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Journal Issue: Domestic Violence and Children Volume 9 Number 3 Winter 1999

Mental Health Services for Children Who Witness Domestic Violence
Betsy McAlister Groves


Exposure to domestic violence has significant negative repercussions for children's social, emotional, and academic functioning. In the past decade, mental health professionals have developed treatment programs and approaches aimed at mitigating these deleterious effects. Their efforts, however, are often hampered by difficulty identifying and gaining access to the target population because the occurrence of domestic violence remains a family secret in many households.

Clinicians and researchers have published descriptions of group and individual therapy approaches for children who witness domestic violence. These approaches share several goals: promoting open discussion about children's experiences with domestic violence, helping children to deal with the emotions and consequences that follow such exposure, reducing the problematic symptoms children experience, strengthening children's relationships with their nonabusive caregivers, and helping children and their families to create and maintain relationships and living situations that are free from violence and abuse. One limitation of the literature describing these interventions is the absence of controlled outcome studies demonstrating the effects of these programs, in the short and long terms. Thus, development of such evaluative components is an important future direction for this field. Some of the other challenges that confront clinicians include working with children's families, addressing children's complex and intense emotional experiences, and determining whether children have themselves been victims of abuse or neglect (and then interfacing with child protective services).