Printer Friendly

When violence hits home: responding to domestic violence in families with kids requires a coordinated effort to help the victim and protect the children.

Carol Johnson (not her real name) credits her son, in part, with giving her the strength to leave a violent relationship. She suffered severe physical and emotional abuse daily for more than four years and she believed her abuser when he told her she was worthless--until someone else depended on her. carol had three miscarriages caused by abuse before Mark's birth and believes she would have lost him, as well, if her partner hadn't been in jail during her pregnancy.

When Mark was little, he sometimes tried to stop his father from beating his mother. Although he wasn't a direct target of his father's abuse, he was hurt when he got in the way. carol was scared, but didn't know where to go for help. "I knew he was going to kill us, but I didn't know how to leave or where to go," she says. Finally, when Mark was 5, his father was sent to jail again, and Carol fled to another state.

Children in violent families often are caught in the middle, and, in many homes, they also are abused. Even if children are not directly beaten, they can be harmed by exposure to domestic violence.

"Violence begets violence," says Kansas Representative Rocky Nichols. Observing domestic violence as a child makes it all the more likely that a person will become a perpetrator or victim as an adult, he says.

Furthermore, the systems designed to protect children can inadvertently make their problems worse. Welfare workers may remove children from mothers who "failed to protect" them from domestic violence. Victims' advocates argue that women are held accountable for violence against them and their children, even when they seek help. Carol is certain that, had authorities known what was happening, they would have taken Mark away from her.

He was lucky. His mother reports that he doesn't remember the violence he witnessed, and she hasn't given him the details. He is 18 now. Carol reports that he is a "happy, healthy, loving, marvelous boy" who gets good grades and participates in a number of extracurricular activities. He has met his father, a habitual criminal, and is embarrassed by him. He gets angry sometimes that he grew up without a dad and that they're "poor," even though Carol has always been able to work. She returned to school, received her college degree in 1998 and owns a home.

As for Representative Nichols, he has direct experience with the dangers of domestic violence. Two years ago, his sister, Risa Schnegelsiepen, was killed by her husband, who then took his own life. Their 12-year-old twin daughters lost both parents to this horrific act.

"It is impossible for any child to fully recover from such an experience," he says. Like other state legislators across the country, he is searching for policy solutions to the problems confronting adult victims of domestic violence and their children. Increased attention to these problems in recent years has led to several potential approaches.


"There are at least 100 studies documenting the negative effects for children exposed to domestic violence," says Professor Jeffrey Edleson, who directs the Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work. It contributes to a number of behavioral and social problems, he says, ranging from anxiety and depression to increased aggression toward their peers. In many cases, these behaviors persist into young adulthood, and contribute to a generational cycle of violence when grown children use the same behaviors in their personal relationships that they witnessed as children.

Edleson, a nationally recognized expert on domestic violence and child welfare, cautions that not all children respond in the same way. He says children in violent homes need to be individually and carefully assessed to determine the best course of action. Several factors influence how children respond to trauma--the frequency and severity of violence to which they are exposed, the presence or absence of compassionate and trusted adults, and a child's own ability to cope with traumatic situations.

But there's more to worry about than just exposure to domestic violence. Studies indicate that in nearly half the cases where one partner beats the other, children also are abused. Most of the time, the abuser is the same person, but in a few cases, it is the victims, reacting to stress and trauma, who abuse their children. Unfortunately, child welfare workers often aren't trained to look for domestic violence and may respond inadequately to the challenges of treating these families.

In fact, Professor Edleson and other experts say fragmented treatment systems are one of the most significant obstacles to solving the problem. Child welfare and domestic violence agencies traditionally don't communicate about their respective clients and don't trust each other. Child welfare workers focus on the child, often without a full understanding of the dynamics of family violence. Many hold adult victims responsible for exposing their children to harm and for failing to protect them from abuse. Shelters focus on services for women. Staff often refuse to share information with child welfare workers because they don't want to jeopardize their clients' confidentiality.


Lawmakers and experts have experimented with a number of approaches to the problem. These include passing laws that define exposure to family violence as child abuse as well as more severe sentences for people who commit violent acts in the presence of children. Lawmakers and experts have encouraged better communication and collaboration among service providers at the local level, placed domestic violence workers in child welfare agency offices, and promoted cross-training of domestic violence and child welfare workers. Legislatures are focusing on three main approaches: increasing penalties for those convicted of committing domestic violence when children are present; changing the definition of child neglect to include witnessing domestic violence; and encouraging more collaboration between local agencies that deal with child welfare and domestic abuse.


Utah Senator David Steele is a proponent of tougher penalties if children witness violence. "I'm really concerned with the best interest of the child--that's the bottom line," he says. Last year, working closely with prosecutors and child advocates he sponsored a bill to strengthen Utah's law so prosecutors can pursue an additional penalty for an abuser without a prior domestic violence conviction. The domestic violence and child welfare communities supported his bill.

Steele says there is still work to be done, pointing out that there is a "disconnect" between the judicial system and child welfare workers. Welfare workers often concentrate on reunifying families, while the courts may focus on the best interests of the child without benefit of the larger family picture, he says.

Some experts are ambivalent about increasing penalties, fearing the unintended consequences of such laws. In states with laws mandating arrest in abusive situations, victims are sometimes arrested along with batterers if police do not have the training to identify the primary aggressor. Advocates worry that victims may be actually charged with domestic violence and sentenced more severely if their children witnessed the incident, even though they were not in control of the situation.


Experts also are wary of another legislative approach--defining "child maltreatment" to include witnessing domestic violence. States that have passed such laws have had mixed results.

Alaska was successful with such a measure. Lawmakers passed legislation in 1998 that added domestic violence to the factors welfare workers should consider when determining whether to remove children from their homes. The legislation, however, was one step in a much larger process. Domestic violence advocates and workers, child welfare workers, members of the judiciary and legislators worked together for many months to craft legislation that addressed everyone s interests, says Alaska Senator Fred Dyson. That collaboration is what makes the law work, he says.

Minnesota's experience was very different. The Minnesota Legislature passed a law in 1999 that defined exposure to domestic violence as child neglect per se, regardless of any actual harm to a child, but inadvertently overlooked other factors that influence children's wellbeing at home.

While the law was in effect, people responsible for reporting child abuse suddenly were required to report suspicions of domestic violence to county child welfare agencies. The county agencies, in turn, were inundated with reports of neglect.

Legislators hadn't anticipated the significant increase in child abuse reports that would result from the legislation and didn't appropriate funds for the additional caseloads. The child welfare agencies were overwhelmed with investigations. This created an unfunded mandate on county agencies, which is forbidden in state law.

Furthermore, the law didn't include provisions for additional training. Welfare workers were in some instances removing children from their mothers even when the women left the batterers and sought shelter.

The Legislature repealed the law in 2000 and passed a more limited measure that requested the Department of Human Services to study the issue, make recommendations for new approaches and find additional funding.

"The department was unable to recommend new funding sources. As a result, efforts to address the issues raised by the 1999 legislation are at a standstill," says Senator Linda Berglin. She is concerned that even basic services for victims of domestic violence will be cut in light of the grim budget situation.


Policymakers and advocates have also focused on efforts at the local level to address children's exposure to domestic violence. They are bringing together child welfare and family abuse workers for cross-training and collaborative efforts to help all members of the family.

"There is a risk that the systems that were set up to help can actually re-victimize people if children's needs aren't taken into account," says California Senator Sheila Kuehi. California required numerous public service agencies--including child protective services workers, law enforcement, prosecutors, domestic violence service providers and other community service providers--to develop protocols for responding to domestic violence when children are in the home.

California is host to two of six national pilot sites for the Greenbook project, funded by the federal government. These sites are implementing cutting-edge ideas to help courts, service providers and police coordinate services and work together. Evaluation is required to see if the recommendations are effective in helping women and children.

In El Paso County, Cob., for example, the child welfare and domestic violence agencies have agreed to screen new clients carefully for both domestic violence and child welfare. The Greenbook project in Colorado Springs is also providing cross-training for caseworkers, judges, other court personnel, district attorneys, county attorneys, advocates and probation officers concerning domestic violence and child welfare.


Experts believe that cross-training and communication are keys to helping women and children affected by domestic violence and maltreatment. Coordinating groups composed of the different service providers at the state and local levels can help ensure that the system responds adequately to each family's needs.

Amber Ptak, coordinator of the Greenbook project in El Paso County, recommends that legislators get into the field and visit their local service providers. She believes that a visit to a local shelter or child welfare agency can help them understand the needs of their constituents and the efforts of local agencies in ways that a "talking head" at a committee hearing cannot.

Carol Johnson echoes the importance of training for court officials and coordination among the courts. "Legislators need to pass laws that hold perpetrators accountable," she says. Carol's abusive ex is back in her home state, and she works hard to track where he is, in case he decides to come after them.

Since he returned five years ago, he has been arrested at least nine times, and convicted of at least one felony. Many of his charges have been plea bargained down or dismissed, in spite of his history. Carol believes that "he's gonna kill somebody someday." She hopes that legislators who hear her story will pay more attention to the plight of both adult and child victims of domestic violence.


A number of states have laws that address the problem of children witnessing domestic violence. Alaska defines child maltreatment to include exposure to domestic violence. Other states enhance penalties of children witness the violence. They include: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, hawaii, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Utah and Washington.


In 1999 a panel of national experts published Effective Intervention in Domestic Violence & Child Maltreatment Cases: Guidelines for Policy and Practice, also known as the "Green book."

It lists nearly 70 recommendations for the child protection system, domestic violence treatment providers and the courts. The U.S. Departments of justice and Health and Human Services subsequently funded six demonstration sites to implement and evaluate the Greenbook recommendations. Those six counties are Santa Clara County, Calif.; San Francisco, Calif.; Lane County, Ore.; El Paso County, Cob.; St. Louis County, Mo.; and Grafton County, N.H.

Amber Ptak, the coordinator for the Greenbook project in El Paso County (home to Colorado Springs), says the effort helps existing systems, such as the courts, service providers and police coordinate services and work together, but doesn't provide direct services. All of the groups who are affected by the project determine its purposes and goals. So it isn't an "outside" expert telling local agencies what to do, Ptak says. "Getting buy-in from the agencies involved is key to our success."

The federal grants also pay for extensive evaluation of the pilot projects. "Twenty percent of our funding is being used for evaluation," says Ptak.

Colorado Springs staff found that workers in the domestic violence program were not always screening new cases for child maltreatment, and the child welfare agency was not adequately screening for domestic abuse. Now, the agencies have new intake farms and additional employee training. A domestic violence advocate now works in the child welfare agency, helping caseworkers and monitoring the caseload for sensitivity to domestic violence concerns. If she sees, for example, that a mother in a particular case "allowed the child to witness domestic violence," she works with the caseworker to refocus attention and responsibility on the adult who commits the violence, not the victim.

Greenbook funds have been used to hire a court case coordinator, whose job is to research dependency and neglect cases, find all of the different local courts where a family is involved and let the judges know of other court contacts and rulings. This will help prevent circumstances where, for example, a judge orders visitation in a custody hearing, but the visitation may require someone to violate a restraining order issued by another judge.

Stephanie Walton tracks domestic violence for NCSL.
COPYRIGHT 2003 National Conference of State Legislatures
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Walton, Stephanie
Publication:State Legislatures
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2003
Previous Article:Constituent communication in cyberland: using the internet to communicate with constituents can be very effective.
Next Article:A test of values: the choices governors, state legislators, and Congress make to close huge budget gaps tell you what their priorities are. (Where We...

Related Articles
Till violence do us part.
When home's not sweet.
Prosecuting cases without victim cooperation.
Advocacy and law enforcement: partners against domestic violence.
Domestic violations.
DVERTing domestic violence: the Domestic Violence Enhanced Response Team.
Illinois Proposes New Gender Violence Act.
Dealing with domestic violence in law enforcement relationships.
Domestic violence law reforms: reactions from the trenches.
Demanding healthy love: isolated and ashamed no more: gays and lesbians abused by their partners are finally speaking up and getting help.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters