapist for the abused child, shall be given greater weight by the court then any other testimony on issues of visitation.

The law defines “supervised visitation” (Cahn, 1994) as a “face to face contact between a parent and a child which occurs in the immediate presence of a supervising person approved by the court under conditions which prevent any physical abuse, threats, intimidation, abduction, or humiliation of either the abused parent or the child. The supervising person shall not be any relative, friend, therapist, or associate of the parent perpetrating family violence. With the consent of the abused parent, the supervising person may be a family member or friend of the abused parent. At the request of the abused parent, the court may order that the supervising person shall be a police officer or other competent professional. The parent who perpetrated family violence shall pay any and all costs incurred in the supervision of visitation. In no case shall supervised visitation be overnight, or in the home of the violent parent.” (Cahn, 1994)

The law defines “treatment program” (Cahn, 1994) to mean “a course of evaluation and psychotherapy designed specifically for perpetrators of family violence, and conducted by licensed mental health professionals.” (Cahn, 1994) The law provides that any violation of an injunction “shall result in a termination of all court ordered visitation.”  The law further states that “whenever a parent is under a criminal bill of information or indictment for any crime against the person of a child or other parent, the court, on the motion of the state or other parent, shall prohibit all contact between the billed or indicted parent and the other spouse and all children of the family. Supervised visitation may be reinstated if, upon a contradictory hearing initiated by a motion of the billed or indicted parent, the court finds it to be in the best interest of the child.” (Cahn, 1994)

Maine’s Public Law makes “(t) he existence of a history of domestic abuse between the parents” (Cahn, 1994) a factor in custody decisions.

Maryland law provides: “In a custody or visitation proceeding, the court may consider as a factor bearing on the welfare and best interests of the child, evidence of abuse by a parent against:

  • the other parent of the party’s child;
  • the party’s spouse; or
  • any child residing within the party’s household, including a child other than the child whom is the subject of the custody or visitation preceding.” (Cahn, 1994)

Abuse includes any “act that causes serious bodily harm” (or) “places another in fear of imminent serious bodily harm” (Cahn, 1994), according to the law. The law allows the court in a domestic violence case to “establish temporary visitation with a minor child of the respondent and a person eligible for relief on a basis which gives primary consideration to the welfare of the minor child and the safety of any other person eligible for relief. If the court finds that the safety of a person eligible for relief will be jeopardized by unsupervised or unrestricted visitation, the court shall condition or restrict visitation as to time, place, duration or supervision, or deny visitation entirely, as needed to guard the safety of any person eligible for relief,” (Cahn, 1994) which includes a child or stepchild of either party who resides with one of them for at least 90 days within the year before the filing of the petition.

Massachusetts law provides: “In determining whether temporary shared legal custody would not be in the best interest of the child, the court shall consider all relevant facts including, but not limited to, whether any member of the family has been the perpetrator of domestic violence, abuses alcohol or other drugs or has deserted the child and whether the parties have a history of being able and willing to cooperate in matters concerning the child. If, despite the prior of current issuance of a restraining order against one parent pursuant to chapter two hundred and nine A, the court orders shared legal or physical custody either as a temporary order or at a trial on the merits, the court shall provide written findings to support such shared custody order.” (Cahn, 1994)

Michigan law allows the court to consider “(t)he reasonable likelihood of abuse of a parent resulting from the exercise of visitation” as a factor “when determining the frequency, duration, and type of visitation to be granted.” (Cahn, 1994) The law makes “(t)he threatened or actual detention of the child with the intent to retain or conceal the child from the other parent” another factor, but specifically adds that “(a) custodial parent’s temporary residence with the child in a domestic violence shelter shall not be construed as evidence of the custodial parent’ s intent to retain or conceal the child from the other parent.” (Cahn, 1994)

Minnesota has passed revisions to its custody law, which provide for consideration of the effect of the abuser’s actions on the child, among other factors. In addition, the law provides that there shall be a rebuttable presumption that joint legal custody is not in the best interests of the child if domestic abuse has occurred between the parties. The law also provides that a person convicted of certain crimes has the burden of proving that his/her custody or visitation is in the best interest of the child. If the victim of the crime is a family or household member, the standard of proof is clear and convincing evidence. The crimes include murder, assault, kidnapping, prostitution, criminal sexual conduct, incest, child neglect, and custodian interference.

Missouri law states: “In making an award of custody the court shall consider all relevant factors including the presumption that the best interests of the child will be served by placing the child in the custody and care of the non-abusive parent, unless there is evidence that both parents have engaged in abusive behavior in which case the court shall not consider this presumption but shall consider all other factors… .” (Cahn, 1994)  The law also says: “The court shall grant to the non-custodial parent rights to visitation with any minor child … unless the court finds after hearing … that no visitation can be arranged which would sufficiently protect the custodial parent from further abuse.” (Cahn, 1994)

The law makes “physical abuse or threat of physical abuse by one parent against the other parent or the child” (Cahn, 1994) a factor in the best interests determination. The law also established a procedure whereby a child’s parent or guardian may file an objection with the court to the custody or visitation rights of the other parent if that parent has been convicted of certain sex-related offenses, domestic abuse, or deliberate homicide. The non-custodial parent then has the burden of proving that the visitation does not seriously endanger the child’s morale, mental, or physical health.

Nebraska law provides: “In determining custody arrangements and the time to be spent with each parent, the court shall consider the best interests of the minor child which shall include, but not be limited to: …Credible evidence of abuse inflicted on any family or household member. For purposes of this subdivision, abuse and family or household member shall have the meanings prescribed by law. In determining with which of the parents the children or any of them shall remain, the court shall consider the best interests of the children which shall include, but not be limited to: …Credible evidence of abuse inflicted on any family or household member.” (Cahn, 1994)

Nevada law states: “In determining the best interest of the child, the court shall consider, among other things:… Whether either parent or any other person seeking custody has engaged in an act of domestic violence against the child, a parent of the child or any other person residing with the child.” (Cahn, 1994)

New Hampshire law requires that when a court finds that abuse as defined in the New Hampshire chapter on Protection of Persons: Domestic Violence “has occurred, the court shall consider such abuse as harmful to children and as evidence in determining whether joint custody is appropriate. In such cases, the court shall make custody and visitation orders that best protect the children or the abused spouse or both. If joint legal custody is granted despite evidence of abuse, the court shall provide written findings to support the custody order.” (Cahn, 1994)

New Jersey law provides that the court shall consider, among other factors, “the history of domestic violence, if any; the safety of the child and the safety of either parent from physical abuse by the other parent… .” (Cahn, 1994) In addition, the law provides that the court shall specifically place on the record the factors, which justify any custody arrangement, not agreed to by both parties. In making an award of custody, the court shall consider but not limit itself to the following factors: “… the history of domestic abuse, if any; the safety of the child and the safety of either parent from physical abuse by the other parent:… . A parent shall not be deemed unfit unless the parents’ conduct has a substantial adverse effect on the child.” (Cahn, 1994)

The law further states that a “court shall grant any relief necessary to prevent further abuse” (Cahn, 1994) which may include any or all of the following:

  • An order awarding temporary custody of a minor child. The court shall presume that the best interests of the child are served by an award of custody to the non-abusive parent;
  • An order providing for visitation. The order shall protect the safety and well being of the plaintiff and minor children and shall specify the place and frequency of visitation. Visitation arrangements shall not compromise any other remedy provided by the court by requiring or encouraging contact between the plaintiff and defendant. Orders for visitation may include a designation of a place of visitation away from the plaintiff, the participation of a third party, or supervised visitation.
  • The court shall consider a request by the plaintiff for an investigation or evaluation by the appropriate agency to assess the risk of harm to the child prior to the entry of a visitation order. Any denial of such a request must be on the record and shall only be made if the judge finds the request to be arbitrary or capricious.
  • The court shall consider suspension of the visitation order and hold an emergent hearing upon an application made by the plaintiff certifying under oath that the defendant’s access to the child pursuant to the visitation order has threatened the safety and well being of the child.

North Dakota law states: “In awarding custody of granting rights of visitation, the court shall consider evidence of domestic violence. If the court finds credible evidence that domestic violence has occurred, this evidence shall create the rebuttable presumption that awarding custody or granting visitation to the abusive party is not in the best interests of the child. The court shall furthermore give direction for the custody of children of the marriage and grant rights of visitation in a manner that best protects the children and the parent or other family or household member who is the victim of domestic violence from any further harm… . The court also shall consider the interaction and interrelationship, or the potential for interaction and interrelationship, of the child with any person who resides in, is present, or frequents the household of a parent, and who may significantly affect the child’s best interests. The court shall consider that person’s history of inflicting, or tendency to inflict, physical harm, bodily injury, assault, or the fear of physical harm, bodily injury, or assault, on other person.” (Cahn, 1994)

The law also requires that a court finds that domestic violence occurred to “cite specific findings of fact to show that the custody or visitation arrangement best protects the child and the parent or other family or household member who is the victim of domestic violence from any further harm.” (Cahn, 1994)

Ohio law states: “In determining whether shared parenting is in the best interest of the children the court shall consider all relevant factors, including, but not limited to any history of, or potential for, child abuse, spouse abuse, other domestic violence, or parental kidnapping by either parent.” (Cahn, 1994)

Oklahoma law provides: “In every case involving the custody of, guardianship of or visitation with a child, the court shall consider evidence of ongoing domestic abuse which is properly brought before it. If the occurrence of ongoing domestic abuse is established by clear and convincing evidence, there shall be a rebuttable presumption that it is not in the best interests of the child to have custody, guardianship or unsupervised visitation granted to the abusive person.” (Cahn, 1994)

Oregon law makes the abuse of one parent by the other a factor in the best interests determination.

Pennsylvania law provides that in making custody, partial custody or visitation orders the court shall consider “each parent and adult household member’s present and past violent or abusive conduct which may include, but is not limited to, abusive conduct as defined under Protection From Abuse Act .” (Cahn, 1994)

Rhode Island law provides that the court, when making decisions regarding child custody and visitation, shall consider evidence of past or present domestic violence, if proven, as a factor not in the best interest of the child. Moreover, where domestic violence is proven, any award of joint custody or any grant of visitation shall be arranged so as to best protect the child and the abused parent from further harm.

Domestic violence means the occurrence of one or more of the following acts between spouses or people who have a child in common:

  • Attempting to cause or actually causing physical harm;
  • Placing another in fear of imminent serious physical harm;
  • Causing another to engage involuntarily in sexual relations by force, threat of force or duress.

The law creates an affirmative defense to the felony child-snatching law for custodial parents fleeing an incidence or pattern of domestic violence.

Texas law makes domestic violence occurring in the previous two years relevant in determining who will be the child’s conservator (custodian). The law also precludes joint managing conservatorship (equivalent to joint legal custody) if there is credible evidence of a “history or pattern” (Cahn, 1994) of physical abuse of a parent or child.

Vermont law provides that when making a parental rights and responsibilities order, the court shall consider “the ability and disposition of each parent to foster positive relationship and frequent and continuing contact with the other parent, including physical contact, except where contact will result in harm to the child or to a parent.”

Virginia law requires a judge to “consider any history of family abuse” (Cahn, 1994) in any case or proceeding involving custody or visitation.

Washington law requires a court to limit an abusive parent’s rights under a parenting plan if there is a history of domestic violence, or a single incident, which rises to the level of a felony; unless the court determines that no harm will occur to the child.

West Virginia law states that the terms of protection orders may include: “Establishing visitation rights with regard to the minor children and requiring third party supervision of visitations if necessary to protect the petitioner and/or the minor children.” (Cahn, 1994)

Wisconsin law states with regard to the granting of joint legal custody over one party’s objection that “evidence of interspousal battery or domestic abuse creates a rebuttable presumption that the parties will not be able to cooperate in the future decision making required. This presumption may be rebutted by clear and convincing evidence that the abuse will not interfere with the parties’ ability to cooperate in the future decision-making required.” (Cahn, 1994) The law requires the court to consider as a factor “whether there is evidence of interspousal battery or domestic abuse in making legal custody and physical placement decisions.” (Cahn, 1994)

Wyoming law provides that in granting a divorce, annulment or modification: “The court shall consider evidence of spouse abuse or child abuse as being contrary to the best interest of the child. If the court finds that family violence has occurred, the court shall make arrangements for visitation that best protect the child and the abused spouse from further harm.” (Cahn, 1994) The law also provides the same for orders during the pendency of a divorce. The law further states: “If there is issue of a marriage annulled on the ground of force or fraud, the court shall award their custody to the innocent person, and may also provide for their education and maintenance out of the estate and property of the guilty party.” (Note: `Issue’ here means children.) (Cahn, 1994)

The judicial system is not in this alone. Nor does the complete solution to the problem of family violence lie within the judicial system. Family violence has been around for a very long time. Our efforts to put an end to it are embryonic. Yet they are already making a difference. The court does play an important role in molding community values. Ultimately, the solution lies in shaping a society, which chooses to be non-violent, just, and free of oppression. It is appropriate that the justice system and the judiciary take a leadership role in promoting those kinds of social values. Implementation of following recommended practices in family violence cases will cause radical social change far beyond the courtroom.

  • Judges should not issue mutual protective or restraining orders.
  • When the issue of family violence is found to exist in the context of a dissolution of marriage, domestic relations case of any kind, or in a juvenile court case:
  • a) The violent conduct should be weighed and considered in making custody and visitation orders;
  • b) Judges should be aware that there might be an unequal balance of power or bargaining capabilities of the parties, which calls for a more careful review of the custody and financial agreements before the court puts its seal on them.
  • c) Judges should not presume that joint custody is in the best interest of the children.
  • Where a custodial parent removes a child from the jurisdiction of the court, judges should:
  • Issue a warrant for the fleeing parent;
  • Ensure that there is an adequate investigation as to whether family violence had any impact on the flight;
  • Not change underlying child custody orders until such investigation is complete;
  • Put into place orders to protect the children until final resolution.
  • Judges should not mandate mediation in cases where family violence has occurred.

Gender bias task force reports have shown that gender bias permeates the legal system, affecting women as judges, as attorneys, as witnesses, and as litigants. The New York Task Force on Women in the Courts found that many judges appear not to understand the nature of domestic violence and the characteristics of offenders and victims. As a result many fail to credit petitioners’ claims of victimization. In particular the Task Force found that courts often disregard the father’s violence against the mother in custody disputes. In addition, it found that some judges seem to be unaware of or underestimate the harm to children associated with the abuse of the mother.

Both state legislatures and courts are beginning to recognize the relationship between child custody and domestic violence. They have integrated child custody into special proceedings established to protect women from abuse. They have also woven consideration of domestic violence into more traditional custody actions, involving both joint custody and sole custody awards. In the past 15 years, ten states and the District of Columbia have enacted some type of legislation linking the two issues in traditional custody actions. Courts in at least ten other states have recognized that domestic violence should affect child custody determinations.

Different state courts and legislatures, however, have adopted various approaches when a family with domestic violence dissolves. Some states have enacted statutes requiring domestic violence to be one factor in custodial decisions after the parents separate. Even when such statutes do not exist, some courts admit evidence of domestic violence in custody determinations. Similarly, in termination of parental rights proceedings, evidence of spouse abuse may be relevant in deciding whether a parent can provide for the child. Nonetheless, in light of the treatment accorded to domestic violence cases, states have not responded adequately to the need for protection of victims of domestic violence victims in custody proceedings.

Existing state legislative actions recognizing the relationship between parental violence and custody can be divided into three categories:

  • statutes requiring courts to consider domestic violence before joint custody is awarded;
  • statutes adding domestic violence as a factor to the sole custody/best interests of the child standard; and
  • statutes directing that domestic violence influence other decisions such as whether a parent has abandoned her children by fleeing domestic violence.

None of these statutes prevent an abusive father, even one who has killed his spouse/partner, from winning a custody battle against the mother or a third party, such as the grandparents/relatives and friends.

State court decisions which consider domestic violence in the absence of any enabling legislation requiring them to do so have involved disputes between the natural parents as well as disputes between the father and a third party, which often arise when the father has killed the mother. Some courts have considered evidence of domestic violence as another factor comprising the best interest of the child. Like the legislative responses, court decisions have developed within the framework of the best interest of the child standard, modifying the standard to take into account domestic violence between the parents.

Joint custody is a dangerous arrangement where there has been spouse abuse. Successful joint custody requires continuing contact between the parents. A battered woman generally wants the abuser to stay away, but joint custody precludes separation because the parents must transfer children back and forth and participate jointly in decision-making. This ongoing communication provides excessive, yet legally required, opportunities for the batterer to continue his abuse.

In states that have a statutory preference for joint custody or for custody awards to the parent who is more willing to share the child, the battered woman must accede to joint custody or risk losing custody. If she appears to the court unwilling to share the child with the batterer, a court may give custody to the father instead.

In recognition of the specific problems of battered women, at least some states have modified their statutory standards for joint custody. Just as states have adopted different presumptions concerning joint custody itself, they have adopted different approaches to the inclusion of domestic violence as a factor in joint custody decisions. Three types of statutes explicitly require consideration of domestic violence before joint custody can be awarded. Under the first, and least protective of battered women, a court must consider abuse as one factor in the joint custody decision. According to the second type of statute, the court must have evidence that joint custody is in the best interest of the child notwithstanding the existence of abuse. Finally, under the approach most protective of battered women, a court cannot award joint custody if evidence of abuse exists.

Joint custody is predicated on the acknowledgement that parents must cooperate with one another. When there has been abuse, however, the victim can only cooperate with the abuser under duress.(197) A presumption of joint custody without a concomitant requirement that there be no joint custody upon evidence of spouse abuse ignores the situation of battered women. Redress through a prohibition of joint custody when there is evidence of abuse helps women who can prove domestic violence, but for women who are unable to produce evidence that meets burden of proof requirements, or women who do not want to come forward in court with such evidence, there is no redress. While joint custody encourages the rhetoric, at least, of equal participation by both parents, in reality it may hinder abused women seeking custody.

Requiring an abusive father and his victim to make joint decisions about their children necessarily continues the exposure of the children to their parents’ bad relationship, and may promote intergenerational messages condoning abuse. A friendly parent provision in the law exacerbates the situation because it gives the batterer additional power-a woman who does not want contact between her children and the battering spouse cannot so inform the court, lest she seem uncooperative or “unfriendly.” (Cahn, 1994) Moreover, this provision presents an apparent conflict with statutory provisions that require courts to consider spouse abuse in their child custody decisions. If, in a state with a friendly parent provision, a woman claims she has been abused but cannot prove the existence of abuse to the satisfaction of the judge, the mere fact that she has made the allegation will make her appear even less cooperative. Therefore, given her unfriendly attitude, she is even less likely to get custody.

Like joint custody statutes, best interest of the child statutes are being modified in some states to require courts to consider evidence of abuse in their custody decisions. Modifications to these statutes typically add another factor for the court to consider when determining the best interest of the child; the statutes differ slightly in their phrasing and in whether consideration of all of the listed factors is mandatory or discretionary.

Some states that do not set out specific factors to be used in determining the child’s best interest nonetheless provide that a court must consider domestic violence. Amended its custody statute in 1989 to require a court to “consider evidence of spouse abuse or child abuse as being contrary to the best interest of the child.” (Cahn, 1994) If the court finds that family violence has occurred, the court shall make arrangements for visitation that best protect the child and the abused spouse from further harm. Finally, some states have adopted other measures in respect of domestic violence and custody.

While the sole custody/best interest of the child standard avoids many of the problems inherent in joint custody, there is no required cooperation between the parents and simple inclusion of domestic violence as one factor to be considered in a custody decision is not an adequate solution. Courts are free to give as much-or as little-consideration to the enumerated factors as they choose. No particular factor outweighs another, so an abusive parent could receive unrestricted visitation based on the court’s perceived need of the child to have extensive contact with both parents.

Judges have broad discretion in custody cases to weigh the statutory factors based on their perceptions of the family. Appellate courts generally do not disturb child custody decisions made by trial courts; absent a finding that the trial court has abused its discretion or the awards is contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. Appellate courts assume trial courts have the best opportunity to assess credibility and determine the needs of the children. Therefore, different judges treat domestic violence inconsistently and do not accord sufficient attention in custody decisions to the effects of domestic violence on children.

Under best interest of the child statutes, trial courts have discretion to decide the weight to accord to domestic violence factor in custody decisions. The resulting opinions have differed dramatically in their handling of evidence of domestic violence. Some courts find its effect on children so deleterious that custody is awarded to the victim, while others dismiss its impact. When the abuser has killed the mother, courts may ignore the violence between the parents, directing focus away from the crime to whether the imprisoned parent can continue to care for the child. Courts are still uncomfortable terminating parental rights because of the abuse.

While it is important for trial courts to retain their discretion to decide cases on the facts presented, there needs to be a standard indicating how domestic violence should affect the decision. The discussion below begins with an analysis of cases in which courts dismissed the relevance of domestic violence. It then explores cases that illustrate the contrast in approaches chosen by state courts, which have considered evidence of domestic violence.

In the vast majority of cases, domestic violence is either deemed irrelevant to custody decisions or is not taken seriously. The idea that battering is unrelated to parenting is incredulous; by contrast, it is, for example, virtually accepted that drug or alcohol abuse by a parent is an important, if not critical, consideration in a custody decision. Research shows that woman battering has an impact on children. Thus, these effects must be considered when courts decide child custody.

Some courts have explicitly held that domestic violence is a major concern in custody and visitation decisions. These courts appear to view domestic violence as a significant, if not controlling, factor in the custody decision. The courts admitted evidence of domestic violence and deemed it highly relevant to both custody and visitation decisions. Other courts have not relied solely on domestic violence, but have acknowledged that it is one of several factors bearing on the best interest of the child that might lead to the denial of custody to a parent

For many reasons, domestic violence is a difficult issue for judges to handle. At an evidentiary level, there is rarely corroborating evidence because domestic violence usually occurs inside the home-it is the word of the victim against that of the abuser. Just as in simple rape cases (although custody actions are not subject to a criminal burden of proof), it appears that the woman needs some additional evidence to be persuasive, such as the existence of force. Moreover, for judges accustomed to examining circumstances that pertain only to the child’s awareness of certain factors, violence between the parents is a novel factor in the custody equation, requiring the court to examine the marital relationship.

Pervasive stereotypes about domestic violence underlie the need for corroboration and the reluctance to consider marital violence. These, in turn, result in both a failure to understand domestic violence and a minimization of evidence of domestic violence. There are long held stereotypes about battering, such as the sanctity of marriage and the images of the battered woman, and these stereotypes influence judicial decision-making. Expert testimony can help overcome and resolve these stereotypes.

In criminal cases to help courts comprehend the circumstances and behavior of the victim, the battered women’s movement has succeeded in persuading some courts and legislatures to recognize that jurors need expert testimony on the effects of battering in order to understand the actions of battered women. It is only recently, however, that such a movement is beginning to affect civil actions outside order of protection proceedings. This expert testimony describes both the effect of domestic violence on women and its impact on children.

Even familiarity with this expert testimony, however, does not ensure a full picture of the victim. While expert testimony enables courts to begin to appreciate the situation of battered women and their children, the cases “resound with the very sex-stereotypes of female incapacity which women’s self-defense work has sought to overcome. “This may be a result of having “emphasized the victimized, passive, helpless aspects of the battered women’s experience in order to counteract the disabling stereotypes that solely blame her for the violence.” (Cahn, 1994) The corresponding legal image of battered women is one of passive victims to be helped, rather than fully capable women who have been temporarily affected by the violence against them.

This legal image may exist because there is a tendency to distort “complex, fully nuanced statements (especially statements of positions that people do not really want to face)” (Cahn, 1994) and simplify them. This simplification occurs whenever domestic violence is injected into the law. It truly is difficult to understand both why a man batters and why a woman does not leave, unless we also confront additional issues of gender discrimination inside and outside the family. Full consideration of domestic violence requires taking women’s experiences seriously, and attempting to understand the complicated reality of the battered family. This does not mean merely listening carefully and developing one battered woman norm to broad brush the experiences of all battered woman. It does, however, entail uncovering the context of the lives of individual battered women and examining their realities.

Given both the present day state of the law and its implementation, litigators have adopted strategies to prevent abusers from receiving custody and to restrict the visitation rights of the abusive parent in order to protect the children as well as the other parent. According to one commentator, “(t)he most important issues to raise in a specific case are demonstrable emotional and physical symptoms, including psychosomatic symptoms of the child, fear of the violent parent, and the likelihood of continued violence by that parent.” (Cahn, 1994) Nonetheless, it is unlikely under current standards that the abusive parent will be denied visitation or even required to have supervised visitation.

There are underlying problems with combining the issues of domestic violence and child custody. First, there is no presumption in custody statutes that battering is not in the best interest of the child. To change this requires a broader appreciation of the impact of domestic violence on children. This will entail using a parent’s past behavior as a basis for making custody decisions and recognizing that past abuse demonstrates, at the least, insensitivity to the child and an indication of future actions. Second, and more important, we need to reexamine and reformulate our images of the battered woman in an effort both to understand and accept her, and to question our bizarre tolerance of the abuser’s behavior.

To some extent, these changes have already occurred in civil domestic violence statutes that link the two issues and allow courts to award custody as part of the protection accorded to the battered women. Because these statutes have resulted from initiatives by battered women’s advocates, they are more responsive than other statutes to the actual situation of battering. The insights provided by these statutes need to be integrated into the more traditional child custody decisions.

Domestic violence in traditional child custody decisions, however, has become a random factor. It is examined by some courts and dismissed by others, even where there is a statutory requirement that the judge consider domestic violence before making a custody award. Currently, it is the individual woman who must raise the issue of domestic violence. There is no widespread recognition of the incidence of violence or of the pressures facing individual women who, intimidated by the batterer and the legal system, may keep evidence of violence out of the courtroom. The goal should be adequate analysis of domestic violence and its impact on the child in each individual case, which there has been abuse. As public attitudes toward domestic violence change, so too will legal approaches. Similarly, as attitudes expressed by the law change, so too should social behavior. The expressive nature of the law should not be underestimated.


  • Taylor, L., Zuckerman, B., Harik, V., & Groves, B. (1994). “Witnessing violence by young children and their mothers”. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, Vol 15, Pages 120-123.
  • Cahn, Naomi R, “Effects of Woman Abuse on Children-Psychological and Legal Authority.” Contemporary Women’s Issues Database, January 1, 1994, Pages 98-103.
  • Carlson, B.E. (1990). “Adolescent observers of marital violence”. Journal of Family Violence, Vol 5, Pages 285-299.
  • Davidson, T. (1978). “Conjugal crime: Understanding and changing the wife-beating pattern”. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Hilton, N.Z. (1992). “Battered women’s concerns about their children witnessing wife assault”. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol 7, Pages 77- 86.
  • Humphreys, J. (1991). “Children of battered women: Worries about their mothers”. Pediatric Nursing, Vol 17, Pages 342-345.
  • Stark, E., & Flitcraft, A. H. (1991). “Spouse abuse”. In M. L. Rosenberg & M. A. Fenley (Eds.), “Violence in America” (Pages123-157). New York: Oxford.
  • Emery, R.E. (1982). “Interparental conflict and the children of discord and divorce”. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 92, Pages 310-330.
  • Achenbach, TM., & Edelbrock, C. (1983). “Manual for the child behavior checklist and revised child behavior profile”. Burlington, VT: University of Vermont Department of Psychiatry.
  • Wolfe, D.A., & Korsch, B. (1994). “Witnessing domestic violence during childhood and adolescence: Implication for pediatric practice”. Pediatrics, Vol 94, Pages 594-599.
  • Garmezy, N. (1983). “Stressors of childhood”. In N. Garmezy (Ed.), “Stress, coping, and development in children” (Pages 43-84). New York: McGraw- Hill.
  • Kaufman, J., & Zigler, E. (1987). “Do abused children become abusive parents?” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol 57, Pages 186-193.
  • Bennett, L. (1991). “Adolescent girls’ experience of witnessing marital violence: A phenomenological study”. Journal of Advanced Nursing, Vol 16, Pages 431-438.
  • Humphreys, J. (1996, June). “Resilience in adult daughters of battered women”. Paper presented at the National Conference on Children Exposed to Family Violence, Austin, Texas
  • Terr, L. C. (1991). “Childhood traumas: An outline and overview”. American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol 148, Pages 10-20.
  • van der Kolk, B. (1984). “Post traumatic stress disorder: Psychological and biological sequelae”. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.
  • Pynoos, R. S., Frederick, C., Nader, K., Arroyo, W., Steinbergh, A., Eth, S., Nunez, F., & Fairbanks, L. (1987). “Life threat and posttraumatic stress in school-age children”. Archives of General Psychiatry, Vol 44, Pages 1057-1063.
  • Terr, L. C. (1983). “Chowchilla revisited: The effects of psychic trauma four years after a school bus kidnapping”. American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol 140, Pages 1543-1550.
  • Crittenton, P. (1989). “Teaching maltreated children in the preschool”. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, Vol 9, Pages 16-32.
  • Garbarino, J., & Sherman, D. (1980). “High-risk neighborhoods and high- risk families: The human ecology of child maltreatment”. Child Development, Vol 51, Pages 188-198.
  • Groves, B. (1994). “The Child Witness to Violence Project”. Discharge Planning Update, Vol 14, Pages 14-18.
  • Walker, Lenore E. “The Battered Woman”. Pages 149-50 (1979)
  • Pagelow, Mildred Daley. “Children in Violent Families: Direct and Indirect Victims, Young Children in Their Families at 60” (S. Hill and B.J. Barnes eds., 1982).
  • Forde Rachel, “Worse than being hit”. The Evening Standard, September 10, 1997.
  • Bowker, Arbitell & McFerron, “On the Relationship Between Wife Beating and Child Abuse in Feminist Perspectives on Wife Abuse.” Pages 158, 164 (Kersti Yllo & Michele Bograd eds. 1988).
  • Hewitt & Friedrich, “Effects of Probable Sexual Abuse on Preschool Children in Family Sexual Abuse”. Pages 57-74 (Patton ed., 1991).
  • “Babies who witness violence are also victims”. , AAP General News, April 26, 2000.
  • “Children increasingly victims in domestic violence”. , AAP General News (Australia), April 26, 2000.
  • “Children Need Help, Too, Experts Say”. , The Baltimore Sun, June 23, 1994.
  • Mills, Heather. “Millions of children “living in fear”. , Independent, December 6, 1994.
  • Jaffe, RG., Wolfe, D.A., Wilson, S.K., & Zak, L. (1987). “Family violence and child adjustment: A comparative analysis of girls’ and boys’ behavioral symptom”. American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol 143, Pages 74-77.
  • Kilbourne, Christopher. “New Order In The Court”. The Record. August 8, 1994.
  • Buka, S., & Earls, F. (1993, Winter). “Early determinants of delinquency and violence”. Health Affairs, Pages 46-64.
  • Witt, Carol A, “Massachusetts Court Acts to Stop Cycle of Domestic Violence”. Vol. 16, Contemporary Women’s Issues Database, September 1, 1995, Pages 3-5.
  • Herman, J. L. (1992). “Trauma and recovery”. New York: Basic Books.
  • S. Surgeon General. (1990). “Healthy people 2000: National health promotion and disease prevention objectives” (Public Health Service Document No. 91-50213). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Nelson, D.E., Grant-Worley, J.A., Powell, K., Mercy, J., & Holtzman, D. (1996). “Population estimates of household firearm storage practices and firearm carrying in Oregon”. Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol 275, Pages 1744-1748.
  • Wintemute, G.J. (1996). “The relationship between firearm design and firearm violence: Handgun in the 1990s”. Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol 275, Pages 1749-1753.
  • Humphreys, J. (1995). “The work of worrying: Battered women’s worries about their children”. Scholarly Inquiry for Nursing Practice, Vol 9, Pages 127- 145.
  • Peled, E., & Edleson, J.L. (1992). “Multiple perspectives on group work with children of battered women”. Violence and Victims, Vol 7, Pages 327-346.

All figures in tables are in number. Those in brackets indicate (%of total in category).

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. 1: Sample size and distribution.. LIST OF FIGURES . viii ABSRACT This study is aimed at ascertaining the impact of domestic violence on the academic performance of Learners in selected primary government aided schools in Namanyonyi sub-county Mbale City. The study will be guided by the following specific objectives: i) to examine the forms of domestic violence on academic performance of learners in primary schools in Namanyonyi sub-county Mbale City; ii) to analyse the causes of domestic violence on the academic performance in primary schools in Namanyonyi subcounty Mbale City; iii) to establish the effects of domestic violence on the academic performance of learners in Namanyonyi sub-county. It is aimed at employing the use of structured questionnaire to collect information from respondents from five selected primary schools in Namanyonyi sub-county Mbale City. The target population will comprise of 245 respondents from government aided selected schools in the area.

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