Judges Corner

What about the Kids? Domestic Violence and the Effects on Babies and Children

By Judge Carroll Kelly, 11th Judicial Circuit, ckelly@jud11.flcourts.org

Every day, our courts address domestic violence issues involving individuals who are parents. What happens to the children who are exposed to domestic violence? They are more than just innocent witnesses. They are victims of child abuse. Child abuse includes not only direct physical abuse, but also emotional abuse, and exposure to domestic violence.

Child abuse is defined in Chapter 39.01, Florida Statutes, as:

Abuse means any willful act or threatened act that results in any physical, mental or sexual abuse, injury, or harm that causes or is likely to cause the child’s physical, mental, or emotional health to be significantly impaired.

Florida Statute 61.13 (2) states:

If the court determines that shared parental responsibility would be detrimental to the child, it may order sole parental responsibility and make such arrangements for time-sharing as specified in the parenting plan as will best protect the child or abused parent from further harm. Whether or not there is a conviction of any offense of domestic violence or child abuse or the existence of an injunction for protection against domestic violence, the court shall consider evidence of domestic violence or child abuse as evidence of detriment to the child.

Researchers estimate that millions of children are exposed to physical violence in the home. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported that in homes where violence between partners occurs, there is a 45% to 60% chance of co-occurring child abuse, a rate 15 times higher than homes without domestic violence. Even when they are not physically attacked, children witness approximately 70% of domestic assaults. These numbers are a staggering reminder of the number of children who are victims of child abuse.

Children who witness domestic violence and/or are victims of abuse themselves are at serious risk for long-term physical and mental health problems. Children who witness violence between parents may also be at greater risk of being violent in their future relationships. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study, led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has classified exposure to domestic violence as one of several adverse childhood experiences contributing to poor quality of life, premature death, and a risk factor for many of the most common causes of death in the United States.

Brain imaging in infants shows that exposure to domestic violence – even as they are sleeping, or in utero – can reduce connections in parts of the brain, change its overall structure, and affect every aspect of the child’s development. Studies show that when babies born to mothers who were subjected to violence during pregnancy become adults, they have three times as much inflammation in their bodies as those whose mothers were not so exposed. Inflammation causes a much higher risk of poor health, and a
far greater likelihood of depression. Additionally, research shows that these children are as likely to have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as soldiers returning from war.

Babies and children who are exposed to domestic violence experience far greater incidences of verbal, motor and cognitive issues, learning disabilities, insomnia, bed wetting, learning difficulties, self-harm, aggressive and antisocial behaviors, depression and anxiety, as well as adult domestic violence, with boys often becoming offenders, victims, or both, and girls more likely to become victims.

Toxic stress can harm children’s lifelong learning, mental and physical health. Exposure to domestic violence reduces the potential of babies and toddlers to learn. Psychiatrist and researcher Daniel Siegel (2004) explained, “The mind develops as the brain responds to ongoing experiences… The pattern of firing of neurons is what gives rise to attention, emotion, and memory. And what fires together—in a combination of violent exposures and the child’s underlying neurobiological experience—wires together. The thoughts, emotions, and memories imprinted onto a child’s brain in moments of stress become inextricably linked together and impact their feelings, behaviors, beliefs, and choices in relationships throughout their life.”4 These children are not merely bystanders. They are victims.

The psychological aftermath of exposure to domestic violence can include fear of harm or abandonment, excessive worry or sadness, guilt, inability to experience empathy or guilt, habitual lying, low frustration tolerance, emotional distancing, poor judgment, shame, and fear about the future. Abigail Gewirtz, Director of the Institute of Translational Research in Children’s Mental Health at the University of Minnesota, states that the effects of domestic violence on children “…is one of the most terrifying forms of violence because it happens in a place which is supposed to be safe…. Children are totally powerless, especially very young children. They are totally dependent on their parents.”

Children who have been exposed to domestic violence are more likely than their peers to experience a wide range of difficulties. Anger and oppositional behavior, fear, low self-worth and withdrawal, poor sibling, peer, and social relationships are all very common. Studies have found much higher rates of pro- violence attitudes, rigid stereotypical gender beliefs, boys believing in male privilege, animal abuse, bullying, assault, property destruction, and substance abuse.

How can we address the needs of these children?

First and foremost, everyone in the court system needs to be educated about domestic violence. There are many domestic violence trainings offered statewide and nationally. There is no reason why every judge, court employee and everyone working with domestic violence issues in the court system should not be highly educated on the special needs of domestic violence survivors and their children. The Florida Court’s website www.flcourts.org has many outstanding educational programs and trainings that can be accessed for free by anyone who wants to learn. Webinars, seminars and continuing educational opportunities are abundant. Additionally, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges NCJFCJ website www.ncjfcj.org has excellent webinars and publications.

The Battered Woman’s Justice Project has developed a system for courts to use when determining appropriate timesharing in cases involving domestic violence. The system is named the SAFeR approach. It provides courts and practitioners a framework in which to analyze the best interests of the children when developing timesharing plans in cases involving domestic violence. Information regarding the SAFeR system can be found at www.bwjp.org.

In cases involving domestic violence and children, the court needs to set up timesharing that is safe and immediately addresses child support. There is no way to properly keep children safe if the court does not address the victims’ economic needs. Child support is fundamental to victim and child safety.

Batterers are normally self-centered, irritable, less involved in child rearing, likely to use severe and erratic physical punishment, and commonly use coercive control to manage their children. They are also unable to distinguish their children’s needs from their own. Courts need to ensure that before an abuser is given unsupervised timesharing with the children, that he/she has insight into the needs of their children, and has the capacity and desire to properly care for his/her children. For many, this will not occur until they have successfully completed both batterers intervention and parenting programs. Even after completion of these programs, the batterer may not be able to safely parent. Mental health and substance abuse issues that require long term treatment must also be addressed.

It is important to acknowledge that the children’s risk of physical, mental or emotional injury greatly increases when the non-abusive parent is not present to protect the child. The protective behavior of the non-abusive parent, in many cases, has shielded these children from severe harm. Therefore, it is critical for the court system to realize that when parents in an abusive relationship separate, danger to the children greatly increases.

Everyone needs to slow down in cases involving domestic violence and take the time necessary to get the information needed to make a wise decision about how to not only protect the survivors and children from further abuse, but also to help them heal. Courts are required to develop timesharing arrangements that are in the best interests of the children.

Victims and children should not be expected to just “get over the abuse” or “move on.” The trauma caused by domestic violence does not just disappear because an injunction is issued, or a dissolution of marriage occurs. In fact, the danger to victims and their children increases during this time. Children may be afraid of their abusive parent and do not want to spend time with them. This is natural behavior when children have witnessed one parent repeatedly hurt another parent. Sometimes the protective parent is accused of “parental alienation,” when in fact they are displaying protective parenting. Children should never be forced into unsupervised timesharing arrangements without proper investigation as to the abuser’s ability to safely parent.

In the Eleventh Judicial Circuit, the courts are extremely fortunate to have Family Court Services, where trained professionals can supervise timesharing and observe the interactions between the abusive parent and their children and report their observations back to the court. This report includes the abuser’s ability to appropriately interact with the children, and the children’s responses to the abusive parent. Trained professionals know the severe and long-lasting impact of domestic abuse on the survivor and the children. They can interact with all family members and ensure that abusers are held accountable for their actions and do not minimize the harm they have caused. They are also able to ensure that abusers do not further abuse the children or use the children to spy on the other parent or use their time with their children to disparage or blame the survivor parent.

If family members are used for supervised time-sharing, it is imperative that the court question these individuals to ensure that they are capable of supervising. Too often, abusers will manipulate or threaten these “supervisors” if they try to speak up about the abuser’s inappropriate interaction with their children. The family member who supervises needs to be responsible, accountable, and have the capacity protect the children.

Parents need to learn the effects of exposure to domestic violence has on their children. Many parents have no idea that domestic violence directly and substantially harms their children. By learning the dynamics of the abuse, parents

may take the steps necessary to protect their children, either by separating from the abuser, or in the case of the abuser, by taking responsibility for their actions and committing to counseling and change. One of the resources the Eleventh Judicial Circuit offers to parents involved in domestic violence is a video entitled The Effects of Exposure to Domestic Violence on Babies and Children. This video, available in English and Spanish, educates the parents on the long-lasting consequences exposure to domestic violence has on their children. Feedback from parents who have watched this video has been very promising.

Although children will probably never forget what they saw or experienced during the abuse, they can learn healthy ways to deal with their emotions and memories as they mature. The sooner the child feels safe and gets help, the better his or her chances are for becoming a mentally and physically healthy adult.