Children Exposed to Domestic Violence

The presenters, Kathryn Kuehnle, PhD and Lenore E. A. Walker, EdD, illustrate how exposure to domestic violence affects children. The participant is made aware of the public health implications of domestic violence, the relationship between domestic violence and child abuse, and factors in conducting custody evaluations when there are allegations of domestic abuse.

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Statement of Understanding

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  1. This course contains test questions for 1 continuing education (CE) credit (equivalent to 1 hour of continuing education activity).  The test questions are based on the material, Children Exposed to Domestic Violence.  There are 10 questions.  You must correctly answer 80% (8) of the questions to receive the credit.  No partial credit will be awarded.
  2. This CE program is intended to be used for the continuing education of practitioners in recognized mental health professions.  Participants who complete the examination thereby certify their eligibility to participate in this program and their thorough study of the materials on which the examination was based (i.e., Children Exposed to Domestic Violence).
  3. You must complete the course within 14 days of the purchase date.  You will have an additional 14 days to complete any necessary reexamination if you do not correctly answer 80% of the questions on the initial examination.  The reexamination fee is currently $10.00.
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Learning Objectives

  • Explain how exposure to domestic violence affects children.
  • Discuss the public health implications of domestic violence.
  • Identify the relationship between domestic violence and child abuse.
  • Present factors in conducting custody evaluations when there are allegations of domestic abuse.


Information about faculty credentials and grievance procedures are available upon request from:

Professional Resource Exchange, Inc.

PO Box 3197

Sarasota, FL 34230-3197

Phone: 800-443-3364

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Children Exposed to Domestic Violence CE Program

Children Exposed to Domestic Violence

Definitions of Domestic Violence

        Statutory and social science literature provides differing definitions of domestic violence.  Legal definitions focus on physical control or harm, whereas social science definitions are more inclusive and focus on psychological factors, including coercive psychological control and mental harm.  If the psychological factors identified by social scientists are not taken into account, the full impact of domestic violence on children will not be identified.

        Florida Statute 741.28 defines domestic violence as “any assault, aggravated assault, battery, aggravated battery, sexual assault, sexual battery, stalking, aggravated stalking, kidnapping, false imprisonment, or any criminal offense resulting in physical injury or death of one family or household member by another who is or was residing in the same single dwelling unit” (cited in Florida Bar, 2001).  In contrast, the American Psychological Association defines domestic violence as “Acts of physical and sexual abuse, and psychological maltreatment; chronic situations in which one person controls or intends to control another person’s behavior; and misuse of power that may result in injury or harm to the psychological well-being of family members” (American Psychological Association [APA], 1996, p. 3).  Advocates who work with domestic violence victims and batterers stress that the definition of domestic violence includes the misuse of power and control by the batterer toward the victim in order to get her (women are usually but not always the victims) to do what he (men are usually but not always the perpetrators) wants without regard for the victim’s rights or wishes (Liss & Stahly, 1993; Pagelow, 1993; Peled, Jaffe, & Edleson, 1995; Walker, 2000, in press).  Whatever definition is used, it is important to understand the impact on children when exposed to the variety of power and control disorders.  Numerous references are included here to assist the mental health professional in researching the available information on the variety of issues raised when children are exposed to domestic violence.

        Throughout this continuing education program, the term “domestic violence” will be used interchangeably with the terms “intimate partner violence” and “spouse abuse” and applies to relationships where the couple has been intimate and lived together whether or not they are currently living together or formally married.  “Family violence” is used as an all-inclusive term, whereas “child abuse” is more specifically directed to physical or sexual abuse of the child or other types of child maltreatment.

Public Health Implications of Intimate Partner Violence

        The National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed 16,000 adults, which is the largest study to date, and found 22% of women and 7% of men experienced physical assault by a current or former intimate (Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998).  This is thought to be a low estimate given the many problems with survey data, especially when conducted over the telephone without any control of who might be present or by interviewers who are unable to gain admission to homes where serious violence is occurring.  Financial and human costs of domestic violence are staggering.  Domestic violence-related crimes against adults account for approximately 15% of the total cost of crime in the United States, which reaches $67 billion per year (National Institute of Justice, 1996).  This too is considered a low estimate; a domestic violence act is defined as a crime only when it is adjudicated as a physical or sexual  assault or, in rare cases, psychological harassment or stalking.  Domestic violence is deadly; 42% of all female homicides in the United States are the result of domestic violence, and medical expenses from domestic violence are estimated to total in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year (Wisner et al., 1999).

        Data extrapolated from incidence and prevalence figures of battered women suggest that, at a minimum, between 3 and 10 million children are exposed to domestic violence annually in the United States (see Fantuzzo & Mohr, 1999; Straus, 1992; Thormaehlen & Bass-Field, 1994).  Seven percent of children ages 10 to 16 answered “Yes” to the question, “Have you ever seen any of the adults in your household hit each other?” (Finkelhor, 1991).  Retrospective research indicates that 13% of adults recall, as children, witnessing violent incidents between their parents  (Straus & Smith, 1990).  Battered women report that the majority of the time, during domestic violence, their children are either in the same room or in the next room (Rosenberg & Rossman, 1990).  Furthermore, children often provide detailed recollections of domestic violence that their parents report the children supposedly did not witness (Jaffe, Wolfe, & Wilson, 1990).

        Whatever the actual numbers of children who are exposed to domestic violence, these figures are large enough to pose serious risks to children in the United States (Rossman, Hughes, & Rosenberg, 2000).  Many child witnesses and their battered mothers become homeless as a result of fleeing the domestic violence (Fischbach & Herbert, 1997).  Children also are killed during one-fifth of domestic violence homicides and attempted homicides (Langford, Isaac, & Kabat, 1999).  Many murder-suicides involve children who were exposed to domestic violence before they were killed.  Furthermore, research is fairly robust in showing that exposure to interparental violence has profound negative psychological consequences for children (see Hughes & Graham-Bermann, 1998; Kashani & Allan, 1998; Kolbo, Blakely, & Engleman, 1996; Margolin, 1998; Rossman et al., 2000; Schlessinger et al., in press).

How Children Experience Intimate Partner Violence

        The term “child witness” may be misleading, because many children do not see a physical assault perpetrated on a parent but are exposed to the domestic violence in other ways.  Exposure to domestic violence may include viewing or hearing the violence; experiencing the aftermath of violence; forcing the child to watch assaults against the mother or to participate in the abuse; using the child as a spy or interrogating him or her about the victim’s activities; hitting or threatening a child while in the mother’s arms; or taking the child hostage to force the mother’s return to the home (Edleson, 1999; Straus, 1990).  One study (Coulter et al., 2001) cited examples of 4- to 6-year-old children’s responses to what they had experienced, which included: “I saw her bleeding on her mouth”; “I hear my mom slam the door and dad hittin’ her”; “My mommy was screaming”; “My dad almost threw an ashtray at my mom - My mom almost hit my dad with a fan”; and “My daddy had a knife and was putting it at my mommy’s head - My mommy was screaming.”  During a domestic violence incident, children may call 911 more frequently than their mothers call authorities for protection.  Children make over 10% of domestic violence emergency calls to police in cities where data about callers have been gathered (Fantuzzo et al., 1997).

Impact on Children Exposed to Domestic Violence

        Exposure to domestic violence is a form of child maltreatment that may result in childhood trauma (Bancroft & Silverman, 2002; Garbarino, Kostelny, & Dubrow, 1991; Geffner & Jaffe, 1998; Hughes & Marshall, 1995; Levendosky & Graham-Bermann, 2000; Liss & Stahly, 1993; Pagelow, 1993; Somer & Braunstein, 1999; Walker, 2000, in press).  When children are exposed to domestic violence by parents, children’s dependency needs are not fully met because neither batterer nor victim can adequately attend to the child’s biological and psychological needs (Finkelhor & Dzuiba-Leatherman, 1994).  Whereas the trauma of exposure to domestic violence puts the child in greater need of emotional support, the parents may be less available to give the support.  Exposure to domestic violence may interfere in children’s development into prosocial adults in the following ways:

  • Home environments are unpredictable and unstable (violence and separations).
  • Tension is common between children and their parents.
  • Control is typically obtained through physically and/or mentally abusive methods within parent-to-parent and parent-to-child relationships.
  • Batterers demonstrate the use of power to forcefully get their needs met at the expense of others.
  • Batterers do not model productive skills for conflict resolution.
  • Children do not observe a logical link between cause and effect when a parent is battered.
  • Children (particularly boys) may not develop empathy skills.
  • Batterers model a lack of respect for the victim, which may teach negative beliefs about females.
  • Battered women may overprotect and/or not set consistent limits with their children as a way to compensate for the batterer’s impulsive limit setting and/or abusive control.

        Research indicates that behavioral and emotional problems are significantly higher in children of battered mothers in both shelter populations (Graham-Bermann et al., in press; Hughes, 1997; Rossman, Hughes, & Hanson, 1998) and nonshelter populations (Fantuzzo et al., 1991; Graham-Bermann & Levendosky, 1998a, 1998b).  However, it is important to note that children seen in shelters or other agencies are more likely to come from families where there are other situational problems such as poverty, unemployment, disability, violence in the community, and other disorganizing conditions.  Rarely are children from professional and wealthier families studied by researchers, although they are seen by psychotherapists and child custody evaluators.  Stratified samples have attempted to sort out the impact of exposure to, or experience of violence from, other environmental factors (Gold, 2000; Walker, 2000).

Domestic Violence and Developmental Problems

        Growing up in a violent family is associated with increased risk for learning problems and school failure (Davies & Cummings, 1994; Dyson, 1990; Kendall-Tackett, Williams, & Finkelhor, 1993), early pregnancy (Children’s Defense Fund, 1998), and substance abuse (Henning et al., 1996), as well as the development of children’s behavior problems, aggression, violence, and delinquency (Graham-Bermann, 1998; R. C. Herrenkohl, Egolf, & E. C. Herrenkohl, 1997; Horn & Trickett, 1998; Jouriles et al., 1996; Kolbo et al., 1996; McCloskey, Figueredo, & Koss, 1995; O’Keefe, 1994).

        Furthermore, chronic stress or trauma caused by family violence has the potential of altering physical brain structures, which impacts the integration of the maltreated child’s biological, cognitive, emotional, and social domains (Cicchetti & Cohen, 1995; Kendall-Tackett, 1999; Putnam, 1997).  New research into the development of biochemical responses to constant or intermittent exposure to perceived fear and trauma indicates that both the structure and the functioning of the child’s nervous system may be substantially altered.  A prolonged stress response or chronic posttraumatic stress reaction has been linked to changes in the functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and to levels of certain neurotransmitters, which are thought to substantially negatively impact children’s development, including children’s ability to regulate emotional arousal, deploy attention, and accurately interpret experiences (Rossman, 1998; Teicher, 2002; van der Kolk, 1996).

Effects of Age, Gender, and Domestic Violence Characteristics

        The duration of domestic violence to which children are exposed is found to play an important role in children’s long-term adjustment, including their ability to accurately process social information (Rossman et al., 1994).  When the effects of a large number of variables (e.g., mother-child violence, father-child violence, socioeconomic status, stressful life events, and formal and informal support systems) were controlled, children’s adjustment was related to the amount of domestic violence they experienced (O’Keefe, 1994).  The longer the exposure, the greater the children’s negative long-term psychological effects.

        Younger children, compared to older children, appear to be more vulnerable to the negative impact of interparental violence.  The impact may be greater because preschool and early elementary school-age children have fewer developmental skills to cognitively make sense of environmental information or to control their emotions and behavior (see Emery & Laumann-Billings, 1998; Grych, in press; Margolin, 1998).

        Research findings are inconsistent regarding whether boys or girls are at higher risk for poor adjustment outcomes when exposed to interparental violence (see Rossman et al., 2000).  However, males exposed to domestic violence are 10 times more likely to develop into adult batterers, compared with nonexposed boys.Both boys and girls exposed to domestic violence are more reactive to adult anger and are more likely to misinterpret ambiguous interpersonal situations as threatening, compared to their nonexposed peers (Crick & Dodge, 1994; J.S. Cummings et al., 1989).

        Both boys and girls also are at increased risk for delinquency, alcohol and substance abuse, involvement in abusive dating relationships, running away from home, and suicide.  Recent studies of girls who were arrested for delinquency indicate that over 95% were exposed to domestic violence in their homes (see Margolin, 1998 for review; Schlessinger et al., in press).

Development of Posttraumatic Stress Responses in Children

        The use of trauma theory in understanding the clinical impact of exposure to family violence on victims has resulted in a better understanding of how healthy, as well as clinically diagnosed, individuals respond to domestic violence.  Secondary victimization theories extend the trauma response to those who are exposed to rather than the target of the abuse.  Posttraumatic Stress Response (PTSR) and Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) are terms used to define reactions/symptoms, which are a normal response to an abnormal situation.  However, if the reactions endure for too long or interfere with other parts of the person’s life, these symptoms can become a Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Clinicians who work with abused children have isolated different patterns of common PTSD symptoms at different stages of children’s development.  When viewing PTSD from a developmental stage perspective, the following symptoms might be seen in children living with family violence:

  • Infant to Preschool (0-3 years old) may exhibit hypervigilance to cues of danger or upset, exaggerated startle response, developmental regressions, body dysregulation, clinging behavior, nightmares, and delayed speech.
  • Preschool to School Age (3-5 years old) may exhibit avoidant symptoms, intense attachment problems, poor social skills, depression, and anxiety.
  • School-Age Children (6-12 years old) may show hyperalertness and fears, excessive emotional arousal, depression, poor language skills, ostracism by peers, regression in toilet habits, attentional disorders, school failures, less consolidation of memory, and obsessional retelling of details.  Children at this age may also exhibit dissociation, dangerous risk-taking behavior, suicidal ideation, and a belief in a foreshortened future.
  • Adolescents (13-19 years old) may demonstrate symptoms similar to adult PTSD, delinquent behavior and arrests for status crimes (truancy, running away), sexual acting-out, using rather that just experimenting with alcohol and illicit drugs, dangerous reenactments of trauma (with or without conscious awareness), poor peer relationships (alienation), attentional problems, school failures, inconsistency in following limits and accepting boundaries, escalating rage if not permitted contact with peers, and dissociation from self and community (see Margolin, 1998 for review; Pynoos, 1994; Walker, in press).

        It has generally been found that children who are exposed to domestic violence show a level of adjustment that is better than the adjustment of children who are physically abused or who are physically abused and exposed to domestic violence, whereas children solely exposed to domestic violence show a level of adjustment that is worse than that of nonabused and nonexposed comparison group children (Hughes, Parkinson, & Vargo, 1989; Jaffe et al., 1986).  However, a study by Sternberg et al. (1993) reflects the complexity of attempting to separate the effects of exposure to marital violence only (group 1), child abuse only (group 2), and a combination of the two factors (group 3).  On the basis of children’s reports, the three groups did not differ significantly in terms of childhood depression, but all three groups did show significant differences from the comparison group.  On the basis of children’s reports, child abuse was associated, overall, with more negative outcomes than exposure to marital violence.  However, on the basis of mothers’ reports, exposure to marital violence showed a stronger association with children’s externalizing problems than did exposure to child abuse.  These findings highlight the fact that different sources of information may produce different results and suggest that multiple informants are necessary to fully understand the effects of family violence on children.

Co-occurence of Spouse and Child Abuse

        The co-occurence of spouse and child abuse is well documented (Holden et al., 1998; Straus & Gelles, 1990).  It is important for professionals to be alert to the fact that adults who use intimidation and violence to resolve conflicts and/or control their spouses may use the same tactics to control their children.  Preliminary research shows that 45% to 70% of children exposed to domestic violence are also victims of physical abuse (Layzer, Goodson, & deLange, 1986; Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980), whereas approximately 40% of child victims of physical abuse are also exposed to domestic violence (Jouriles, Barling, & O’Leary, 1987).  The probability of child physical abuse by a violent husband increases with the extensiveness of marital violence from 5% with one marital violence act to over 90% with 50 or more marital violence acts (Ross, 1996).  Children exposed to domestic violence are also at higher risk for sexual abuse; they are 12 to 14 times more likely to experience sexual abuse by a mother’s partner as well as 7 times more likely to be sexually abused outside of the home (McCloskey et al., 1995).

Domestic Violence and Child Custody: Statutes and Case Law

        Florida Statute 61.13 addresses child custody and includes the consideration of domestic violence in accordance with the particular fact at issue, which is “the best interests of the child.”  The court must consider factors including (a) evidence that any party has knowingly provided false information to the court regarding domestic violence pursuant to Statute 741 and (b) evidence of domestic violence or child abuse.  The legal presumption under FL 61.13 is that children need frequent and continuing contact between child and parents [61.13(2)(b)1] and that shared parental responsibility is “in the best interest” unless detrimental to the child [61.13(2)(b)2].  A rebuttable presumption of detriment is a third-degree domestic violence felony or child abuse.

        During custody cases, some courts have mistakenly penalized the victim of domestic violence by assuming the victim is emotionally unstable or “let the violence happen.”  Currently, state custody statutes have begun to direct the courts away from this incorrect assumption and to focus on the batterer’s violent behavior and the relevancy to parental fitness.  Most states now require courts to consider domestic violence as a factor in custody determinations, and some courts use the recommended presumption that batterers should not receive sole or joint custody of their children (National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, 1994).

       Florida appellate courts are finally beginning to recognize the danger to children exposed to domestic violence and their nonabusive parent when children are placed in the custody of their abusive father.  In an important case, Ford v. Ford (1997), the appellate court reversed the trial court, stating that the facts of the case demonstrated that (a) Father had history of abusing mother, (b) Mother was afraid of father and interfered with visitation, but (c) it was an error to award custody to father because (d) “The trial court failed to offset what it perceived to be the mother’s violation of Florida’s friendly-parent provisions, with what was recognized in the temporary order as the mother’s ‘justifiable reason to fear the husband.’ ”

Complex Evaluations: Custody Cases With Allegations of Domestic Violence

        Conducting custody evaluations with allegations of domestic violence can be a daunting task.  Although some individuals may initiate allegations of domestic violence to gain leverage, evaluators must be aware that batterers can be manipulative, minimize their actions, and manipulate and shape their children’s interpretation of domestic violence as an act that is caused by the victim.  As a result of the batterer’s psychological manipulation, children who are exposed to domestic violence typically view their victim mothers more negatively than they view their battering fathers (Holden & Ritchie, 1991).  Thus, children’s responses to the custody evaluator’s questions of causes of violence may be distorted by the dysfunctional environment in which the child lives.

        Research on high-conflict families and those with domestic violence and child abuse (Johnston & Roseby, 1997; Kelly, 2000; Patterson, 1982; Wallerstein, Lewis, & Blakeslee, 2000) suggests that evaluators must be cautious not to mislabel some children’s refusal to be with a parent as originating from alienation by the other parent.  Other causes must also be considered, including exposure of the child to domestic violence and other forms of child abuse and maltreatment by the estranged parent (Drozd & Olesen, 2000; Drozd & Walker, 2000; Jaffe & Geffner, 1998).

        When allegations of domestic violence are embedded within custody litigation, problems with custody evaluations have included the evaluators’ subjective opinions that domestic violence is a legal manipulation by the victim, failure to investigate allegations of abuse through consulting third-party sources of information, and failure to understand the basic dynamics of domestic violence (Geffner et al., 2002; Walker, in press).  Children’s continued exposure to a parent who is abusive may cause further psychological injury even if physical violence stops (Levendosky & Graham-Bermann, 2000).  In fact, Levendosky and Graham-Bermann found that both the battered woman and the children continued to be harmed unless the batterer no longer had power to harm any of them psychologically or physically.  Evaluators must be alert to the fact that custody and visitation arrangements may exacerbate further violence from the perpetrator, which may occur during exchanges of the children.

        Although some batterers may not intend to harm their children, their drive to seek control and revenge may override their concern for the safety of their children.  When determining safety issues for children exposed to domestic violence, Bancroft and Silverman (2002, p. 163) recommend that the following questions be considered:

  • Was the batterer violent or psychologically abusive during any of the mother’s pregnancies?
  • Was the batterer violent in the presence of the child, and what was the child’s proximity to the violent acts?
  • Was the batterer ever assaultive to the victim while she held a child?
  • Was the batterer creating risk to the child by throwing objects at the victim?
  • Was the batterer engaged in calling the victim degrading or humiliating names in front of the child?
  • Was the batterer demonstrating behaviors such as pushing the child out of the way to get to the victim?
  • Was the batterer abandoning his child care responsibilities because he was angry at the victim?

Criticizing and Rebutting Custody Evaluations

        Custody evaluators must accept relevant findings of facts of law by a court in a litigated case.  Therefore, if a judge has made a finding of fact that there has been domestic violence, it is not the custody evaluator’s role to assess whether or not domestic violence occurred.  Rather, it is the evaluator’s role to assess the impact on the child, risk of further harm, and fitness of the perpetrator to parent the child and under what circumstances.  If the court has not made a finding of fact related to domestic violence allegations, the evaluator must attempt to obtain police reports, domestic violence injunctions, and information from collateral third-party sources, including previous therapists seen by the parents, neighbors, babysitters, and extended family members.  Unfortunately, it is common to find that custody evaluators have not addressed the issue of partner abuse or child maltreatment in their evaluations.  This is problematic because changing custody at a later time requires a higher burden of proof.

        Once out of the relationship, the battered woman may feel it is safe to deal with her anger at the betrayal and injustice of having been victimized, but this is just the time when an evaluation around access to children takes place, putting the woman at a disadvantage if the custody evaluator is not trained in understanding the dynamics of domestic violence.  As was stated earlier, batterers can manipulate and use their charm to persuade others to their point of view.  It is an error to believe that the batterer must by physically abusive with children for harm to occur.  Jaffe, Lemon, and Poisson (2003) argue,

Many mental health and legal professionals naïvely believe that once separation has occurred, the violence is over and children’s problems are historical.  From our perspective, based on our experience in the justice system and knowledge of the scientific literature, this view jeopardizes the safety of women and children. (p. 29)

        Recommendations that are in the best interests of the child are conservative and go toward the protection of the child rather than toward meeting the parent’s rights of access to children.  With few exceptions, it is not in children’s best interests to be placed in either joint or sole custody of a battering father (American Bar Association [ABA] Center for Children and the Law, 1994; APA, 1996; National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, 1994).  By their use of abusive behavior, batterers have demonstrated that they do not have the ability to put their own needs aside and negotiate fairly around their children’s needs.  Custody should be awarded to batterers only in the rare cases where the mother is incapable of safely caring for the child, no appropriate alternative placement is available, and the batterer is not found to be dangerous to his children (Bancroft & Silverman, 2002).

        Supervised visitation should be considered the norm for domestic violence cases (ABA Center for Children and the Law, 1994).  Bancroft and Silverman (2002, p. 173) propose the following tiered approach to visitation in which the batterer who is participating in specialized treatment is gradually moved toward more normal contact with his children:

  1. Visitation at a supervised visitation center
  2. Visitation supervised in the community by a trained supervisor
  3. Visitation supervised by friends or relatives
  4. Visits of 2 or 4 hours without supervision
  5. Daylong visits without supervision
  6. Overnight visitation (not recommended in most battering cases)

        

        Overnight visitation with batterers is generally discouraged (see ABA Center for Children and the Law, 1994; National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, 1994) and may be imposed to meet the needs of the batterer rather than the needs of the children.  Bancroft and Silverman (2002) recommend overnight visitation between a batterer and his children only under the following conditions:

  • the separation between the parents has occurred more than two years previously;
  • the children are 10 years or older;
  • based on an evaluation, the batterer is found not to be a serious risk to undermine the mother’s parenting or to abuse the children;
  • the batterer has completed or is completing a full year in a batterer program with good participation;
  • the children desire overnight visitation. (p. 174)

        Walker (2000) suggests that unsupervised visitation be monitored by giving older children access to a cell phone with telephone numbers programmed to reach the other parent or a neutral party to establish some power and control over their safety.  Older children should be permitted to spend time in prearranged activities or with friends when visiting with the other parent.  It is often appropriate to recommend removal of the child with the custodial mother to another state.  Visitation with the father should be carefully supervised and monitored for both the child’s and mother’s safety.

        Batterers are more likely than nonbatterers to seek custody, especially of their sons.  In many cases batterers use joint or shared custody as a way to continue to control the mother.  Although it may seem logical to try to mediate these conflicts or recommend joint custody as a way to keep the batterer in the child’s life, in fact, this arrangement has been found to continue the domestic violence itself as well as prevent the child and mother from healing.  In many domestic violence families with more than one child, the children are more likely to be divided, with one or more taking each parent’s side.  Despite the research, batterers are as likely as nonbatterers to be granted custody (APA, 1996; Liss & Stahly, 1993).  In over 2,000 disputed custody cases in Massachusetts, fathers won sole custody more than three times as often as did mothers and won at least joint custody in over 70% of contested cases (Gender Bias Study Committee, 1990).  Although visitation exchanges of children may be the most dangerous time for the victim and children, any attempts to protect herself and the children may be viewed by evaluators and courts as being “unfriendly” to the other parent.

        Although the courts are increasingly aware of the implications of domestic violence when making custody and visitation decisions, mental health professionals, lawyers, and judges are still naïve regarding the impact of domestic violence on children and the potential for further harm after their parents have separated.  We recommend that only highly trained custody evaluators with an area of specialty in domestic violence conduct these complex custody evaluations.

Conclusions

        In summary, it is clear from the empirical and clinical literature that children who live in homes where they are exposed to domestic violence are at higher risk to develop cognitive, emotional, and social problems.  These problems respond to different interventions.  Paramount is children’s need for safety and protection from the psychological manipulation of the batterer as well as possible physical and sexual abuse.  In some cases, children exposed to domestic violence need psychotherapy intervention to learn better control over emotional dysregulation and behavior, as well as to learn self-protection techniques.  It is up to mental health professionals and the courts to protect children who have been exposed to domestic violence until they are able to control their lives and protect themselves.  Within domestically violent families, mothers’, fathers’, and children’s needs may compete with each other, which makes it critical for mental health professionals involved in child custody litigation with allegations of domestic violence to keep the focus on the best interests of the child.

References

American Bar Association Center for Children and the Law. (1994). The Impact of Domestic Violence on Children: A Report to the President of the American Bar Association. Washington, DC: Author.

American Psychological Association. (1996). Report of the Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family. Washington, DC: Author.

Bancroft, L., & Silverman, J. G. (2002). The Batterer as Parent: Addressing the Impact of Domestic Violence on Family Dynamics (Sage Series on Violence Against Women). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Children’s Defense Fund. (1998). The State of America’s Children. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Cicchetti, D., & Cohen, D. J. (1995). Perspectives on developmental psychopathology. In D. Cicchetti & D. J. Cohen (Eds.), Developmental Psychopathology (Vol. 1, pp. 3-20). New York: Wiley.

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Kathryn Kuehnle, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Florida Mental Health Institute’s Department of Mental Health Law and Policy at the University of South Florida.  She is also a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Tampa, Florida, where she specializes in the evaluation of children alleged to have been sexually abused and in the treatment of maltreated children and other victims of family violence.  She regularly serves as a consultant to legal and education professionals, child protection teams, and other community agencies.  She has conducted numerous workshops nationally and internationally on topics related to child maltreatment.  She is published in peer review journals, has authored six book chapters, and is the author of Assessing Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse.  Dr. Kuehnle is currently conducting research focused on chidren exposed to domestic violence and interventions for maltreating parents.  She also teaches classes (i.e., Child Maltreatment; Community and Family Violence) at the University of South Florida and conducts seminars for psychology interns on evaluating and treating sexually abused children.  She is Past President of the Division of Children, Adolescents, and Families, and Past Chair of the Ethics Committee of the Florida Psychological Association, and was a member of the Florida Supreme Court Court Steering Committee.


Lenore E. A. Walker, EdD, is a Professor of Psychology in the Center for Psychological Studies at Nova Southeastern University and coordinates their doctoral forensic psychology concentration.  She also teaches in the Criminal Justice Institute and is the Executive Director of the Domestic Violence Institute, a not-for-profit organization with 13 affiliate centers around the world, providing education and training, research, and policy initiatives in the area of family violence.  She has maintained an independent psychology practice for over 30 years, is a licensed psychologist in three states (Florida, New Jersey, and Colorado), and currently practices forensic psychology in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.  Dr. Walker introduced the concept of Battered Woman Syndrome and its relevance in designing assessment and treatment programs.  She also pioneered the use of BWS in the courts, helping juries understand why a battered woman could fail to leave a battering relationship, and providing testimony on why a battered woman might be justified in killing her abuser in self-defense.  She presents invited international speeches and workshops on domestic violence topics and policy issues.  Dr. Walker holds diplomates in both clinical and family psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology.  She has authored 12 books and over 50 professional articles on the topics of trauma from interpersonal violence and gender issues, especially feminist and survivor therapy systems.

1. Advocates who work with domestic violence victims and batterers stress that the definition of domestic violence includes

  • a. stalking and false imprisonment.
  • b. psychological maltreatment.
  • c. emotional as well as physical abuse.
  • d. the misuse of power and control by the batterer toward the victim.

2. According to Wisner et al. (1999), what percentage of female homicides in the United States are the result of domestic violence?

  • a. 15%
  • b. 22%
  • c. 42%
  • d. 58%

3. Which of the following is not an accurate summary of cited research about the public health implications of intimate partner violence?

  • a. Thirteen percent of adults recall, as children, witnessing violent incidents between their parents.
  • b. Battered women report that the majority of the time, during domestic violence, their children are either in the same room or in the next room.
  • c. Children often provide detailed recollections of domestic violence that their parents report the children supposedly did not witness.
  • d. Children are killed during two-fifths of domestic violence homicides and attempted homicides.

4. A prolonged stress response or chronic posttraumatic stress reaction has been linked to changes in the functioning of the

  • a. hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.
  • b. prefrontal cortex.
  • c. ventral striatum.
  • d. hippocampus.

5. Recent studies of girls who _______________________ indicate that over 95% were exposed to domestic violence in their homes.

  • a. became pregnant as teenagers
  • b. were arrested for delinquency
  • c. dropped out of high school
  • d. all of the above

6. On the basis of mothers’ reports,

  • a. child abuse was associated, overall, with more negative outcomes than exposure to marital violence.
  • b. children who were exposed to marital violence, child abuse, or a combination of both did not differ significantly in terms of childhood depression.
  • c. exposure to marital violence showed a stronger association with children’s externalizing problems than did exposure to child abuse.
  • d. 45% to 70% of children exposed to domestic violence are also victims of physical abuse.

7. Children exposed to domestic violence are at higher risk for sexual abuse; they are ______________ times more likely to experience sexual abuse by a mother’s partner (McCloskey et al., 1995).

  • a. 2 to 4
  • b. 5 to 7
  • c. 8 to 10
  • d. 12 to 14

8. As a result of a batterer’s psychological manipulation, children who are exposed to domestic violence typically view their

  • a. mothers more negatively than they view their battering fathers.
  • b. home life as normal.
  • c. mothers’ battering as their fault.
  • d. all of the above

9. When allegations of domestic violence are embedded within custody litigation, problems with custody evaluations have included which of the following?

  • a. the evaluators’ subjective opinions that domestic violence is a legal manipulation by the victim
  • b. failure to investigate allegations of abuse through consulting third-party sources of information
  • c. failure to understand the basic dynamics of domestic violence
  • d. all of the above

10. Custody should be awarded to batterers only in the rare cases where

  • a. the mother is incapable of safely caring for the child.
  • b. no appropriate alternative placement is available.
  • c. the batterer is not found to be dangerous to his children.
  • d. all of the above

Evaluation Form

License Number (letters and numbers):

1. By participating in this program, I acquired new conceptual knowledge relevant to my professional activities.

  • Strongly Agree
  • Agree
  • Neutral or Undecided
  • Disagree
  • Strongly Disagree

2. By participating in this program, I acquired new practical knowledge relevant to my professional activities.

  • Strongly Agree
  • Agree
  • Neutral or Undecided
  • Disagree
  • Strongly Disagree

3. I found the test questions increased my understanding of the materials in the Children Exposed to Domestic Violence text.

  • Strongly Agree
  • Agree
  • Neutral or Undecided
  • Disagree
  • Strongly Disagree

4. The test questions were written at an appropriate level of difficulty.

  • Strongly Agree
  • Agree
  • Neutral or Undecided
  • Disagree
  • Strongly Disagree

5. The program material was presented clearly, effectively, and in an organized manner.

  • Strongly Agree
  • Agree
  • Neutral or Undecided
  • Disagree
  • Strongly Disagree

6. The authors communicated clearly, effectively, and with a teaching style that was appropriate for the subject matter.

  • Strongly Agree
  • Agree
  • Neutral or Undecided
  • Disagree
  • Strongly Disagree

7. The authors demonstrated a thorough knowledge and expertise in the subject area.

  • Strongly Agree
  • Agree
  • Neutral or Undecided
  • Disagree
  • Strongly Disagree

8. The content was appropriate for post-graduate education.

  • Strongly Agree
  • Agree
  • Neutral or Undecided
  • Disagree
  • Strongly Disagree

9. This program met its stated learning objectives by explaining how exposure to domestic violence affects children.

  • Strongly Agree
  • Agree
  • Neutral or Undecided
  • Disagree
  • Strongly Disagree

10. This program met its stated learning objectives by discussing the public health implications of domestic violence.

  • Strongly Agree
  • Agree
  • Neutral or Undecided
  • Disagree
  • Strongly Disagree

11. This program met its stated learning objectives by explaining the relationship between domestic violence and child abuse.

  • Strongly Agree
  • Agree
  • Neutral or Undecided
  • Disagree
  • Strongly Disagree

12. This program met its stated learning objectives by presenting factors in conducting custody evaluations when there are allegations of domestic abuse.

  • Strongly Agree
  • Agree
  • Neutral or Undecided
  • Disagree
  • Strongly Disagree

13. How much did you learn as a result of this CE program?

  • 1 - Very little
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5 - Great deal

14. How useful was the content of this CE program for your practice or other professional development?

  • 1 - Not useful
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5 - Extremely useful

15. Approximately how many hours did it take you to read the Children Exposed to Domestic Violence text AND complete the CE program?

  • 1 hour
  • 2 hours
  • 3 hours
  • 4 hours
  • Other

16. Please list specific topics you would like to see covered in future continuing education programs:

17. Other comments and suggestions: