Emerging Responses to Children Exposed to Domestic Violence

This document reviews the new research, policies, and programs focused on children who have witnessed adult domestic violence. It argues that the diversity of children’s experiences requires equally diverse responses from those who serve them.

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VAWnet Summary:

Emerging Responses to Children Exposed to Domestic Violence by Jeffrey Edleson In consultation with Barbara Nissley (Updated July 2011).

In Brief:

Public attention to the effects of children’s exposure to adult domestic violence has increased over the last decade. This attention focuses on both the impact of the exposure on children’s development and on the likelihood that exposed children may be at greater risk for becoming either a child victim of physical or sexual abuse or an adult perpetrator of domestic violence. New research, policies, and programs focused on these children have resulted. These new efforts are reviewed in this document and an argument is made that the diversity of children’s experiences requires equally diverse responses from our communities.

“Exposure to adult domestic violence” describes the multiple experiences of children living in homes where an adult is using physically violent behavior in a pattern of coercion against an intimate partner. Several studies on children exposed to adult domestic violence have indicated children’s responses to violence may vary. Many exposed children show more aggressive and antisocial as well as fearful and inhibited behaviors, exhibit lower social competence, and have poorer academic performance (Kitzmann, Gaylord, Holt & Kenny, 2003; Wolfe, Crooks, Lee, McIntyre-Smith & Jaffe, 2003). Children also show similar emotional health to those of physically abused children (Kitzmann et al., 2003). Other children display more resiliency to the negative effects of exposure and have no greater social or emotional problems than those not exposed to domestic violence (Graham-Bermann, 2001). The more social support networks and family members in protective roles available to the child, the more resilient a child may become (Masten & Reed, 2002).

Laws relating to child exposure to adult domestic violence have changed considerably in the last decade. These laws focus most often on criminal prosecution of violent assaults, custody and visitation decision-making, and the child welfare system’s response (Lemon, 1999; Mathews, 1999; Weithorn, 2001).

The implications of research findings and some of the states’ experiences with legislation suggest several key points:

  • Children’s social environments and experiences vary greatly;
  • The impact of exposure also varies greatly, even within the same families;
  • Children have a variety of protective and risk factors present in their lives; and
  • This varied group of children deserves a varied response from our communities.

Currently, there are only limited options available for children who have been exposed to domestic violence. These options sadly do not reflect adequate responses to the range of experiences exposed children may experience. Perhaps the greatest challenge is to develop voluntary systems of care for children who are exposed but not themselves direct victims of physical abuse. These systems of care often operate outside of child protection agencies and allow communities to rely on more than one type of response, thereby avoiding overwhelming the child protection system.

Communities across North America are significantly revising the way they think about children exposed to adult domestic violence. At local, county and state levels, communities are engaged in a variety of policy and programmatic actions to respond to these children and their families. The recently reauthorized federal Violence Against Women Act of 2005 for the first time addresses the needs of these children. We need to continue to develop multiple pathways into services and multiple responses by social institutions if we are to adequately address the needs of these children and help them to grow into emotionally and physically healthy adults.

Distribution Rights

This Applied Research paper and In Brief may be reprinted in its entirety or excerpted with proper acknowledgement to the author(s) and VAWnet (www.vawnet.org), but may not be altered or sold for profit.