An Analysis of Current Australian Program Initiatives for Children Exposed to Domestic Violence

Article excerpt

It is difficult to estimate precisely the number of children exposed to domestic violence. In a review of Victorians domestic violence legislation it was revealed that children under five years were present in: 65 per cent of domestic disputes involving the threat or use of a gun; in 79 per cent of disputes involving a weapon (usually a knife); and in almost two-thirds of disputes where property was damaged (Wearing 1992). While in a more recent survey of Australian youth, one quarter of young people sampled reported having 'witnessed' (1) an incident of physical domestic violence against their mother or step-mother (Indermaur 2001) (2). Such research highlights the size of the 'living with domestic violence' problem. Yet it is only quite recently that attention has begun to be paid to this issue.

Most domestic violence research and practice has focused primarily on the incidence of violence against women, with relatively little attention being paid to the plight of children who have been exposed to the violence (Smith, O'Connor & Berthelsen 1996; Sullivan, Bybee & Allen 2002). Similarly, the child protection and family support systems have, until recently, tended to overlook children who have been exposed to domestic violence in the mistaken belief that 'children are untouched by the chaos happening around them in the family home' and a belief that the absence of physical harm meant that no real harm had occurred (Blanchard 1993:31). Thus, children who live with domestic violence have been called the 'silent', 'forgotten', or 'invisible' victims of domestic violence (Osofsky 1998; Edleson 1999).

Throughout the 1990s however, there was increasing evidence of both the widespread nature of domestic violence and the serious impact that being exposed to violence may have on children and young people. Studies in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia have produced substantial evidence to suggest that many children who have been exposed to domestic violence develop a variety of social and mental health problems as a result of their experiences (Bookless-Pratz & Mertin 1990; Mathias, Mertin & Murray 1995; Kolbo, Blakely & Engleman 1996; Henning, Leitenberg, Coffey, Bennett & Jankowski 1997; Osofsky 1998; Laumakis, Margolin & John 1998).

Further, while the majority of children who have been exposed to domestic violence do not participate in further family violence, research has identified an association between growing up in a violent family and subsequent involvement in violent adult relationships as either an offender or victim (for example, Edleson & Tolman 1992; Avakame, 1998; Markowitz 2001). Although the extent of the intergenerational transmission of violence attributed to exposure to domestic violence is not known, the best estimates put the extent of the intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment, as a whole, at 30-37 per cent (Kaufman & Zigler 1987; Ryan, Davies & Oates 1977; all cited in Tomison & Poole 2000).

In recognition of the size and impact of the problem, children who have been exposed to domestic violence have recently become the target of research and therapeutic interventions across both the domestic violence and child protection/family support sectors. However, while knowledge about the impact of exposure to domestic violence has been increasing, and programs specifically aimed at supporting the children of battered women have begun to be documented, there is currently a paucity of information available about the nature and effectiveness of such interventions and their outcomes for children (Blanchard 1993; Carter, Weithorn & Behrman 1999, Graham-Bermann 2000).

In order to begin to address the knowledge 'gap' about interventions for children who have been exposed to domestic violence in Australia, data collected from a national audit of child abuse prevention programs (Tomison & Poole 2000) was analysed. …