Should Children Exposed
to Family Violence
Be Considered Maltreated?
to INFORUM Archive
A growing body of research has revealed that many
children are affected
by exposure to adult domestic violence. A heated national debate is
emerging around the question of whether children exposed to such
violence should be defined as maltreated. At least one state changed its laws to this effect, only
to repeal those changes nine months later. The
fact is, however, that many child protection agencies already treat
childhood exposure to domestic violence as a form of maltreatment that
should be reported, investigated and result in state intervention.
Childhood exposure to adult domestic violence should not automatically
be defined as maltreatment under the law. While we know that exposure to domestic violence is associated with behavioral, emotional and cognitive
problems among children that sometimes lasts into early adulthood, we
also know that childrenīs experiences are diverse in the following ways:
The level of domestic violence is known to vary greatly among
families. The 1985 National Family Violence Survey (Straus & Gelles,
1990) revealed that an estimated 8.7 million American couples (16.1
percent) annually experienced at least one incident of domestic
violence. It also found, however, that 3.4 million American couples (6.3
percent) annually experienced violence that was more severe and had a
higher risk of causing injury.
Children experience a wide range of exposures to violence at home and attach an equally wide range of meanings to those experiences
(Peled, 1998). Edleson, Mbilinyi, Beeman and Hagemeister (2000) found that 45
percent of the 114 mothers they anonymously interviewed reported that
their children came into the room where abuse was occurring at least occasionally, while 18 percent reported that their children frequently
came into the room and 23 percent reported their children never came
into the room.
The presence or absence of risk and protective factors varies. Risk factors that co-occur with domestic violence might include parental
substance abuse, presence of weapons in the home, both maternal and male
caregiver mental health issues, and other forms of neglect. Protective factors include a protective mother, sibling or significant other in the
childīs life and the childīs own ability to cope with stress.
This range of experience results in some children being severely
affected by their experiences and others showing no greater problems
than comparison children with no violence exposure. For example, a study
of 58 children living in a shelter and recently exposed to domestic
violence found great variability in problem symptoms (Hughes & Luke,
1998). More than half the children in the study were classified as
either "doing well" or "hanging in there". Children "hanging
in there" were found to exhibit average levels of problems and of
self-esteem and some mild anxiety symptoms. The remaining children in
the study did show problems: nine showed "high behavior
another nine "high general distress" and four were labeled
In a more recent study, Grych et al. (2000) found that of 228 shelter
resident children in the study, 71 exhibited no problems, another 41
showed only mild distress symptoms, 47 exhibited externalized problems
and 70 were classified as multi-problem.
One could argue that the impact of most forms of child maltreatment vary
but that we still include them in mandatory reporting rules so that a
full child protection screening and investigation might be conducted. I
would argue, however, that we also exclude other forms of violence and
exposure known to affect children from such screening and investigation.
For instance, not all physical hitting of children is currently defined
as child abuse. Straus (1994) has aptly described how spanking and other
forms of corporal punishment of children are not, in most cases, defined
as child maltreatment in our culture. It is also true that substance
abuse by a caregiver will not be defined as maltreatment unless it is
shown to present a significant risk to a child, for example, in the case
of prenatal exposure (Chasnoff & Lowder, 1999).
Ideally, a child protection agencyīs interventions should lead to
enhanced child safety and family strengths when there is a reported
concern about a child. In reality, our child protection systems are
given so few public resources that they will most often only respond to
the cases of children at the greatest risk. This leaves most children
including those exposed to adult domestic violence and their families
the subject of screening and investigation by child protection systems
but without the provision of many subsequent services. Nationally,
estimates are that 40 to 60 percent of families in which maltreatment is
substantiated receive no further services (English, 1998).
This is not an "either/or" debate with simple answers. There is
continuum of child and family experiences and we should meet these
experiences with a continuum of responses. Many children and their
families should not be referred for forensic child protection investigations and interventions that
carry the possibility of legal
action against the parents.
Rather, they should be offered voluntary, community-based assessments and services, for which some models already exist in domestic violence
agencies and other settings. Some children exposed to adult domestic violence are at great risk for further harm and should be referred to
the child protection system for assessment and intervention with their
families. Figuring out how to sort out these differing experiences and
offer the most appropriate responses is the challenge before us.
Full document: Edleson, J.L. (2001). Should
childhood exposure to adult domestic violence be defined as child
maltreatment under the law? Manuscript accepted for publication. St. Paul,
MN: University of Minnesota School of Social Work.
Edleson, J.L., Mbilinyi, L.F., Beeman, S.K.
& Hagemeister, A.K. (2000). How children are involved in adult
domestic violence: Results from a four city telephone survey. Manuscript
submitted for publication. St.
Paul, MN: University of Minnesota School of Social Work.
English, D.J. (1998). The extent and consequences of child maltreatment.
The Future of Children, 8, 39-53.
Grych, J.H., Jouriles, E.N., Swank, P.R., McDonald, R. & Norwood, W.D.
(2000). Patterns of adjustment among children of battered women. Journal
of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68, 84-94.
Hughes, H.M. & Luke, D.A. (1998). Heterogeneity In Adjustment Among
Children Of Battered Women. In G.W. Holden, R. Geffner & E.N. Jouriles
(Eds.). Children Exposed To Marital Violence (Pp. 185-221). Washington,
D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Peled, E. (1998). The experience of living with violence for preadolescent
witnesses of woman abuse. Youth & Society, 29, 395-430.
Straus, M.A. & Gelles, R.J. (1990). Physical violence in American
families. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
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