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Children's Exposure to Domestic Violence: Is It Child Abuse?

Each year, millions of children are exposed to incidents of adult domestic violence. Children in violent households are at increased risk of physical abuse and often experience heightened levels of depression, anxiety and aggression. Policymakers are concerned about the effects of domestic violence on children's safety and well-being. Some are considering whether to treat exposure to domestic violence as child maltreatment and to require that such exposure be reported to and investigated by child welfare authorities. Some domestic violence experts have criticized this approach as unnecessary and counterproductive. This report reviews what states have done, summarizes the arguments for and against this new and controversial strategy, briefly reviews some alternative policy approaches to the problem, and identifies some key issues for legislators.

Children and Domestic Violence:
The Child Welfare System's Response

The child welfare community has long recognized that exposure to domestic violence poses risks to children's emotional and physical well-being. Some child welfare agencies have adopted operational definitions of emotional abuse or neglect that include exposure to domestic violence. The congressionally mandated national incidence studies of child abuse and neglect define emotional neglect to include "chronic or extreme spouse abuse or other domestic violence in the child's presence." In addition, many states have defined other forms of maltreatment, such as child endangerment, which have been used to warrant intervention in some domestic violence situations.

Nevertheless, child abuse and domestic violence often are treated as separate issues, with little coordination and communication between child welfare agencies and battered women's advocates and service providers. In fact, the child welfare and domestic violence fields traditionally have viewed one another with mistrust as a result of their differing missions, cultures and training. The principal conflict between domestic violence advocates and child protection workers centers on the tendency of caseworkers in at least some jurisdictions to make formal findings in child maltreatment investigations that battered women failed to protect their children. The two sides of this conflict may be summarized as follows.

  • Child welfare workers often interpret a mother's decision to remain in a violent relationship and not to seek protection from the police and the courts as a failure to protect her children from harm. This interpretation often leads child welfare authorities to remove the children from home. Although allegations of "failure to protect" may be common on the front lines of child protection, most child welfare experts agree that this practice often is harmful to mothers and their children and should be the exception rather than the rule.1

  • For their part, domestic violence advocates claim that caseworkers and judges generally do not understand the complex dynamics underlying a woman's decision to remain in a violent relationship. For example, many abused women stay with their partners because they are financially dependent on them and because leaving or seeking other forms of protection may increase the risk that the batterer will retaliate against them or their children. Under these circumstances, advocates argue that allegations of "failure to protect" and removal of children only revictimize both mothers and their children. They contend that, instead of blaming victims, child welfare and law enforcement authorities should focus on perpetrators and hold them accountable for the harm to children caused by their violent acts. For example, child welfare agencies should have the authority to order a perpetrator to leave the household.

Expanding the Definition of Child Abuse

Against this backdrop of disagreement between domestic violence advocates and child welfare agencies, several states have broadened their definitions of child maltreatment to include children's exposure to domestic violence. In 1998, Alaska amended the definition of "child maltreatment" in its child protection statutes to include, among other things, exposure to conduct by a household member against another household member that constitutes homicide, assault or sexual assault.2 Three other states-Delaware, Georgia and Utah-define domestic violence in the presence of a child as a form of criminal child maltreatment but have not amended their child abuse reporting statutes to require reporting of such crimes.3 These changes to the criminal code have nevertheless affected reporting and agency practice. For example, Delaware police routinely refer cases of children's exposure to domestic violence to the state child welfare agency, which is required by state law to investigate any report that alleges criminal child maltreatment.4 The Division of Child and Family Services in Utah interprets its statute as requiring child welfare involvement in cases of children's exposure to domestic violence.

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