National District Attorneys Association



Volume 16, Number 1, 2003


Domestic Violence Basics for Child Abuse Professionals

By Allison Turkel1 and Christina Shaw2

A frantic call to 911 sends the police to a local home, responding to a report of domestic violence. They have been called to this house before; a couple married for seven years fights often, and the wife typically ends up in the emergency room but she vigorously opposes charges against her husband. She has a secret fear that if she does, he will kill her or hurt her children. Their five-year-old daughter made the call, frantic because Daddy was hitting Mommy with a chair and her baby brother was in the room. Police arrive at the scene to find Mom with visible injuries, Dad in the back yard smoking a cigarette, and the five-year-old in the corner of the living room, hovering over her baby brother’s carriage to protect him.

This is domestic violence. Domestic violence is more than woman battering. It is a constellation of offenses and crimes that occur in the home and among people who are related or who have, or have had, intimate relationships.

Domestic violence can include harassment, emotional and psychological abuse, threats, violation of court orders (e.g., orders of protection, and no-contact orders), assault/battery, sex offenses, stalking, burglary, theft, embezzlement, destruction of property, kidnapping, child abduction, child abuse and homicide. Many of these behaviors are precursors to more serious violence, and impact the well being of not only the immediate victim but also of others in the home.

Definitions of domestic violence vary by jurisdiction, but the parties commonly include spouses, former spouses, people related by blood, people who are currently co-habitating, formerly co-habitating, individuals who share a child and those involved in a dating relationship. Most states include same sex couples in their criminal statutes. Because domestic violence occurs between people who love or have loved one another or who are related, the dynamics are complicated and difficult.

Each year, approximately one million violent crimes are committed against intimates (defined as current or former spouses, girlfriends or boyfriends). Such crimes are traditionally termed intimate partner violence and committed primarily against women.3 However, these statistics only reflect reported crimes and only those categorized as “violent”. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), male intimate partners commit approximately one in three homicides of females.4 Among male homicide victims, five percent are killed by intimate partners.5

Over the last 10 years there has been increased attention to the investigation and prosecution of domestic violence. Police departments are adopting pro-arrest policies—arresting the perpetrator even with no complaint brought by the victim—and prosecutors are proceeding with the prosecution even without the cooperation of the victims.

Effects of Domestic Violence on Children

In the last five to 10 years, a growing body of research has examined the effects of domestic violence on children and exposed the interrelated nature of domestic violence and child abuse.6 Among 30% to 60% of families where either child physical abuse or woman battering was identified, the other form of violence was also present.7 Further, battered women are at least twice as likely to abuse their children physically as are non–abused women. Children who live in violent homes are at risk for observing adult domestic violence, violence to their siblings, elder abuse, animal abuse, or being abused themselves.8 They are also at high risk for being neglected.9

Each year, an estimated one million children are victims of child abuse and neglect in the United States, and approximately 1,100-2,000 children are murdered.10 11 It is estimated that between 3.3 and 10 million children witness domestic violence every year.12 Children who both witness domestic violence and are subject to abuse and neglect suffer the greatest long-term effects and are thought to be more likely to engage in aggressive behaviors themselves.13 However, solely witnessing domestic violence can have long-term and varied effects on children. Children do not sleep through domestic violence. They may not see the violence as it is happening, but they may hear the angry voices and their mothers’ cries for help. They may see the damaged property and their mothers’ injuries. Children may be sworn to silence or asked to cover for the abusers when the police arrive. Where are children likely to be found when the police arrive? The resounding answer from law enforcement officers—hiding under the bed or in the closet, or more dangerously, between the adults trying to quell the attack.

Each child adapts to and accommodates the experience of domestic violence differently, depending on the child’s mental health, stability of the home, personal safety, and longevity and severity of the abuse. Most studies, however, strongly indicate that the effects are varied and can impact children’s daily functioning. Children from violent homes are at higher risk of truancy and school drop out, emotional distress, guilt, health problems and delinquency, along with significant long term effects, such as PTSD, drug and alcohol abuse. These children exhibit six times higher risk for suicide and higher risk for intergenerational abuse as either victims or perpetrators of domestic violence.14 Additionally, there is a strong link between children witnessing domestic violence and becoming criminals themselves as adults.

Not surprisingly, children assume a variety of roles in the family in response to the violence in their home. One may be the hero who takes on the perpetrator or steps in as parent, another may be the clown. Some children become delinquent and act out, others become withdrawn. All of these roles interfere with the child’s healthy development and self-esteem.


America’s social institutions have developed separate and distinct responses to domestic violence and child abuse. The systems established to ease the investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases have not been widely utilized to assist in the investigation and prosecution of domestic violence cases, nor have approaches designed for domestic violence cases been applied to child abuse cases. Given the correlation between intimate partner abuse and child abuse, it can not be assumed that children in these violent homes are unaffected by witnessing violence or that they are free from abuse and neglect themselves. Law enforcement, child protective services, prosecutors, victim advocates, and others who interact and provide services to abused and neglected children must receive training on domestic violence. Prosecutors in domestic violence units should tap the resources in their child abuse units to prepare children for court and maximize the services for battered women. Families are systems; thus, no assessment of the best interests of children can be complete without screening for domestic violence and screening for children witnessing domestic violence.

There is a school of thought that suggests reporting domestic violence to child protective services can expose the battered woman to victimization by the system, placing her at risk of losing custody of her children. However, removal of children is often not a necessity of CPS intervention. Agencies should institute training and policy that makes safety assessments the pivotal issue for social workers and investigators charged with determining what is in the best interest of children. CPS can assist a parent in accessing medical assistance, public assistance, affordable day care, mental health services and a myriad of other programs that can be instrumental in ending a child’s exposure to violence and keeping both mother and child safe.

The cycle of violence that isolates battered women and subjects them to the power and control of the abuser places children in the home at risk. Similarly, the emotional and economic interdependence created by abusive partners limits the ability of battered women to leave abuse situations. Yet, many women in abusive relationships expend much of their energy protecting their children. They frequently become empowered to leave if their children are threatened or abused by the batterer. However, when a woman leaves an abusive relationship she is at the highest risk for serious injury or death.15 Although shelter programs are effective for immediate safety issues, those that do not provide long-term housing transition, job training, parenting skills and counseling for children and abuse victims are inadequate band-aids for long-term change.

To facilitate safe separation from the batterer, a coordinated response to battered women and their children is essential. This coordination can help to heal the wounds inflicted by abuse, marshal resources and services to monitor the batterer when he is reunified with his family, truly create an environment for prevention. When criminal and civil justice systems put children first and hold the abusers responsible for their actions, the safety of children and their mothers is maximized.


Domestic violence is a major issue that affects adults and children alike. To maximize the effectiveness of both domestic violence and child abuse efforts, collaboration is essential. The second part of this Update will recommend some investigative and prosecutorial techniques for intervention and highlight some promising practices.



1 Senior Attorney, APRI’s National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse.
2 Staff Attorney, APRI’s National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse.
3 About 85% of violent victimizations by partners in 1999 were against women. The 1999 per capita rate of intimate partner violence against women was 6 victimizations per 1,000. Rennison, C.M., Bureau of Justice. Statistics, Special Report, Intimate Partner Violence and Age of Victim, 1993-1999, U.S. Department of Justice, October 28, 2001.
4 Centers for Disease Control, Surveillance for Homicide Among Intimate Partners-United States 1981-1998.
5 Centers for Disease Control, Surveillance for Homicide Among Intimate Partners- United States 1981-1998.
6 National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information: In Harm’s Way: Domestic Violence and Child Maltreatment, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, April 6, 2001.
7 Edelson, J.L. National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, The Overlap Between Child Maltreatment and Woman Battering, 1997.
8 National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information: In Harm’s Way: Domestic Violence and Child Maltreatment, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, April 6, 2001.
9 National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information: In Harm’s Way: Domestic Violence and Child Maltreatment, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, April 6, 2001.
10 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Child Maltreatment 1999: Reports from the States to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (Washington, DC): U.S. Government Printing Office, 2001.
11 The National Center on Child Fatality Review: Fact Sheet April 2001.
12 Carlson, B.E., Children’s Observations of Interparental Violence: Battered Women and their Families pp. 147-167: Springer (1984).
13 O’Keefe, M. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 10, 3-25 Predictors of Child Abuse in Maritally Violent Families. (1995).
14 Edelson, J. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14, 839-870, Children’s Witnessing of Adult Domestic Violence. (1999).
15 Rennison, C.M., Bureau of Justice Statistics, Special Report, Intimate Partner Violence and Age of Victim, 1993-1999, U.S. Department of Justice, October 28, 2001.