Thursday, March 30, 2017

Children Who Witness Violence

June 26, 2014 by Ruth Reichard

I once heard a judge compare her civil protection order docket to an emergency room—especially the ex parte cases. What an apt comparison!

Judges and court staff often deal with people who have been physically, mentally, and emotionally traumatized when they consider ex parte protection orders. Violence of any kind is traumatic to human beings, and children, who lack the experience and coping skills of adults, are among the most vulnerable to trauma. Over the past several years, researchers have been studying just how frequently the nation’s children are exposed to violence, including family violence.

Most people realize that family violence—whether it takes the form of child abuse, elder/endangered adult abuse, or intimate partner abuse—is a crime that primarily happens in the home. However, that does not mean there are never witnesses to the incident.

In a 2002 Justice Department study of intimate partner violence in sixteen large urban court systems around the country, researchers looked at 3,750 criminal cases (mostly misdemeanors). They found that even though most incidents occurred in the victim’s residence, in over half of them a witness was present—and half of those witnesses were children (Smith and Farole, “Profile of Intimate Partner Violence Cases in Large Urban Counties,” October 2009, NCJ 228193).

That statistic pertains only to those cases that go to court; of course, many cases of domestic violence are never reported to the police (Truman, Langton, and Planty, “Criminal Victimization 2012,” October 2013, NCJ 243389). When they did not confine their scope to only cases in the court system, researchers in one study estimated that approximately 15.5 million children are exposed to intimate partner violence every year, with seven million living in households where they have witnessed severe partner violence (McDonald, Jouriles, et al., “Estimating the Number of American Children Living in Partner-Violent Families,” Journal of Family Psychology 20, no. 1 (2006): 137-142). However it’s counted, this is a significant number.

Children can be exposed to intimate partner violence in several different ways:

  • seeing violent acts
  • hearing violent acts
  • being assaulted during the incident
  • seeing the injuries resulting from the violence
  • being told about the violence
  • experiencing the aftermath, such as their parents’ depression, or having to relocate

(Holden, “Children Exposed to Domestic Violence and Child Abuse: Terminology and Taxonomy,” Clinical Child and Family Psychology Rev. 6, no. 3 (Sept. 2003), 152.)
In early 2008, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sponsored the most comprehensive national study yet of children’s exposure to violence—the NatSCEV, or National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence. Researchers surveyed 4,500 children aged 17 and younger, and measured their exposure to violence over both their lifetimes and in the past year, in seven categories:

  • Conventional crime
  • Child maltreatment
  • Victimization by peers and siblings
  • Sexual victimization
  • Witnessing and indirect victimization (including exposure to community and family violence)
  • School violence and threats
  • Internet victimization

The NatSCEV study found that more than one in nine (11%) children were exposed to some form of family violence in the past year: one in 15 (6.6%) were exposed to physical assaults between their parents (or a parent and his/her intimate partner); and, 5.7% of children were exposed to psychological or emotional abuse, including verbal threats, punching walls, or throwing, breaking, or destroying household items.

In fact, the type of violent behavior children most often reported within their families in the previous year involved seeing a parent punch a wall, break something, or throw things. With respect to lifetime exposure, the study found that one in four (26%) of children were exposed to at least one form of family violence during their lifetimes; most youth exposed to family violence—including 90% of those exposed to intimate partner violence—saw the violence, as opposed to having heard it.
Sixty-eight (68%) per cent of the youth reported witnessing violence by males; father figures were the most common perpetrators of family violence, according to this study. However, assaults by mothers and other caregivers were also common.

How did the children report reacting to the family violence? Nearly half of them, 49.9%, reported that they yelled at the adults to stop; 43.9% told researchers that they tried to get away; and, 23.6% reported calling for help.

How does exposure to domestic violence affect children? Experts generally agree that the effects depend on the child’s age and developmental level, but all children who witness family violence are at greater risk for physical and mental health problems, disruptive behavior, and problems with school and peer relationships. Additionally, they may fear losing a parent through injury or death, or worry that the violence is somehow their fault.

If children are themselves also being maltreated (a situation known as polyvictimization), these adverse effects intensify (Report of the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, December, 2012, p. 5). Children’s exposure to family violence is a serious and daunting problem, and judges and court staff often find themselves on the front lines of this problem. To the extent possible, court professionals need to educate themselves on domestic violence, allow advocates to screen for family violence at intake sessions (such as when protection order or dissolution cases are filed by pro se litigants), refer nonoffending parents to advocates for safety planning and other resources, and collaborate with other professionals who might come into contact with the family to make sure that there is a coordinated delivery of services.

We all agree that children deserve safe, nurturing homes, and the best way to prevent domestic violence in future generations is to make sure that children exposed to their parents’ violent behavior know that it is not their fault, and have access to services that will help them recover and heal.

Photo of Ruth ReichardIf any judicial officer needs a consultation regarding the subject of this article or any other matter involving family violence, contact Ruth Reichard at 317-233-0784 or