Domestic Violence and the Child Welfare System

Domestic violence is a devastating social problem that affects every segment of the population. But while the conversation is focused on harsher penalties for the perpetrator or help for the wounded, no one is talking about the hidden victims: children. Many children are victims and can also become victims as they are forced to leave their homes with the emotional and psychological scars of witnessing violence done by and to their loved ones.

A large body of research shows that children who have been exposed to domestic violence are more likely to experience behavioral, social and emotional problems as well as cognitive and attitudinal problems. As a foster parent, it’s important to recognize these symptoms. Recognizing the early signs can help in breaking a dangerous cycle as the kids become adults. Research indicates that males exposed to domestic violence as children are more likely to engage in domestic violence as adults, according to the same 2003 report. Females are more likely to be victims. 

But there is another danger that is even more widespread: the emotional abuse that often is an inevitable part of the investigation and placement process. Even when foster parents do not physically or sexually abuse the children in their care, and the children do not abuse each other, the child has been taken not only from his or her parents, but often from friends, neighbors, teachers — and even brothers and sisters. Worse, the first move often is not the last. Children are bounced from foster home to foster home, emerging years later unable to love or trust anyone. Unfortunately, the emotional devastation of foster care sometimes is written off as mere collateral damage. The assumption is “well, at least they’re not being brutally beaten and tortured by their parents.” But, of course, not all parents who lose children to foster care brutally beat and torture their children. And it is often the emotional harm of foster care that leaves the deepest scars; the ones that never heal. As a foster parent, you can help break the pattern by being supportive, loving and providing a strong example.

Although adult and child victims often are found in the same families, child welfare and domestic violence programs have traditionally responded separately to victims. This focus on the safety and protection of only one victim can lead to unintended consequences. For example, removing children from their homes and placing them in out-of-home care can cause additional trauma. It is critical for child welfare professionals and other providers who work with children who have experienced abuse to understand the relationship between domestic violence and child maltreatment, as many families experiencing domestic violence also come to the attention of the child welfare system.

Increasingly, child welfare professionals, domestic violence victim advocates, courts, and other community stakeholders are working together to address the impact of domestic violence on children. Institutional and societal changes can begin to eliminate domestic violence only when service providers integrate their expertise, resources, and services into an expansive network. New practices are enhancing cross-system understanding and interactions between agencies and communities. New protocols are institutionalizing change and ensuring that child welfare workers and domestic violence advocates benefit from the lessons learned by their predecessors and colleagues.

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