National District Attorneys Association



Volume 16, Number 2, 2003


Strategies for Handling Cases where Children Witness Domestic Violence

By Allison Turkel1 and Christina Shaw2

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

- Helen Keller

Children do not have to be the direct physical victims of domestic violence to be scarred by what they see. Although every child will process this experience differently, witnessing domestic violence can have a lasting effect.

This article is the second in a two-part series dealing with the interrelation of domestic violence and child abuse. Methods for domestic violence and child abuse systems to collaborate will be explored and innovative programs will be highlighted.

Differing Agendas?

Domestic violence advocates and child protection workers are often thought to have separate and conflicting agendas. Domestic violence advocates have several fears:

  • Child protection agencies will automatically remove children from a home where there is domestic violence.3

  • If criminal sanctions are implemented which make witnessing domestic violence a child abuse crime, or if witnessing domestic violence is included under child endangerment statutes, women may be charged with failure to protect their children.4

  • Battered women will lose custody of their children if enhancements are made to either the charge or the sentence for existing assault statutes when children are present during an assault.5

Child advocates also have fears:

  • Without intervention, children living in violent homes will suffer emotional damage that may escalate to physical abuse or even death.

  • Without sanctions or sentencing enhancements for situations where children witness domestic violence, perpetrators will not be punished for the full weight of their crimes.

  • These fears can be calmed if efforts to protect women and children are coordinated and if the criteria for removal of children from a home are directly related to the overall well being of children, after thorough assessment and planning.


Service and safety plans must be implemented to address the needs of both the battered women and their children. These services should include counseling for both, as well as long-term shelter to independence programs—including job training, parenting classes, life skills and long term transition services. The reality is that many of these families will reunite; thus it is essential that the court mandate batterer intervention programs for the batterer—both with prison sentences and as conditions of probation or parole. Additionally, domestic violence victims may be more inclined to cooperate in the prosecution if intervention for the batterer is part of any disposition. Further, service providers should be notified that there are children in the home and that they, too, were impacted by the abuse of their mom.

To achieve this level of coordination, organization at the community level is essential. Domestic violence advocates and investigators should serve on child abuse multidisciplinary teams and vice versa. Similarly, health care and therapeutic providers, alcohol and drug assistance programs, school personnel, clergy, and probation officers should be incorporated into community councils and multidisciplinary teams. Resources must be allocated to fund and train child abuse hotline workers, child protective services personnel, investigators, prosecutors and service providers.

Coordination between involved courts is also essential in these complex matters. In some jurisdictions, orders of protection can only be issued in divorce court, or when a criminal case is pending. Neither of these exclusive venues deals with the overall family safety issue. Coordination between criminal court, family court, and divorce court can reduce duplication of efforts, allow service providers to access victims and perpetrators early on in the court processes, and utilize the full weight of the civil and criminal justice system to devise and monitor a safety plan. Orders of protection, no contact orders, and visitation centers should be utilized to protect the children as well as the adult domestic violence victim. Only with coordination among the multiple agencies and institutions will domestic violence and child abuse be handled in a comprehensive way that holds the batterer responsible criminally and civilly while protecting women and children.


Police investigating domestic violence and/or child abuse incidents need to treat these cases as crimes. Crime scenes should be established, witnesses interviewed, and perpetrators interrogated. A multidisciplinary team should examine any child interviews and brainstorm ways to corroborate the child’s statements.6 As in a standard child abuse case, all forms of out-of-court statements should be collected.7 The crime scene should be photographed and 911 tapes collected.

Officers should always ascertain if children were present in the home during a domestic violence incident. Once the scene is secured and any medical needs have been attended to, all witnesses and victims should be interviewed separately. Existing protocols for handling child abuse victims should be adapted for children exposed to domestic violence. If possible, only limited questioning should occur at the scene. Investigators trained in linguistics, child development and forensic interviewing should conduct an in-depth investigative interview in a child-friendly environment, such as a child advocacy center. Officers should also inquire if other children live in the home even if they were not present, as those children need to be located and interviewed as well. Conversely, when responding to a report of child abuse, families must be screened for the occurrence of domestic violence.8

When families receive social services, child protective services typically have a mandate to monitor these families. If properly trained, those workers and investigators can assess how the children are doing and whether their role as witnesses to the domestic violence crime has any impact on their safety. An opportunity is created to assist battered women and their children with other related familial and social problems, such as substance abuse and mental health issues. Workers can also coordinate with the prosecutor’s office and victim advocates to expedite the prosecution and utilize court preparation programs available for child witnesses. When child protective services become involved, therapeutic intervention can be mandated and safety services for women and children can and should be instituted.

A thorough assessment of a domestic violence situation also involves addressing the involvement or negligence of battered women in the abuse and/or neglect of the children. While it cannot be automatically assumed that a victim of domestic violence is accountable for allowing her child to witness the violence, it cannot be assumed she is blameless. There will be situations where prosecuting women for complicity in harm to their children is appropriate. These issues must be properly analyzed and investigated so that women are not seen as per se accountable when they are victims of domestic violence.9 The U. S. District Court, in In re Nicholson, found the practice of treating battered women as per se accountable for abuse when their children witnessed domestic violence was a violation of the due process rights of these women. The New York child welfare agency (ACS) had adopted a practice of removing children of battered mothers reasoning that mothers “engaged in” domestic violence by being victims of such violence and that the children had been witnesses.10 The court ordered preliminary injunctive relief to battered mothers and their children.

Collaborative Efforts

The San Diego Family Justice Center is the nation’s most comprehensive “one stop shop” for victims of family violence and their children. Rather than be referred to multiple agencies, victims of domestic violence can do everything—e.g, get a restraining order, talk with police and prosecutors, receive medical assistance and needed counseling services for themselves and their children—all in one location. For more information, visit their website at or call (866) 933-HOPE (4673).

The Child Witness to Violence Project (CWVP) at Boston University Medical Center in Massachusetts provides counseling, advocacy, and outreach to children under the age of eight who witness violence in their home or community.11 A multicultural, multilingual staff of social workers, psychologists, early childhood specialists, and a consulting child psychiatrist operate the CWVP and handle hundreds of referrals a year. A lawyer on the CWVP staff works on policy issues and provides training in family law and domestic violence. For more information, see the Child Witness to Violence Project website at or call (617) 414-4244.

Minnesota Rural Project for Women and Child Safety is a grant-funded project of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women (MCBW) and the Minnesota Crime Victim Services (MCVS), a division of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.12 The project began in March 2000 to develop statewide protocols and collaborative training for cases in which domestic violence and child abuse overlap.13 For more information, visit their website at

Points to Remember

  • Child abuse professionals should be trained on the dynamics of domestic violence.

  • Domestic violence professionals should be trained on the dynamics of child abuse, child development and child linguistics.

  • 911 operators need to be trained about the dynamics of domestic violence, and techniques for communicating with children.

  • When responding to DV incidents, law enforcement must check for any children (whether at home or elsewhere) and assess their well-being and witness status. Protocols should be established for reporting these incidents to the child abuse hot line and involving child protective services.

  • Civil and criminal domestic violence and child abuse proceedings and resources need to be coordinated.

  • Victim advocates, prosecutors, child protective services and the police should be involved with the adult and child victims of domestic violence throughout the case to provide needed services, to monitor their safety and guard against recantation.

  • Service and safety plans should be implemented to address the needs of both the woman and her children. No contact orders and orders of protection should be enforced.

  • Court preparation resources and child friendly court adjustments need to be made available for all child witnesses, and child hearsay laws ought to be used if applicable.

  • Evidence-based prosecution strategies, coupled with a thorough and coordinated investigation, hedge against the likely odds of recantation later. Interviews of the DV victim and child should be recorded (audio or video)(if appropriate). If in a grand jury jurisdiction, consider having your DV victim testify and “lock in” her statements. Pro-prosecution policies are appropriate even in cases with child witnesses.


Communities need to coordinate their efforts to stop the cycle of violence and reduce the high cost of domestic violence and child abuse. Only by holding batterers accountable for their actions, for the danger they pose to their victims and the children of their victims, and for the legacy of violence that permeates this society can we uphold the true promise of the American family.


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 Nicholson v Williams, 203 F. Supp. 2d 153 (aka Nicholson v. Scoppetta).
4Edelson, J. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14, 839-870, Children’s Witnessing of Adult Domestic Violence. (1999).
5 Id.
6 Vieth, Victor; When a Child Stands Alone: The Search for Corroborating Evidence, Update, Volume 12, Number 6, June 1999, APRI’s National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse.
7 See FRE 803, Exceptions to the Hearsay Rule (excited utterances, present sense impressions, statements for purposes of medical diagnosis or treatment, then existing mental, emotional, or physical condition, etc.)
8 CPS has to be careful that the batterer does not use the child protection system as a sword against the victim. Battered women face a difficult predicament: how to protect themselves and their children from their abusive partners, and how to support and protect themselves and their children once they leave. See Effective Intervention in Domestic Violence & Maltreatment Cases: Guidelines for Policy and Practice. National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. (1999).
9 Spears, L. Building Bridges Between Domestic Violence Organizations and Child Protective Services (2000).
10 In re Nicholson, 2001 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22322.
11 Betsy McAlister Groves, Children Who SeeToo Much: Lessons from the Child Witness to Violence Project, Beacon Press, Boston, 2002.
12 Minnesota Rural Project for Women and Child Safety, Mid-project summary report, August 2001 (as viewed on on December 18, 2002).
13 Id.