Efforts by Child Welfare Agencies to Address Domestic Violence

Article excerpt

Child welfare agencies across the country have begun to focus on the issue of domestic violence and how it affects their caseloads.

Until recently, programs for family violence and abuse have responded to its two primary forms - child maltreatment and woman battering - through two entirely different service systems: child protective services (CPS) and domestic violence programs.(1) This separation is due, in part, to differences in when these service systems were established and how they have developed over time. CPS is by far the older, dating back to early in this century. Child welfare agencies have tended to view the mother's role in child abuse perpetrated by a male partner as "failure to protect" the child, rather than acknowledging that the child's safety might depend on addressing a situation that endangers both mother and child. Emergency shelters and other services for battered women first emerged in the mid- and late 1970s. Their focus has been on helping battered women. Services directed specifically toward the children who accompany their mothers into these shelters are very recent and remain limited in many communities. Relations between the two systems have at times been strained, since a primary focus on helping the mother and a primary focus on protecting the child have not always been seen as compatible.

To understand better how mutually supportive relationships between the systems can help change child welfare practice around issues of domestic violence, the Urban Institute conducted a study of how child welfare agencies across the country are addressing the issue of domestic violence in their caseloads. This article provides a brief overview of the relationship between child maltreatment and domestic violence, a synopsis of the authors' five site visits to child welfare agencies, and a summary of the study's findings.

Overlap Between Child Maltreatment and Domestic Violence

Researchers have used many methods to examine the degree of overlap between domestic violence and child maltreatment: national surveys, clinical samples, case record reviews, and reports by battered women. Early efforts to examine the prevalence of child maltreatment and domestic violence within the same family, summarized by Magen and colleagues, confirm that the overlap can be substantial, whether approached from the point of view of the child or that of the mother.(2) Between 11 and 45 percent of children who are abused or neglected have a mother who is being abused, and between 37 and 63 percent of abused women have children who are being abused or neglected. Although the studies on which these ranges are based employ different methodologies and definitions of abuse and look at different populations, they consistently report a high level of overlap.

Existing studies of the overlap between domestic violence and child maltreatment are mostly limited to child abuse rather than child neglect, leaving a gap in adequate information about the relationship between domestic violence and child neglect. This gap in knowledge may have implications for child welfare agencies, since neglect is far more prevalent in child welfare caseloads than is abuse.

The dynamics of violence within families can be very complex. Drawing on a national survey of more than 6,000 American families, Straus and Gelles found that half of men who frequently abuse their wives also frequently abuse their children and that the more severe and frequent the violence against the woman, the more likely it is that the children are also being abused.(3) Children need not be the primary target of a father's violence in order to get hurt. Blows directed at the mother may land on children, and children may be harmed when trying to intervene or defend a parent. Similarly, a mother may endure blows from her partner in an effort to deflect his attention from the children.(4)

Knowing which partner in a domestic violence situation is the perpetrator of abuse against the children can help guide child welfare agency decision-making. …