Journal Issue: Domestic Violence and Children Volume 9 Number 3 Winter 1999
Today, domestic violence1 is recognized as a serious societal problem in the United States. Yet, children in families in which such violence occurs have remained largely invisible as victims.2 Concern about children's exposure to domestic violence3 is increasing, however, in light of a growing body of knowledge regarding the prevalence and effects of childhood exposure to domestic violence. Research suggests that between 3.3 million and 10 million children in the United States are exposed to domestic violence each year.4 And more than a decade of empirical studies indicates that this exposure can have significant negative effects on children's behavioral, emotional, social, and cognitive development.5
Families affected by domestic violence touch all service systems and live in every community. Children exposed to domestic violence are in our schools, day-care centers, health care institutions, child welfare systems, and other agency settings. Law enforcement personnel have contact with children exposed to domestic violence through on-site police responses to domestic violence calls. Virtually every branch of our court system handles cases involving domestic violence. Though domestic violence cuts across the economic spectrum, poor families are more likely to be affected.6 In fact, many families in which domestic violence is present struggle with multiple problems, including poverty, substance abuse, and exposure to other forms of violence.7 For example, current research indicates that in 30% to 60% of families experiencing either domestic violence or child maltreatment, the other form of violence is also present.8
In response to the growing awareness of the potential harm to children exposed to domestic violence, a wide range of agencies and service providers are developing intervention policies and practices. Professional organizations, including the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Psychological Association, have published intervention recommendations, convened task forces, commissioned reports, or sponsored conferences to address this problem.9 Community-based domestic violence organizations, many of which have served battered women and their children for more than two decades, have expanded their children's services to provide more comprehensive responses. Through cross-agency collaborations, innovative pilot programs are being implemented at various sites throughout the country to offer mental health services to children exposed to domestic violence and improve law enforcement responses to domestic violence incidences in which children are present. Policymakers are devoting increased attention to this issue, and several states have passed legislation, especially in the family law area, designed to improve outcomes for children exposed to domestic violence.
Though many of these approaches hold promise, few programs have been evaluated. It is difficult to find funding for intervention programs in this field, and even more difficult to obtain adequate funding for thorough evaluations. Yet, without this research, policymakers cannot determine which interventions yield the best results, and service providers do not have the quantitative information they need to improve programs and justify their long-term support.
This article summarizes the current knowledge to date regarding the prevalence and effects of childhood exposure to domestic violence. The article describes current responses to this problem by the multiple service systems with which children exposed to domestic violence have contact, and addresses what we know about how well these responses work. The article also discusses federal and state laws that affect these children and their families, proposes recommendations for improvements to these interventions, and explores strategies to prevent domestic violence. Despite the limitations in current research regarding the efficacy of programs for children exposed to domestic violence, the potential harms to these children necessitate action. Sweeping policy changes are premature, given our limited understanding of their potential impact. However, short of such changes, there is much work that can be done to improve interventions for children affected by domestic violence.