A Few Facts about Children and Domestic Violence

Children in homes where domestic violence occurs may be witnesses to abuse, may themselves be abused, may suffer harm “incidental” to the domestic abuse, and may be used by the batterer to manipulate or gain control over the victim. The Women’s Rural Advocacy Program offers a good overview of the ways in which children can be affected by domestic violence.

Children are often witnesses to domestic violence.

As reported in the Toolkit to End Violence Against Women, created by the National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women and the United States Department of Justice’s Violence Against Women Office, slightly more than one-half of female victims of domestic violence in the United States live in homes with children under twelve.

Abused childAlthough the effects of witnessing domestic violence appear to diminish with time, they can continue through adulthood. As adults, child witnesses may continue to suffer from depression and trauma-related symptoms. In addition, studies show that boys who witness domestic violence are more likely to batter as adults. As witnesses, children can be harmed psychologically and emotionally. Studies indicate that child witnesses, on average, are more aggressive and fearful and more often suffer from anxiety, depression and other trauma-related symptoms. Children growing up in violent homes often take responsibility for the abuse and may feel guilty for not being able to stop it. They live with constant anxiety that another beating will occur, or that they will be abandoned. They may feel guilty for loving the abuser. Children may be at a higher risk of alcohol or drug abuse, experience cognitive problems or stress-related ailments (headaches, rashes), and have difficulties in school.

Research has also shown that there is a strong correlation between child abuse and domestic abuse.

As reported in the Toolkit’s chapter on children and domestic violence, available in PDF and text formats, recent national studies have shown that 50% of men who frequently assault their wives also frequently assault their children. The Women’s Rural Advocacy Programs describes the following facts concerning child and spouse abuse in the United States:

  • Children in homes where domestic violence occurs are physically abused or seriously neglected at a rate 1500% higher than the national average in the general population.
  • Lenore Walker’s 1984 study found that mothers were eight times more likely to hurt their children when they were being battered than when they were safe from violence.
  • A major study of more than 900 children at battered women’s shelters found that nearly 70% of the children were themselves victims of physical abuse or neglect.
  • A 1998 literature review reported that between 45% and 70% of children who are exposed to domestic violence are also victims of abuse, and that 40% of child victims of abuse are also exposed to domestic violence.

Children may be “inadvertently” hurt through domestic violence.

 They may be hit by items thrown by the batterer, and older children, in particular, may be hurt trying to protect their mother.

Children are used by batterers to manipulate their victims.

A batterer may threaten to take custody of or kidnap the children if the victim reports the abuse; he may also threaten to harm or kill the children. He may also tell her that she will lose custody if she seeks a divorce because she “allowed” the abuse to happen. He may even harm the children in order to control the mother. During and after separation, batterers continue to use these tactics. Visitation and joint custody provide the batterer with opportunities to abuse, threaten and intimidate their former partners.

The connections between child and spouse abuse indicate a strong need for coordination between child welfare advocates and domestic abuse agencies and advocates. In particular, it is critical that agencies that work with abused children are trained to recognize signs of domestic violence and to respond appropriately. Further, because of the correlation between spouse and child abuse, it is important that the laws governing child abuse and child custody do not have unintended effects on battered women. The Greenbook Initiative is a project designed to help child welfare and domestic violence agencies and family courts work together more effectively to aid families experiencing violence.

Please contact us here if you would like to report a case of abuse.