National Council On Child Abuse and Family Violence

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Should Children Exposed to Family Violence
Be Considered Maltreated?

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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.

  • The risk of harm resulting from exposure may also vary from child to child. Both the degree to which a child is involved in violent events and the documented level of child maltreatment and emotional harm are important factors to consider.

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 problems," another nine "high general distress" and four were labeled "depressed kids."

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 a 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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