Any child who witnesses verbal or physical assaults on other family members grow up with a distorted view of the world. They are more likely to become victims or perpetrators of domestic family violence in their lifetime. We are responsible as a community and a nation for these lost children trying to find their place in the world.
Kelly Richards paper on “Children’s exposure to Domestic Violence in Australia” states
Children’s ‘witnessing’ or exposure to domestic violence has been increasingly recognised as a form of child abuse, both in Australia and internationally. Although it is difficult to accurately assess the scope of the problem, research has demonstrated that a substantial amount of domestic violence is witnessed by children. As this paper outlines, witnessing domestic violence can involve a range of incidents, ranging from the child ‘only’ hearing the violence, to the child being forced to participate in the violence or being used as part of a violent incident.
Current knowledge about the extent of children’s exposure to domestic violence in Australia is described, along with the documented impacts that this exposure can have on children. This includes psychological and behavioural impacts, health and socioeconomic impacts, and its link to the intergenerational transmission of violence and re-victimisation. Current legislative and policy initiatives are then described and some community-based programs that have been introduced in Australia to address the problem of children’s exposure to domestic violence are highlighted. The paper concludes that initiatives focused on early intervention and holistic approaches to preventing and responding to children’s exposure to domestic violence should be considered as part of strategies developed to address this problem.
Children who live in homes characterised by violence between parents, or directed at one parent by another, have been called the ‘silent’, ‘forgotten’, ‘unintended’, ‘invisible’ and/or ‘secondary’ victims of domestic violence (Edleson 1999; Kovacs & Tomison 2003; Tomison 2000). Recently, however, children’s exposure to domestic violence, and the effects that this exposure can have, has been increasingly recognised (Humphreys 2008). The concept of ‘witnessing’ domestic violence has, until recently, been only narrowly defined and there has increasingly been controversy about the use of this term. Although the stereotypical view of a child witnessing domestic violence is a child watching a fight between the mother and a male adult where there is both verbal and physical abuse, and the child is emotionally traumatized by the event (Kaufman Kantor & Little 2003: 346) The research literature (such as Edleson 1999; Humphreys 2007) demonstrates that witnessing can involve a much broader range of incidents, including the child: • hearing the violence; • being used as a physical weapon; • being forced to watch or participate in assaults; • being forced to spy on a parent; • being informed that they are to blame for the violence because of their behaviour; • being used as a hostage; • defending a parent against the violence; and/or • intervening to stop the violence. The research literature (eg Bedi & Goddard 2007; Edleson 1999; Gewirtz & Medhanie 2008; Kaufman Kantor & Little 2003; Tomison 2000) shows that in the aftermath of a violent incident, children’s exposure to domestic violence can involve:
• having to telephone for emergency assistance;
• seeing a parent’s injuries after the violence and having to assist in ‘patching up’ a parent;
• having their own injuries and/or trauma to cope with;
• dealing with a parent who alternates between violence and a caring role;
• seeing the parents being arrested; and
• having to leave home with a parent and/or dislocation from family, friends and school.
As Humphreys (2007: 12) argues, ‘describing this range of violent experiences as “witnessing” fails to capture the extent to which children may become embroiled in domestic violence’. In recent years, a range of terms, including ‘being exposed to violence’, ‘living with violence’ and ‘being affected by violence’ have emerged to describe the experiences of children from violent homes (Powell & Murray 2008)
The extent of children’s exposure to domestic violence There are a number of difficulties associated with assessing the extent of children’s exposure to domestic violence, including:
• this type of data is rarely collected by police (Gewirtz & Medhanie 2008).
This may partly be because children are not usually considered ‘ideal’ witnesses in court proceedings, for a variety of reasons (see Richards 2009) and because the focus has traditionally been on the primary victim of violence. Despite this, there are some signs that this is changing, in part because of an increased recognition of the impacts of children’s exposure to domestic violence and the increased use of mandatory reporting and interventions with families where adults and/or children are exposed to domestic violence;
• domestic violence incidents themselves being under-reported, resulting in a dearth of data on children’s involvement in such incidents (Gewirtz & Medhanie 2008); • parents underestimating the extent of children’s exposure to domestic violence (Edleson 1999; see also Brown & Endekov 2005);
• researchers focusing only on those cases known to professional services and therefore providing skewed assessments (Tomison 2000);
• researchers relying only on parental reports of violence (Edleson 1999); and
• under-reporting due to fear of family separation (Clements, Oxtoby & Ogle 2008; Meyer 2010). This may be particularly the case in relation toIndigenous families, given the history of government removal of children (Humphreys 2008, 2007). Despite these difficulties, a number of estimates about the extent of children’s exposure to domestic violence have been made in recent years. Pinheiro’s (2006) report for UNICEF estimated that between 133 million and 275 million children around the world witness frequent domestic violence each year.
In Australia, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (2005) Personal Safety Survey found that of all women who had experienced partner violence since the age of 15 years and had children in their care during the relationship, 59 percent reported that the violence had been witnessed by children, 37 percent that the violence had not been witnessed by children and four percent that they did not know whether the violence had been witnessed by children in their care (n=11,800).
The Australian component of the International Violence Against Women Survey found that of women who had experienced partner violence and had children living with them at the time, 36 percent reported that their children had witnessed a domestic violence incident (n=1,730; Mouzos & Makkai 2004). Taylor’s (2006) analysis of data from the ACT’s Family Violence Intervention Program database revealed that for the year 2003– 04, children were recorded as being present at 44 percent of domestic violence incidents (n=2,793).
A Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care study (cited in Flood & Fergus 2008) found that Indigenous children were significantly more likely to have witnessed physical violence against their mother or stepmother than the ‘average’ child respondent (ie compared with all child respondents).
Forty-two percent of Indigenous young people reported witnessing violence against their mother or stepmother, compared with 23 percent of all children. Although estimates vary considerably, research has consistently shown that violent households are significantly more likely to have children than non-violent households (Bedi & Goddard 2007; Fantuzzo et al. 2007; Zerk, Mertin & Proeve 2009) and that violent households have a significantly higher proportion of children aged five years and under (Tomison 2000). Indeed, children are often a factor in women’s decisions to stay in violent relationships (Victorian Department of Justice 2009).
Children can be exposed to violence from birth, or even in utero (Bunston 2008), as pregnancy is a time of increased risk of violence for women, with 17 percent of women who experience domestic violence doing so for the first time while pregnant (Morgan & Chadwick 2009). Child abuse and exposure to domestic violence
Distinguishing children who suffer abuse in the home from those who are ‘only’ exposed to domestic violence presents a considerable methodological and conceptual challenge, as these two phenomena are rarely discrete (Edleson 1999; Flood & Fergus 2008; Herrenkohl et al. 2008; Jouriles et al. 2008).
The rate of co-occurrence of Australian children experiencing physical abuse and being exposed to domestic violence, and experiencing sexual abuse and being exposed to domestic violence have been estimated at 55 percent and 40 percent respectively (Bedi & Goddard 2007). Although they argue that these figures are likely to be an under-representation of the prevalence of the co-occurrence of exposure to domestic violence and other types of child abuse, Bedi and Goddard (2007: 67) claim that ‘families in which child abuse and I[ntimate] P[artner] V[iolence] co-occur clearly represent a significant proportion of those in which either is present’.
This highlights that children’s exposure to domestic violence may frequently be one feature of families in which other types of violence are also present and underscores the importance of considering children’s exposure to domestic violence in a holistic way.
The likelihood of the co-occurrence of child abuse and domestic violence varies according to a range of factors (Tomison 2000), including the severity and frequency of domestic violence (Kaufman Kantor & Little 2003).
One American study by Ross(cited in Kaufman Kantor & Little 2003) found that in families where there had been almost weekly episodes of domestic violence, the probability of child abuse by the male perpetrator was a virtual certainty (see also Humphreys 2007). Few data exist on the proportion of child abuse notifications and/or substantiations that relate to exposure to domestic violence, compared with other forms of child abuse and neglect. In some jurisdictions, exposure to domestic violence may be considered an element of emotional or physical abuse, depending on the nature of the exposure. In these cases, exposure to domestic violence may be captured as data on other types of child abuse.
Faulkner’s (2008) study of referrals to one of Queensland’s Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect teams found that between 1980 and 2005, seven percent of referrals related to exposure to domestic violence. Importantly, however, by comparison with physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect, referrals relating to children’s exposure to domestic violence had increased during the period at a substantially higher rate. Referrals relating to domestic violence increased 867 percent, compared with 247 percent for emotional abuse, 128 percent for neglect, 77 percent for physical abuse and eight percent for sexual abuse (Faulkner 2008).
The dramatic increase in referrals relating to domestic violence exposure is likely to be the result of a variety of factors, including growing community awareness of domestic violence and its impacts on children. Impacts of childhood exposure to domestic violence Research on children exposed to domestic violence indicates that there are a range of impacts that such children are likely to experience.
Psychological and behavioural impacts Most research has focused on the psychological and/or behavioural impacts experienced by children exposed to domestic violence. The research literature (Bedi & Goddard 2007; Clements, Oxtoby & Ogle 2008; Edleson 1999; Ernst et al. 2008; Fantuzzo & Fusco 2007; Humphreys 2007; Spilsbury et al. 2008) documents the following psychological and/or behavioural impacts:
• trauma symptoms;
• increased aggression;
• antisocial behaviour;
• lower social competence;
• temperament problems;
• low self-esteem;
• the presence of pervasive fear;
• mood problems;
• school difficulties;
• peer conflict;
• impaired cognitive functioning; and/or
• increased likelihood of substance abuse.
Herrenkohl et al. (2008) also list eating disorders, teenage pregnancy, leaving school early, suicide attempts, delinquency and violence as potential consequences of child abuse and/or childhood exposure to domestic violence. Health and socioeconomic impacts Research has also indicated that there are significant health and socioeconomic problems resulting from childhood exposure to domestic violence.
The physical impacts of exposure to domestic violence on children have rarely been documented, due to the difficulty of differentiating children exposed to domestic violence from victims of other forms of child abuse. This is particularly problematic given that children often intervene in episodes of domestic violence (Bedi & Goddard 2007).
A study by Saltzman et al. (cited in Clements, Oxtoby & Ogle 2008) found, however, that children from violent homes had significantly higher heart rates than other children, even after direct child abuse was controlled for. Pinheiro’s (2006) study found that living in a violent home could be a significant contributing factor to a range of serious health conditions, including alcohol and drug abuse and depression, and even early death.
Research has shown that women and children escaping domestic violence are the prevailing face of homelessness in Australia. During 2003–04, children of women escaping domestic violence comprised two-thirds of child clients of Supported Accommodation Assistance Program services (Macdonald 2007).
As Flood and Fergus (2008) demonstrate, domestic violence, and its impact on children, also have a significant and long-term economic cost to the Australian community as a result of reduced productivity, welfare receipt, medical costs, unemployment and a range of other factors (see also Aldemir 2009).
Inter-generational transmission of violence Much research has focused on whether and to what extent children who are exposed to domestic violence become perpetrators or victims of family violence as adults (see Flood & Fergus 2008). Given the apparent pervasiveness of the problem of childhood exposure to domestic violence, this is an important area for social, legal and public policy concern.
Although results have been mixed, studies have indicated that children from violent homes may be likely to exhibit attitudes and behaviours that reflect their childhood experiences of witnessing domestic violence.
Research has suggested, for example, that children’s exposure to domestic violence may result in attitudes that justify their own use of violence and that boys who witness domestic violence are more likely to approve of violence (Edleson 1999). There is thus ‘some support for the hypothesis that children from violent families of origin carry violent and violence-tolerant roles to their adult intimate relationships’ (Edleson 1999: 861; see also Kovacs & Tomison 2003).
It is important to stress, however, that research findings in this field have been mixed and that ‘most children growing up with violence will become adults who are neither perpetrators nor victims of violence’ (Elizabeth 2005: 2; see also Tomison 2000).
Moreover, it is possible that children from violent homes display diverse attitudinal and behavioural responses to violence against women. A study by VicHealth (cited in Flood & Fergus 2008) found that adults who had been exposed to violence as children could be classified into two ‘attitudinal categories’— those who were significantly more tolerant than average of relationship violence and those who were significantly less tolerant than average of relationship violence.
Children’s resilience against violence
It is also important to recognise that a growing body of research indicates that many children from violent homes do not exhibit any signs of traumatisation—‘in any sample of children who are affected by domestic violence, there are generally about 50% who do as well as the control group’ (Humphreys 2007: 10). A meta-analysis of 118 studies of childhood exposure to domestic violence by Kitzmann et al. (cited in Humphreys 2007) found that over one-third of children exposed to domestic violence demonstrated wellbeing comparable with, or better than, children from nonviolent homes.
As Humphreys (2007:10) stresses, children from violent homes are a heterogeneous group, who live in ‘different contexts of both severity and protection’. It is important to note, however, that children who do not display overt signs of traumatisation may still be traumatised by exposure to domestic violence. Bedi and Goddard (2007) and Clements, Oxtoby and Ogle (2008) argue that a range of ‘mediating factors’ such as children’s age, gender, coping ability and social support, influence the extent of the trauma suffered by children exposed to domestic violence.
Research has also indicated that children’s ability to cope with the adversity of living in a violent home is linked to their mothers’ ability to maintain mothering functions, to model assertive and nonviolent responses to abuse and to maintain positive mental health (Humphreys 2007). High levels of extended familial and social support have also been demonstrated to positively impact children’s coping capacity (Humphreys 2007).
What are we going to do as a community to combat this epidemic?