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December 15, 2011

Child Protection in Families Experiencing Domestic Violence

The Overlap Between Child Maltreatment and Domestic Violence Over the past few decades, there has been a growing awareness of the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment.

Child Abuse and Neglect User Manual Series

Author(s):  Office on Child Abuse and Neglect., Caliber Associates.


Year Published:  2003

Chapter 2

The Overlap Between Child Maltreatment and Domestic Violence Over the past few decades, there has been a growing awareness of the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment. Studies report that there are approximately between 750,000 and 2.3 million victims of domestic violence each year. Many of these victims are abused several times, so the number of domestic violence incidents is even greater. According to a national study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 903,000 children were identified by child protective services (CPS) as victims of abuse or neglect in 2001. Increasingly, service providers and researchers have recognized that some of these adult and child victims are from the same families. Research suggests that in an estimated 30 to 60 percent of the families where either domestic violence or child maltreatment is identified, it is likely that both forms of abuse exist. Studies show that for victims who experience severe forms of domestic violence, their children also are in danger of suffering serious physical harm. In a national survey of over 6,000 American families, researchers found that 50 percent of men who frequently assaulted their wives also abused their children. Other studies demonstrate that perpetrators of domestic violence who were abused as children are more likely to physically harm their children.

Rates of Domestic Violence

Domestic violence measured by the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) includes rape or sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated and simple assault committed by a current or former spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend. In 2000, about 1 in every 200 households acknowledged that someone in the household experienced some form of domestic violence. There is no statistically significant difference in this rate over the prior 6 years. As with other crimes measured using the NCVS, a household counted as experiencing domestic violence was counted only once, regardless of the number of times that a victim experienced violence and regardless of the number of victims in the household during the year. The following statistics represent reported cases.


Characteristic of
the household
% of households
that experienced DV
Caucasian 0.4%
African-American 0.5%
Hispanic 0.5%
Other 0.5%
Urban 0.5%
Suburban 0.4%
Rural 0.4%
Northeast 0.3%
Midwest 0.7%
South 0.4%
West 0.5%
Household Size  
1 person 0.4%
2 to 3 persons 0.4%
4 to 5 persons 0.5%
6 or more persons 1.0%
  Female Male Total
Rape or Sexual Assault 41,740 N/A 41,740
Robbery 44,060 16,570 60,630
Aggravated Assault 81,140 36,350 117,480
Simple Assault 421,550 50,310 471,860
Overall Violent Crime 588,490 103,230 691,710

Domestic Violence by Type of Crime and Gender in 2001

The Co-occurence of Child Maltreatment and Domestic Violence

An estimated 3.3 to 10 million children a year are at risk for witnessing or being exposed to domestic violence, which can produce a range of emotional, psychological, and behavioral problems for children. This estimate is derived from an earlier landmark study that found approximately 3 million American households experienced at least one incident of serious violence each year. The broad range of this estimate highlights the fact that the exact number of domestic violence incidents is unknown, and there sometimes is incongruence or a lack of agreement about exactly what constitutes "domestic violence."

One study estimates that as many as 10 million teenagers are exposed to parental violence each year. This estimate comes from a survey in which adults were asked "whether, during their teenage years, their father had hit their mother and how often" and vice versa for the mother. The survey found that about one in eight, 12.6 percent of the sample, recalled such an incident. In these cases, 50 percent remembered their father hitting the mother, 19 percent recalled their mother hitting the father, and 31 percent recalled the parents hitting each other.

These estimates are based on research that identified maltreated children who accompanied victims of domestic violence to shelters and identified adult victims via CPS caseloads. Additionally, research examining the relationship between victims and their own use of violence indicate that they are more likely to perpetrate physical violence against their children than caretakers who are not abused by a partner or spouse. Children who witness domestic violence and are victimized by abuse exhibit more emotional and psychological problems than children who only witness domestic violence.

Current data regarding the co-occurrence between domestic violence and child maltreatment compel child welfare and programs that address domestic violence to re-evaluate their existing philosophies, policies, and practice approaches towards families experiencing both forms of violence. The overlap of these issues may be particularly critical in identifying cases with a high risk of violence, such as the relationship between domestic violence and child fatalities in CPS cases. A review of CPS cases in two States identified domestic violence in approximately 41 to 43 percent of cases resulting in the critical injury or death of a child. A number of protocols and practice guidelines have surfaced over the past decade to provide child welfare and service providers with specific assessment and intervention procedures aimed at enhancing the safety of children and victims of domestic violence.

Children's Exposure to Domestic Violence

Children who live in homes where a parent or caretaker is experiencing abuse are commonly referred to as "child witnesses" or "children who are witnessing" domestic violence. The term "children's exposure" to domestic violence, however, provides a more inclusive definition because it encompasses the multiple ways children experience domestic abuse. Although caretakers frequently believe they are protecting their children from witnessing their abuse, children living in these homes report differently. Researchers have found that 80 to 90 percent of children in homes where domestic violence occurs can provide detailed accounts of the violence in their homes. Research studies have proliferated regarding children's exposure to domestic violence, the problems associated with witnessing, and the protective factors that influence their responses to the violence. Children's exposure to domestic violence typically falls into three primary categories:

  • Hearing a violent event;
  • Being directly involved as an eyewitness, intervening, or being used as a part of a violent event (e.g., being used as a shield against abusive actions);
  • Experiencing the aftermath of a violent event.

Children's exposure to domestic violence also may include being used as a spy to interrogate the adult victim, being forced to watch or participate in the abuse of the victim, and being used as a pawn by the abuser to coerce the victim into returning to the violent relationship. Some children are physically injured as a direct result of the domestic violence. Some perpetrators intentionally physically, emotionally, or sexually abuse their children in an effort to intimidate and control their partner. While this is clearly child maltreatment, other cases may not be so clear. Children often are harmed accidentally during violent attacks on the adult victim. An object thrown or weapon used against the battered partner can hit the child. Assaults on younger children can occur while the adult victim is holding the child, and injury or harm to older children can happen when they intervene in violent episodes. In addition to being exposed to the abusive behavior, many children are further victimized by coercion to remain silent about the abuse, maintaining the "family secret."

The Effects of Domestic Violence on Children

Children who live with domestic violence face numerous risks, such as the risk of exposure to traumatic events, the risk of neglect, the risk of being directly abused, and the risk of losing one or both of their parents. All of these can lead to negative outcomes for children and clearly have an impact on them. Research studies consistently have found the presence of three categories of childhood problems associated with exposure to domestic violence:

  • Behavioral, social, and emotional problems—higher levels of aggression, anger, hostility, oppositional behavior, and disobedience; fear, anxiety, withdrawal, and depression; poor peer, sibling, and social relationships; low self-esteem.
  • Cognitive and attitudinal problems—lower cognitive functioning, poor school performance, lack of conflict resolution skills, limited problem-solving skills, acceptance of violent behaviors and attitudes, belief in rigid gender stereotypes and male privilege.
  • Long-term problems—higher levels of adult depression and trauma symptoms, increased tolerance for and use of violence in adult relationships.

Children also display specific problems unique to their physical, psychological, and social development. For example, infants exposed to violence may have difficulty developing attachments with their caregivers and in extreme cases suffer from "failure to thrive." It should be noted that there also are limitations and uncertainties to the research since some of the children in such studies do not show elevated problem levels even under similar circumstances. Preschool children may regress developmentally or suffer from eating and sleep disturbances. School-aged children may struggle with peer relationships, academic performance, and emotional stability. Adolescents are at a higher risk for either perpetrating or becoming victims of teen dating violence. Reports from adults who repeatedly witnessed domestic violence as children show that many suffer from trauma-related symptoms, depression, and low self-esteem.

Possible Symptoms in Children Exposed to Domestic Violence

    • Sleeplessness, fears of going to sleep, nightmares, dreams of danger;
    • Physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches;
    • Hypervigilance to danger or being hurt;
    • Fighting with others, hurting other children or animals;
    • Temper tantrums or defiant behavior;
    • Withdrawal from people or typical activities;
    • Listlessness, depression, low energy;
    • Feelings of loneliness and isolation;
    • Current or subsequent substance abuse;
    • Suicide attempts or engaging in dangerous behavior;
    • Poor school performance;
    • Difficulties concentrating and paying attention;
    • Fears of being separated from the nonabusing parent;
    • Feeling that his or her best is not good enough;
    • Taking on adult or parental responsibilities;
    • Excessive worrying;
    • Bed-wetting or regression to earlier developmental stages;
    • Dissociation;
    • Identifying with or mirroring behaviors of the abuser.

Children's Protective Factors in Response to Domestic Violence

Studies documenting the types of problems associated with children who are exposed to domestic violence reveal a wide variation in their responses to the violence. Children's risk levels and reactions to domestic violence exist on a continuum where some children demonstrate enormous resiliency while others show signs of significant maladaptive adjustment. Protective factors such as social competence, intelligence, high self-esteem, outgoing temperament, strong sibling and peer relationships, and a supportive relationship with an adult, are thought to be important variables that help protect children from the adverse effects of exposure to domestic violence. In addition, research shows that the impact of domestic violence on children can be moderated by certain factors, including:

  • The nature of the violence. Children, who witness frequent and severe forms of violence, perceive the violence as their fault. Because they fail to observe their caretakers resolving conflict, these children may undergo more distress than children who witness fewer incidences of physical violence. The frequency with which they witness positive interactions between their caregivers also affects them.
  • Coping strategies and skills. Children with poor coping skills are more likely to experience problems than children with strong coping skills and supportive social networks. Children who utilize problem-solving strategies targeted directly at the source of disagreement demonstrate fewer maladaptive symptoms. Emotion-focused strategies, however, are less desirable because they often target internal responses to a stressful situation, which can result in less effective coping methods (e.g., children fantasizing that their parent's are "getting along").
  • The age of the child. Younger children appear to exhibit higher levels of emotional and psychological distress than older children. Age-related differences might result from older children's more fully developed cognitive abilities to understand the violence and select various coping strategies to alleviate upsetting emotions.
  • The time since exposure. Children are observed to have heightened levels of anxiety and fear immediately after a recent violent event. Fewer observable effects are seen in children the longer time has past after they have witnessed the violence.
  • Gender. In general, boys exhibit more "externalized" behaviors (e.g., aggression or acting out) while girls exhibit more "internalized" behaviors (e.g., withdrawal or depression). In addition, boys identify more with the male abuser and girls identify more with the female victim; both may continue these roles throughout life if the issues are not addressed.
  • The presence of child abuse. Children who witness domestic abuse and are physically abused demonstrate increased levels of emotional and psychological maladjustment than children who only witness violence and are not abused.

Professionals Responding to Child Maltreatment and Domestic Violence: In Search of Common Ground

Although adult and child victims often are found in the same families, child protection and domestic violence programs have historically responded separately to victims. The divergent responses are largely due to the differences in each system's historical development, philosophy, mandate, policies, and practices. As a result, these differences have led to variations in desired outcomes and practice methods for child welfare caseworkers and service providers who lack a mutual understanding of one another's mission and approach when addressing the co-occurrence of child maltreatment and domestic violence.

Several key debates stemming from these differences have limited collaboration between the two fields. For CPS caseworkers, whose legal mandate is the protection of the abused child, responding to domestic violence has been widely regarded as a peripheral issue. Alternatively, service providers have primarily focused on pursuing safety and empowerment for adult victims. The differing opinion about whose safety is paramount has led to misconceptions and critical accusations by both systems. Child welfare advocates have charged service providers with discounting the safety needs of children by focusing primarily on the adult victim who also may be neglectful or abusive towards the children. Conversely, some service providers accuse child welfare caseworkers of "revictimizing" victims of domestic violence by placing responsibility and blame on adult victims for the violent behaviors of perpetrators or charging the adult victim with "failing to protect" the child. Furthermore, interactions with the perpetrator are markedly distinct for each system. CPS's growing emphasis on a family-centered approach may sometimes compel caseworkers to engage perpetrators, who are either biological parents or caretakers of the children, in efforts aimed at creating healthy and stable families. In contrast, service providers often view separation from perpetrators as a desirable intervention until the safety of all family members is assured.

Despite their differences, child welfare advocates and service providers share areas of common ground that can bridge the gap between them, including:

  • Both want to end domestic violence and child maltreatment;
  • Both want children to be safe;
  • Both want adult victims to be protected—for their own safety and so their children are not harmed by the violence;
  • Both believe in supporting a parent's strengths;
  • Both prefer that children not be involved in CPS, if avoidable.

Additionally, men historically have not been actively involved with CPS or domestic violence agencies in working to make the necessary behavior modifications that will facilitate change on these issues.

The Different Responses to Families Experiencing Domestic Violence

As previously discussed, children respond in varying degrees to domestic violence, and researchers caution against holding a unilateral position that children witnessing domestic abuse constitutes child maltreatment or warrants CPS involvement. However, the complexity of the research regarding the intersection between domestic violence and child maltreatment has led various social service providers and policy-makers to believe that every child exposed to domestic violence is at severe risk for harm and warrants formal or mandatory intervention. Some States are considering legislation that broadens the definition of child neglect to include children who witness domestic violence. Expanding the legal definitions of child maltreatment, however, may not always be the most effective method to address the needs of these children in an already overburdened CPS system. It is an unrealistic expectation that CPS investigate every report of children living in a home where domestic violence occurs. However, CPS should screen every report for domestic violence and refer to specific criteria or agency protocol when determining if the referral warrants further investigation. Furthermore, a CPS investigation is typically labor intensive and invasive in the lives of families.

Communities can better serve families by allocating new as well as existing resources that build partnerships between CPS, service providers, and the wide network of informal and formal systems that offer a continuum of services based upon the level of risk present. In fact, a number of national, State, and local initiatives throughout the country are demonstrating that a collective ownership and intolerance for abuse against adults and children can form the foundation of a solid, coordinated, and comprehensive approach to ending child maltreatment and domestic violence in their communities. Chapter 6, "Building a Collaborative Response for Families Experiencing Domestic Violence," provides specific examples of promising practices and programs that have implemented community-wide collaborations to address co-occurring child maltreatment and domestic violence.

There are families experiencing domestic violence where CPS involvement is necessary. CPS agencies are required to intervene in cases where child exposure to domestic violence meets the State or local legal definition of child abuse and neglect and in instances where children, in addition to adult victims, are physically or sexually abused. Presenting risk factors associated with potentially dangerous and lethal forms of domestic violence also will require intervention by CPS. Parental substance abuse and mental illness are two examples of risk factors that can increase the threat of harm to children who witness domestic violence. In cases where there are several risks to children's safety, CPS caseworkers should address the multiple needs of these families. Relevant services are discussed later in this manual.

There are some situations, however, where child protection efforts to secure the safety of children can and should occur without a formal determination of abuse or neglect. After completing a comprehensive assessment of the nature and severity of the domestic violence and its impact on child safety, CPS may elect to refer a family to community-based services rather than substantiating a CPS case. CPS agencies who adopt this alternative response to domestic violence and child maltreatment may find it to be a more manageable and effective approach in assisting victims of domestic violence who have not maltreated their children, but who need help in securing safety and protection for them. Additionally, both the children and the victim are often better served by voluntary, and therefore less stigmatizing, community-based services.

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