The Link Between Child Abuse
And Domestic Violence
Bio: Child Protection Leader is published quarterly by the American Humane Association, Children's Division, presenting timely information on significant issues related to the protection of children and strengthening of families. The printing of this article is with the permission of the American Humane Association - Child Protection Leader. Additional copies may be requested by writing to AHA-Child Protection Leader 63 Inverness Drive East, Englewood, CO 80112-5117, or by phoning (303) 7982-9900 or FAX (303) 7982-5333. If you are interested in finding out more about the American Humane Association please click onto their name found on our links section of our website.
A growing body of research points to a definite link between adult domestic violence and child abuse. These connections are pervasive. Forty-five to seventy percent of battered women in shelters report that their batterers have also committed some form of child abuse. Even using the more conservative figure, child abuse is 15 times more likely to occur in households where adult domestic violence is also present. Women who have been beaten by their spouses are, in turn, reportedly twice as likely as other women to abuse a child. It is also estimated that 3.3. million to 10 million children witness domestic violence each year. Many child witnesses of domestic violence experience increased problems themselves.
These connections make it important for those working in the field of child abuse and neglect to understand the connection between spousal abuse and child abuse, and to respond with treatment and protective resources that recognize the link. Cooperation between professionals working with battered women and abused or neglected children is essential. In practice, formal connections between the two fields are not often in place. They are sorely needed, however, beginning with the initial intake contact with the abused child or battered women, and continuing through assessment of the precipitating incident and family interaction, treatment planning, intervention strategies, and evaluations of client progress.
A variety of family dynamics are at work in homes where spouse abuse leads to child abuse or neglect. Sometimes a child is the unintended victim when he or she attempts to intervene in an attack on a parent. In other instances, a child is accidentally struck by a blow directed at the mother. However, many children are deliberate targets in violent households. The severity of child abuse, and the manner in which children are abused bears a strong resemblance to the type of maltreatment experienced by their mothers.
More difficult for many to understand is the battered woman who abuses or neglects her children. According to those who work with battered woman, several explanations are possible. In an effort to forestall further violence, some battered women devote all their attention to their abuser, or they withdraw from the family -- even the children -- in an effort to protect themselves. Both responses may result in child neglect. The tremendous stress associated with living in a violent situation may also prompt physical abuse of children by those women at risk for such behaviors. Some physical or emotional abuse of children also results from battered women who are so fearful of their spouse's reaction of childhood behavior that they overdiscipline in an attempt to protect the children from what they perceive to be the greater danger from the batterer.
Even in households in which children are not themselves physically abused or neglected, they can be victimized by witnessing spousal abuse. Because children do not fully understand the dynamics of domestic violence, they may come to view power and control, aggression and violence as the only means of getting one's needs met. Children may also imitate the violent adult behavior they observe by victimizing younger siblings, peers, and animals. Other children may adopt the victim role, becoming passive and withdrawn in their interactions with other people. Child witnesses of domestic violence may also display an inability to control and express emotion, or to delay gratification.
Only recently have helping professionals begun to coordinate interventions in child abuse and domestic violence. Further work is needed to develop joint screening mechanisms to identify families in which both types of abuse play a role in family dynamics. Assessments must also consider whether a parent has the capacity to care for her children outside of a violent situation. Intervention strategies must recognize the need for safety for victims of both spousal abuse and child abuse through services such as legal advocacy and shelter resources. When both women and children are victims, treatment modalities must not reinforce the idea that the battered spouse is somehow to blame for the violence within the family, e.g., by labeling her a poor parent and mandating attendance at parenting classes. Individual or unisex group counseling may be the more effective treatment modality and may be less risky than joint family counseling when the spouse is also a victim. Most importantly, professionals working in both fields must not lose sight of their ultimate goal -- ending violence within families.
References and Research Information
Schechter & Edleson (1994), In the Best Interest of Women and Children.
McKay, M. M. "The Link between Domestic Violence and Child Abuse:
Assessment and Treatment Considerations", Child Welfare, Volume IXXIII, No. 1 (1994) pp29-39.
Cummings, N. & Mooney, A., "Child Protective Workers and Battered Women's Advocates: A Strategy for Family Violence Intervention", Response, Vol. 11, No. 2 (1988) pp. 4-9.
Atuire, A. "Child Witnesses of Domestic Violence", Colorado Domestic Violence Coalition Newsletter, Summer, 1992.