Child Abuse in the Context of Domestic Violence: Prevalence, Explanations, and Practice Implications

Article excerpt

This article addresses the following questions: (a) How common is child abuse among domestically violent families? (b) Are there specific patterns of child abuse among domestically violent families? (c) What may explain occurrences of child abuse in domestically violent families? (d) How might domestic violence affect treatment for child abuse? We review research on child abuse in the context of domestic violence. We discuss implications of this research for service-delivery programs for domestically violent families.

Keywords: child abuse; domestic violence; prevalence; co-occurrence

Domestic violence (defined here as violence against a current or former intimate partner with whom the abuser shares or has shared a domicile) is now recognized by many as a worldwide problem that dramatically affects the health and well-being of those exposed to it. Although women may be the most obvious victims of domestic violence, their children are victims as well. For example, children exposed to domestic violence are at risk for a variety of adjustment difficulties. These include aggressive and oppositional behavior, anxiety and depressive symptoms, social problems and cognitive difficulties (see Jouriles, Norwood, McDonald, & Peters, 2001; Wolfe, Crooks, Lee, McIntyre-Smith, & Jaffe, 2003, for reviews). In addition, children living in families characterized by domestic violence are at increased risk for physical abuse and other forms of child maltreatment (Appel & Holden, 1998; Edleson, 1999). The adjustment difficulties of physically abused children are similar to those of children exposed to domestic violence (Kolko, 2002), and there is some evidence that the problems experienced by children in domestically violent families are due, in part, to co-occurring child abuse (Jouriles, Barling, & O'Leary, 1987; Mahoney, Donnelly, Boxer, & Lewis, 2003). Unfortunately, despite widespread acknowledgment of child abuse in many domestically violent families, there has been surprisingly little application of this knowledge in service-delivery programs targeting such families.

This article reviews the scientific literature on child abuse that occurs within families identified as domestically violent. We attempt to provide science-informed answers to important practical questions: How common is child abuse among domestically violent families? Are specific patterns of co-occurrence (that is, are mothers, fathers, or both parents abusive toward their children within domestically violent homes) most likely? What may explain occurrences of child abuse in domestically violent families? How might domestic violence affect treatment for child abuse? Based on the scientific literature, we offer suggestions for consideration in the assessment and treatment of families seeking services for domestic violence.

At the outset, it is important to acknowledge that the term "child abuse" is broad, encompassing a wide range of acts and omissions. For example, professional organizations, policymakers, researchers, clinicians, law enforcement personnel, and child welfare agencies refer to specific categories or types of child maltreatment (e.g., physical abuse, psychological or emotional maltreatment, neglect, and sexual abuse). Moreover, these categories often are further divided into subcategories; neglect, for example, is commonly defined more specifically as physical, medical, or educational neglect. Although this illustrates the conceptual breadth of child maltreatment, most research on child abuse within domestically violent families focuses specifically on physical child abuse, commonly defined by acts such as "hitting with a hand, stick, strap, or other object; punching; kicking; shaking; throwing; burning; stabbing; or choking" (Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996, pp. 2-10) that harm or significantly endanger a child. Thus, in summarizing the research literature on child abuse in domestically violent families, we restrict our use of the term "child abuse" to physical child abuse. …