Thursday, July 11, 2013

Helping Survivors of Domestic Violence Keep Their Children Safe

Domestic violence has a huge impact on children, even if the abuse is not directly targeted at them. Every day in America, far too many children witness their mother being terrified, humiliated and assaulted by an abusive partner. According to the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV), 25.6% of children and youth have been exposed to family violence and 17.9% had witnessed a parent being physically assaulted by their partner.

The trauma experienced by children who live in homes with domestic violence can be significant and long-lasting. Even very young children are affected by the stress and tension their mother feels due to the abuse in a domestic violence relationship.  Exposure to domestic violence puts children at risk of having unhealthy relationships as adults. Further, children growing up in a home where abuse is the norm are more likely to become either perpetrators or survivors of domestic violence as adults.

In families where concerns for a child’s well-being are serious enough require the involvement of the child welfare system, it is crucial that child welfare professionals understand the complex needs of domestic violence survivors when considering potential interventions. Many survivors of domestic violence remain in abusive relationships because of barriers to safety such as lack of housing, counseling, employment and legal services to obtain protection orders, divorce and custody. If survivors and their children have support in overcoming such barriers, they often can rebuild their lives without the additional trauma of the children being removed from their parent and placed in foster care. The child welfare system has the potential to support child well-being through recognizing the dynamics of domestic violence in families and responding appropriately.

 Several states have taken steps to ensure that their child welfare systems are able to respond to domestic violence effectively and with sensitivity towards the specialized needs of children and survivors of domestic violence.  The Safe and Together model is being used in Connecticut, Florida, Missouri and Ohio to train child welfare professionals on how to work with families traumatized by domestic violence to achieve better outcomes for children. This model hinges on the basic principle that it is in the best interest of children to be safe and together with the non-offending parent or family member so that children can have the safety, stability and healing from trauma that they deserve. The model advocates for a partnership with the non-offending domestic violence survivor as the most effective and efficient way to promote the well-being of the children, as well as, when appropriate, intervention with perpetrators of domestic violence to help them build a healthier relationship with their children.
In addition to utilizing domestic-violence specific models, many states have instituted a Differential Response model in child welfare, which provides an alternative to the one-size-fits-all investigation approach to reports of child maltreatment. This allows child welfare professionals to assist families with a low to moderate risk of harm in accessing services to help address concerns about children’s well-being rather than taking the traditional investigative approach. This approach is not appropriate for all reports of child abuse and neglect; however, for many families-- including many survivors of domestic violence-- this alternative approach offers the opportunity to work in partnership with child welfare workers to ensure their children’s well-being.
In a randomized experimental study conducted in Minnesota comparing this alternative response to the  adversarial investigation’ approach, researchers found that families in the alternative response group had greater increases in child safety and a lower likelihood of a subsequent report of child maltreatment during the follow-up phase. Both families and child welfare workers were more satisfied with the alternative approach. This was achieved at a significantly lower cost which researchers found more than offset the initial investment costs of alternative response. Similar models are being implemented in a number of other states, and research in other states such as Nevada and Ohio has found similar positive outcomes.
State policymakers may wish to consider ways that policies can better meet the needs of survivors of domestic violence and their children, including trauma-informed services for child witnesses of domestic violence. They may also wish to evaluate the way the child welfare system responds to family violence, support systems of care in meeting the needs of families and advance research-informed approaches to achieving better outcomes for children and families who have experienced domestic violence.

For more information on promoting children’s social, emotional and behavioral health and  preventing child abuse and neglect, please visit For information on Strengthening Families, a successful approach to preventing child abuse and neglect, please visit

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