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Child Protection in Families Experiencing Domestic Violence
Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, Children's Bureau., Caliber Associates. Bragg, H. Lien.|
|Year Published: 2003|
The Basics of Domestic Violence
To establish a foundation for understanding child protection in families experiencing domestic violence, this chapter provides an overview of the definition, scope, and causes of domestic violence, along with the evolving societal responses. The chapter also provides a description of victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, highlighting prevalent misconceptions, common behaviors, and parenting issues.
What is Domestic Violence?
Historically, domestic violence has been framed and understood exclusively as a women's issue. Domestic abuse affects women, but also has devastating consequences for other populations and societal institutions. Men also can be victims of abuse, children are affected by exposure to domestic violence, and formal institutions face enormous challenges responding to domestic violence in their communities. The effects of domestic violence on victims are more typically recognized, but perpetrators also are impacted by their abusive behavior as they stand to lose children, damage relationships, and face legal consequences. Domestic violence cuts across every segment of society and occurs in all age, racial, ethnic, socio-economic, sexual orientation, and religious groups. Domestic violence is a social, economic, and health concern that does not discriminate. As a result, communities across the country are developing strategies to stop the violence and provide safe solutions for victims of domestic violence.
Defining Domestic Violence
Domestic violence is a "pattern of coercive and assaultive behaviors that include physical, sexual, verbal, and psychological attacks and economic coercion that adults or adolescents use against their intimate partner."36 Domestic violence is not typically a singular event and is not limited to only physical aggression. Rather, it is the pervasive and methodical use of threats, intimidation, manipulation, and physical violence by someone who seeks power and control over their intimate partner. Abusers use a specific tactic or a combination of tactics to instill fear in and dominance over their partners. The strategies used by abusers are intended to establish a pattern of desired behaviors from their victims. Certain behaviors often are cited by the perpetrator as the reason or cause of the abusive behavior, therefore, abusive verbal and physical actions are often intended to alter or control that behavior.
Scope of the Problem
Currently, national crime victimization surveys, crime reports, and research studies indicate:
- An estimated 85 to 90 percent of domestic violence victims are female.37
- Females are victims of intimate partner violence at a rate about five times that of males.38
- Females between the ages of 16 and 24 are most vulnerable to domestic violence.39
- Females account for 39 percent of hospital emergency department visits for violence-related injuries, and 84 percent of persons treated for intentional injuries caused by an intimate partner.40
- As many as 324,000 females each year experience intimate partner violence during their pregnancy, and pregnant and recently pregnant women are more likely to be victims of homicide than to die of any other cause.41
- Females experience the greatest assault rate (21.3 per 1000 females) between the ages of 20 and 24. This is eight times the peak rate for males (3 per 1000 males ages 25 to 34).42
- Domestic violence constitutes 22 percent of violent crime against females and 3 percent of violent crime against males.43
- Eight percent of females and 0.3 percent of males report intimate partner rape.44
- Approximately 33 percent of gays and lesbians are victims of domestic violence at some time in their lives.
- Twenty-eight percent of high school and college students experience dating violence and 26 percent of pregnant teenage girls report being physically abused.
- Seventy percent of intimate homicide victims are female, and females are twice as likely to be killed by their husbands or boyfriends than murdered by strangers.
- On average, more than three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in the United States every day. In 2000, 1,247 women were killed by an intimate partner. The same year, 440 men were killed by an intimate partner.45
- An estimated 5 percent of domestic violence cases are males who are physically assaulted, stalked, and killed by a current or former wife, girlfriend, or partner.
- Domestic violence victims lose a total of nearly 8.0 million days of paid work—the equivalent of more than 32,000 full-time jobs—and nearly 5.6 million days of household productivity as a result of the violence.46
- The costs of intimate partner rape, physical assault, and stalking exceed $5.8 billion each year, nearly $4.1 billion of which is for direct medical and mental health care services.47
- Males are significantly more likely to be victimized by acquaintances (50 percent) or strangers (44 percent) than by intimates or other relatives.
- Females experience over 5 to 10 times as many incidents of domestic violence than males. In comparison to men, women have a significantly greater risk for being a victim of domestic violence and suffering chronic and severe forms of physical assaults.48
Domestic Violence Tactics
The types of domestic violence actions perpetrated by abusers include physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, and psychological tactics; threats and intimidation; economic coercion; and entitlement behaviors. Examples of each are provided below. Some of the behaviors identified in the following lists do not constitute abuse in and of themselves, but frequently are tactics used in a larger pattern of abusive and controlling behavior.
- Pushing and shoving;
- Pinching or pulling hair;
- Using a weapon;
- Physically abusing or threatening to abuse children.
- Raping or forcing the victim into unwanted sexual practices;
- Objectifying or treating the victim like a sexual object;
- Forcing the victim to have an abortion or sabotaging birth control methods;
- Engaging in a pattern of extramarital or other sexual relationships;
- Sexually assaulting the children.
Verbal, Emotional, and Psychological Tactics
- Using degrading language, insults, criticism, or name calling;
- Refusing to talk;
- Engaging in manipulative behaviors to make the victim believe he or she is "crazy" or imagining things;
- Humiliating the victim privately or in the presence of other people;
- Blaming the victim for the abusive behavior;
- Controlling where the victim goes, who he or she talks to, and what he or she does;
- Accusing the victim of infidelity to justify the perpetrator's controlling and abusive behaviors;
- Denying the abuse and physical attacks.
Threats and Intimidation
- Breaking and smashing objects or destroying the victim's personal property;
- Glaring or staring at the victim to force compliance;
- Intimidating the victim with certain physical behaviors or gestures;
- Instilling fear by threatening to kidnap or seek sole custody of the children;
- Threatening acts of homicide, suicide, or injury;
- Forcing the victim to engage in illegal activity;
- Harming pets or animals;
- Stalking the victim;
- Displaying or making implied threats with weapons;
- Making false allegations to law enforcement or CPS.
- Preventing the victim from obtaining employment or an education;
- Withholding money, prohibiting access to family income, or lying about financial assets and debts;
- Making the victim ask or beg for money;
- Forcing the victim to hand over any income;
- Stealing money;
- Refusing to contribute to shared or household bills;
- Neglecting to comply with child support orders;
- Providing an allowance.
- Treating the victim like a servant;
- Making all decisions for the victim and the children;
- Defining gender roles in the home and relationship.
Root Causes of Domestic Violence
Some people believe domestic violence occurs because the victim provokes the abuser to violent action, while others believe the abuser simply has a problem managing anger. In fact, the roots of domestic violence can be attributed to a variety of cultural, social, economic, and psychological factors.49 As a learned behavior, domestic violence is modeled by individuals, institutions, and society, which may influence the perspectives of children and adults regarding its acceptability. Abusive and violent behaviors can be learned through:
- Childhood observations of domestic violence;
- One's experience of victimization;
- Exposure to community, school, or peer group violence;
- Living in a culture of violence (e.g., violent movies or videogames, community norms, and cultural beliefs).50
Domestic violence is reinforced by cultural values and beliefs that are repeatedly communicated through the media and other societal institutions that tolerate it. The perpetrator's violence is further supported when peers, family members, or others in the community (e.g., coworkers, social service providers, police, or clergy) minimize or ignore the abuse and fail to provide consequences. As a result, the abuser learns that not only is the behavior justified, but also it is acceptable.
Psychopathology, substance abuse, poverty, cultural factors, anger, stress, and depression often are thought to cause domestic violence. While there is little empirical evidence that these factors are direct causes of domestic violence, research suggests that they can affect its severity, frequency, and the nature of the perpetrator's abusive behavior.51 Although there is debate among researchers regarding a definitive theory to explain domestic violence, there is little disagreement that it is an insidious problem requiring a complex solution.
Evolving Societal Responses to Domestic Violence
Many believe the historical inequality of women and gender socialization of females and males contribute to the root causes of domestic violence.52 Until the 1970's, women who were raped or suffered violence in their homes had no formal place to go for help or support. Shelters and services for victims of domestic violence did not exist and there was little, if any, response from criminal or civil courts, law enforcement, hospitals, and social service agencies. Society and its formal institutions viewed domestic violence as a "private matter." As awareness and recognition of this problem grew, groups of women organized an advocacy movement that focused on addressing the safety needs of victims and the systemic barriers and social attitudes that contributed to domestic violence. Volunteers established safe havens and crisis services for victims of domestic violence in their homes and held meetings where they began to define violence against women as a political issue. This grass roots effort, commonly referred to as the "Battered Women's Movement," revolutionized the responses to injustices against women into a social movement that forms the foundation of existing domestic violence advocacy and community-based programs throughout the country.53
The need for safe alternatives for victims of domestic violence called for a major social transformation and the Battered Women's Movement was an essential part of that struggle. Feminists, community activists, and survivors of rape and domestic violence responded with three primary goals: (1) securing shelter and support for victims and their children, (2) improving legal and criminal justice responses, and (3) changing the public consciousness about domestic violence.54
Through a collective vision, the Battered Women's Movement was guided by a set of inherent principles that continue to direct the current network of community-based domestic violence programs and advocacy efforts. These principles include:
- Safety for victims and their children;
- Victims' rights to self-determination, which includes their decision to either remain with or leave their abusive partner;
- Accountability for perpetrators of domestic violence through societal and criminal sanctions;
- Systemic change to combat social oppression of victims and to promote victims' rights.
Today, community-based domestic violence programs throughout the country provide an array of services, including:
- Shelter and safe houses;
- National, State, and local emergency hotlines;
- Crisis counseling and intervention;
- Support groups;
- Medical and mental health referrals;
- Legal advocacy;
- Vocational counseling, job training, and economic support referrals;
- Housing and relocation services;
- Safety planning;
- Children's services.
Domestic violence programs also engage in continuous advocacy efforts that include developing public awareness campaigns, collaborating with community service providers, and being active in political lobbying efforts aimed at improving safety for victims and their children. One of the benefits of the increased awareness of the problem garnered by these activities is the greater recognition that many sectors of society—beyond shelters, law enforcement, and the judicial system—have important roles to play in identifying and addressing this problem. These sectors include child welfare, health care, mental heath, substance abuse treatment, business, and faith communities. Along with the recognition that legal sanctions are not always the best response, there is a growing awareness that communities themselves must take responsibility for preventing and aiding victims of domestic violence by establishing programs and services that meet the needs of their citizens. One example is a community-based approach that involves combining the efforts of law enforcement, domestic violence victim advocates, social service providers, faith-based communities, and community members.
Society's recognition that domestic violence is no longer a private matter, but a widespread social problem, is evidenced in the establishment of approximately 2,000 shelters and domestic violence programs, legislation in every State identifying domestic violence as a criminal act, legal rights to civil protection orders, and Federal legislation that provides funding and national recognition regarding its seriousness.55 Exhibits 3-1 and 3-2 outline Federal legislation that addresses domestic violence and child maltreatment and provides a legal framework and guidance for providing services and intervention.
Federal Domestic Violence Legislation
Family Violence Prevention and Services Act of 1984 (P.L. 98-457)
The Family Violence Prevention and Services Act of 1984 (FVPSA) was Congress' first attempt to address domestic violence in the country. This legislation was intended to assist States with their efforts to increase public awareness about domestic violence and to provide Federal funding for domestic violence shelters and victim services. States and nonprofit organizations also were awarded grants to develop domestic violence and child maltreatment programs and to provide training and technical assistance for law enforcement officers and community service providers.56
Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), Title IV of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (P.L. 103-322)
In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, which marked a turning point in Federal recognition of the extent and seriousness of domestic violence. This legislation demonstrated the Federal government's commitment to address domestic violence. There are four titles within the Act—the Safe Street Act, Safe Homes for Women, Civil Rights for Women and Equal Justice for Women in the Courts, and Protections for Battered Immigrant Women and Children—and each act addresses domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and protection against gender-motivated violence. The provisions of VAWA call for improving law enforcement and criminal justice responses, creating new criminal offenses and tougher penalties, mandating victim restitution, and requiring system reform geared towards protecting victims of domestic violence during prosecution of the perpetrator. VAWA also authorized support for increased prevention and education programs, victim services, domestic violence training of community professionals, and protections from deportation for battered immigrant women.57
Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) - Wellstone/Murray Amendment (P.L. 104-193)
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program with the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. The Wellstone/Murray Amendment of PRWORA includes a provision entitled the Family Violence Option, which addresses the safety and economic barriers faced by victims of domestic violence. Through this amendment, each State has the option to enact procedures that temporarily exempt identified victims of domestic violence from meeting certain time limit and other work requirements.
Federal Child Abuse and Neglect Legislation
|For more information on other Federal legislation regarding child abuse and neglect, please see the foundation manual of this series, A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect: The Foundation for Practice, at http://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/usermanual.cfm.|
Victims of Domestic Violence
This section describes some common characteristics of victims of domestic violence, dynamics of the victimization (e.g., common barriers to leaving an abusive relationship, protective strategies), and the impact that domestic violence has on the individual and on parenting behaviors.
Who Is the Victim?
Victims of domestic violence do not possess a set of universal characteristics or personality traits, but they do share the common experience of being abused by someone close to them. Anyone can become a victim of domestic violence. Victims of domestic violence can be women, men, adolescents, disabled persons, gays, or lesbians. They can be of any age and work in any profession. Normally, victims of domestic violence are not easily recognized because they are not usually covered in marks or bruises. If there are injuries, victims have often learned to conceal them to avoid detection, suspicion, and shame.
Unfortunately, an array of misconceptions about victims of domestic violence has led to harmful stereotypes and myths about who they are and the realities of their abuse. Consequently, victims of domestic violence often feel stigmatized and misunderstood by the people in their lives. These people may be well-intended family members and friends or persons trained to help them, such as social workers, police officers, or doctors. Exhibit 3-3 presents common myths about victims of domestic violence.
Myth One: Only poor, uneducated women are victims of domestic violence.
Victims of abuse can be found in all social and economic classes and can be of either sex. They can be wealthy, educated, and prominent as well as undereducated and financially destitute. Victims of domestic violence live in rural towns, urban cities, subsidized housing projects, and in gated communities. The overrepresentation of underprivileged women in domestic violence crime reports may be due to several factors, including the fact that those seeking public assistance or services are subject to data tracking trends that often capture this information. Victims of domestic violence who have higher incomes are more likely to seek help from private therapists or service providers who can protect their identity through confidentiality agreements.
Myth Two: Victims provoke and deserve the violence they experience.
An abusive tactic used by perpetrators is to accuse their partners of "making" them violent. This accusation is even more effective when the perpetrator and other people tell the victim that he or she deserved the abuse. As a result, many victims remain in the abusive relationship because they believe that the violence is their fault. Many victims make repeated attempts to change their behavior in order to avoid the next assault. Unfortunately, no one, including the victim, can change the behavior except for the perpetrator. The perpetrator is accountable for the behavior and responsible for ending the violence.
Myth Three: Victims of domestic violence move from one abusive relationship to another.
Although approximately one-third of victims of domestic violence experience more than one abusive relationship, most victims do not seek or have multiple abusive partners. Victims of domestic violence who have a childhood history of physical or sexual victimization may be at greater risk of being harmed by multiple partners.58
Myth Four: Victims of domestic violence suffer from low self-esteem and psychological disorders.
Some people believe that victims of domestic violence are mentally ill or suffer from low self-esteem. Otherwise, it is thought, they would not endure the abuse. In fact, a majority of victims does not have mental disorders, but may suffer from the psychological effects of domestic violence, such as posttraumatic stress disorder or depression.59 Furthermore, there is little evidence that low self-esteem is a factor for initially becoming involved in an abusive relationship.60 In reality, some victims of domestic violence experience a decrease in self-esteem because their abusers are constantly degrading, humiliating, and criticizing them, which also makes them more vulnerable to staying in the relationship.
Myth Five: Victims of domestic violence are weak and always want help.
Some victims of domestic violence are passive while others are assertive. Some victims actively seek help, while others may refuse assistance. Again, victims are a diverse group of individuals who possess unique qualities and different life situations. Victims of domestic violence may not always want help and their reasons vary. They may not be prepared to leave the relationship, they may be scared their partners will harm them, or they may not trust people if past efforts to seek help have failed.
Barriers to Leaving an Abusive Relationship
The most commonly asked question about victims of domestic violence is "Why do they stay?" Family, friends, coworkers, and community professionals who try to understand the reasons why a victim of domestic violence has not left the abusive partner often feel perplexed and frustrated. Some victims of domestic violence do leave their violent partners while others may leave and return at different points throughout the abusive relationship.61 Leaving a violent relationship is a process, not an event, for many victims, who cannot simply "pick up and go" because they have many factors to consider. To understand the complex nature of terminating a violent relationship, it is essential to look at the barriers and risks faced by victims when they consider or attempt to leave. Individual, systemic, and societal barriers faced by victims of domestic violence include:
- Fear. Perpetrators commonly make threats to find victims, inflict harm, or kill them if they end the relationship. This fear becomes a reality for many victims who are stalked by their partner after leaving. It also is common for abusers to seek or threaten to seek sole custody, make child abuse allegations, or kidnap the children. Historically, there has been a lack of protection and assistance from law enforcement, the judicial system, and social service agencies charged with responding to domestic violence. Inadequacies in the system and the failure of past efforts by victims of domestic violence seeking help have led many to believe that they will not be protected from the abuser and are safer at home. While much remains to be done, there is a growing trend of increased legal protection and community support for these victims.
- Isolation. One effective tactic abusers use to establish control over victims is to isolate them from any support system other than the primary intimate relationship. As a result, some victims are unaware of services or people that can help. Many believe they are alone in dealing with the abuse. This isolation deepens when society labels them as "masochistic" or "weak" for enduring the abuse. Victims often separate themselves from friends and family because they are ashamed of the abuse or want to protect others from the abuser's violence.
- Financial dependence. Some victims do not have access to any income and have been prevented from obtaining an education or employment. Victims who lack viable job skills or education, transportation, affordable daycare, safe housing, and health benefits face very limited options. Poverty and marginal economic support services can present enormous challenges to victims who seek safety and stability. Often, victims find themselves choosing between homelessness, living in impoverished and unsafe communities, or returning to their abusive partner.
- Guilt and shame. Many victims believe the abuse is their fault. The perpetrator, family, friends, and society sometimes deepen this belief by accusing the victim of provoking the violence and casting blame for not preventing it. Victims of violence rarely want their family and friends to know they are abused by their partner and are fearful that people will criticize them for not leaving the relationship. Victims often feel responsible for changing their partner's abusive behavior or changing themselves in order for the abuse to stop. Guilt and shame may be felt especially by those who are not commonly recognized as victims of domestic violence. This may include men, gays, lesbians, and partners of individuals in visible or respected professions, such as the clergy and law enforcement.
- Emotional and physical impairment. Abusers often use a series of psychological strategies to break down the victim's self-esteem and emotional strength. In order to survive, some victims begin to perceive reality through the abuser's paradigm, become emotionally dependent, and believe they are unable to function without their partner. The psychological and physical effects of domestic violence also can affect a victim's daily functioning and mental stability. This can make the process of leaving and planning for safety challenging for victims who may be depressed, physically injured, or suicidal. Victims who have a physical or developmental disability are extremely vulnerable because the disability can compound their emotional, financial, and physical dependence on their abusive partner.
- Individual belief system. The personal, familial, religious, and cultural values of victims of domestic violence are frequently interwoven in their decisions to leave or remain in abusive relationships. For example, victims who hold strong convictions regarding the sanctity of marriage may not view divorce or separation as an option. Their religious beliefs may tell them divorce is "wrong." Some victims of domestic violence believe that their children still need to be with the offender and that divorce will be emotionally damaging to them.
- Hope. Like most people, victims of domestic violence are invested in their intimate relationships and frequently strive to make them healthy and loving. Some victims hope the violence will end if they become the person their partner wants them to be. Others believe and have faith in their partner's promises to change. Perpetrators are not "all bad" and have positive, as well as, negative qualities. The abuser's "good side" can give victims reason to think their partner is capable of being nurturing, kind, and nonviolent.
- Community services and societal values. For victims who are prepared to leave and want protection, there are a variety of institutional barriers that make escaping abuse difficult and frustrating. Communities that have inadequate resources and limited victim advocacy services and whose response to domestic abuse is fragmented, punitive, or ineffective can not provide realistic or safe solutions for victims and their children.
- Cultural hurdles. The lack of culturally sensitive and appropriate services for victims of color and those who are non-English speaking pose additional barriers to leaving violent relationships. Minority populations include African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and other ethnic groups whose cultural values and customs can influence their beliefs about the role of men and women, interpersonal relationships, and intimate partner violence. For example, the Hispanic cultural value of "machismo" supports some Latino men's belief that they are superior to women and the "head of their household" in determining familial decisions. "Machismo" may cause some Hispanic men to believe that they have the right to use violent or abusive behavior to control their partners or children. In turn, Latina women and other family or community members may excuse violent or controlling behavior because they believe that husbands have ultimate authority over them and their children.
Examples of culturally competent services include offering written translation of domestic violence materials, providing translators in domestic violence programs, and implementing intervention strategies that incorporate cultural values, norms, and practices to effectively address the needs of victims and abusers. The lack of culturally competent services that fail to incorporate issues of culture and language can present obstacles for victims who want to escape abuse and for effective interventions with domestic violence perpetrators. Well-intended family, friends, and community members also can create additional pressures for the victim to "make things work."
The Impact of Domestic Violence on Victims
As with anyone who has been traumatized, victims demonstrate a wide range of effects from domestic violence. The perpetrator's abusive behavior can cause an array of health problems and physical injuries. Victims may require medical attention for immediate injuries, hospitalization for severe assaults, or chronic care for debilitating health problems resulting from the perpetrator's physical attacks.62 The direct physical effects of domestic violence can range from minor scratches or bruises to fractured bones or sexually transmitted diseases resulting from forced sexual activity and other practices. The indirect physical effects of domestic violence can range from recurring headaches or stomachaches to severe health problems due to withheld medical attention or medications.
Many victims of abuse make frequent visits to their physicians for health problems and for domestic violence-related injuries. Unfortunately, research shows that many victims will not disclose the abuse unless they are directly asked or screened for domestic violence by the physician.63 It is imperative, therefore, that health care providers directly inquire about possible domestic violence so victims receive proper treatment for injuries or illnesses and are offered further assistance for addressing the abuse.
The impact of domestic violence on victims can result in acute and chronic mental health problems. Some victims, however, have histories of psychiatric illnesses that may be exacerbated by the abuse; others may develop psychological problems as a direct result of the abuse. Examples of emotional and behavioral effects of domestic violence include many common coping responses to trauma, such as:
- Emotional withdrawal
- Denial or minimization of the abuse
- Impulsivity or aggressiveness
- Apprehension or fear
- Anxiety or hypervigilance
- Disturbance of eating or sleeping patterns
- Substance abuse
- Post-traumatic stress disorder.64
Some of these effects also serve as coping mechanisms for victims. For example, some victims turn to alcohol to lessen the physical and emotional pain of the abuse. Unfortunately, these coping mechanisms can serve as barriers for victims who want help or want to leave their abusive relationships. Psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, and counselors who provide screening, comprehensive assessment, and treatment for victims can serve as the catalyst that helps them address or escape the abuse.
Parenting and the Victim
Emerging research indicates that the harmful effects of domestic violence can negatively influence parenting behaviors.65 Parents who are suffering from abuse may experience higher stress levels, which in turn, can influence the nature of their relationship with and responses to their children.66 Victims who are preoccupied with avoiding physical attacks and coping with the violence confront additional challenges in their efforts to provide safety, support, and nurturance to their children. Unfortunately, some victims of domestic violence are emotionally or physically unavailable to their children due to injuries, emotional exhaustion, or depression.
Studies have found that victims of domestic violence are more likely to maltreat their children than those who are not abused by their partners.67 In some cases, victims who use physical force or inappropriate discipline techniques are trying to protect their children from potentially more severe forms of violence or discipline by the abuser. For example, a victim of domestic violence might slap the child when the abuser threatens harm if the child is not quiet. Seemingly, neglectful behaviors by the victim also may be a direct result of the domestic violence. This is illustrated when the abuser prevents the victim from taking the child to the doctor or to school because the adult victim's injuries would reveal the abusiveness.
The majority of victims of domestic violence are not bad, ineffective, or abusive parents, but researchers note that domestic violence is one of a multitude of stressors that can negatively influence parenting. However, many victims, despite ongoing abuse, are supportive, nurturing parents who mediate the impact of their children's exposure to domestic violence.68 Given the impact of violence on parenting behaviors, it is beneficial that victims receive services that alleviate their distress so they can support and benefit the children.69
Strategies Victims Use to Protect Themselves and Their Children
Protective strategies that frequently are recommended by family, friends, and social services providers include contacting the police, obtaining a restraining order, or seeking refuge at a friend or relative's home or at a domestic violence shelter. It is ordinarily assumed that these suggestions are successful at keeping victims and their children safe from violence. It is crucial to remember, however, that while these strategies can be effective for some victims of domestic violence, they can be unrealistic and even dangerous options for other victims. For example, obtaining a restraining order can be useful in deterring some perpetrators, but it can cause other perpetrators to become increasingly abusive and threatening. Since these recommendations are concrete and observable, they tend to reassure people that the victim of domestic violence is actively taking steps to address the abuse and to be safe, even if they create additional risks. Furthermore, these options only address the physical violence in a victim's life. They do not address the economic or housing challenges the victim must overcome to survive, nor do they provide the emotional and psychological safety the victims need. Therefore, victims often weigh "perpetrator-generated" risks versus "life-generated" risks as they try to make decisions and find safety.
Typically, victims do not passively tolerate the violence in their lives. They often use very creative methods to avoid and deescalate their partner's abusive behavior. Some of these are successful and others are not. Victims develop their own unique set of protective strategies based on their past experience of what is effective at keeping them emotionally and physically protected from their partner's violence. In deciding which survival mechanism to use, victims engage in a methodical problem-solving process that involves analyzing: available and realistic safety options; the level of danger created by the abuser's violence; and the prior effectiveness and consequences of previously used strategies. After careful consideration, victims of domestic violence decide whether to use, adapt, replace, or discard certain approaches given the risks they believe it will pose to them and their children. Examples of additional protective strategies victims use to survive and protect themselves include:
- Complying, placating, or colluding with the perpetrator;
- Minimizing, denying, or refusing to talk about the abuse for fear of making it worse;
- Leaving or staying in the relationship so the violence does not escalate;
- Fighting back or defying the abuser;
- Sending the children to a neighbor or family member's home;
- Engaging in manipulative behaviors, such as lying, as a way to survive;
- Refusing or not following through with services to avoid angering the abuser;
- Using or abusing substances as an "escape" or to numb physical pain;
- Lying about the abuser's criminal activity or abuse of the children to avoid a possible attack;
- Trying to improve the relationship or finding help for the perpetrator.70
Although these protective strategies act as coping and survival mechanisms for victims, they are frequently misinterpreted by laypersons and professionals who view the victim's behavior as uncooperative, ineffective, or neglectful. Because victims are very familiar with their partner's pattern of behavior, they can help the caseworker in developing a safety plan that is effective for both the victim and the children, especially when exploring options not previously considered.
In situations where certain coping strategies have adverse affects, such as using drugs to numb the pain, it is crucial that service providers make available additional support and guidance that offer positive solutions to victims of domestic violence. A thoughtful understanding of the unique approaches used by victims of domestic violence to secure their safety will help community professionals and service providers respond more effectively to their needs.
Perpetrators of Domestic Violence
This section presents common characteristics and behavioral tactics of perpetrators, indicators of dangerousness, and relevant parenting issues.
Who Is a Perpetrator of Domestic Violence?
As is the case with victims of domestic violence, abusers can be anyone and come from every age, sex, socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, occupational, educational, and religious group. They can be teenagers, college professors, farmers, counselors, electricians, police officers, doctors, clergy, judges, and popular celebrities. Perpetrators are not always angry and hostile, but can be charming, agreeable, and kind. Abusers differ in patterns of abuse and levels of dangerousness. While there is not an agreed upon universal psychological profile, perpetrators do share a behavioral profile that is described as "an ongoing pattern of coercive control involving various forms of intimidation, and psychological and physical abuse."71
While many people think violent and abusive people are mentally ill, research shows that perpetrators do not share a set of personality characteristics or a psychiatric diagnosis that distinguishes them from people who are not abusive. There are some perpetrators who suffer from psychiatric problems, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or psychopathology. Yet, most do not have psychiatric illnesses, and caution is advised in attributing mental illness as a root cause of domestic violence.72 The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychological Association (DSM-IV) does not have a diagnostic category for perpetrators, but mental illness should be viewed as a factor that can influence the severity and nature of the abuse.73
Examples of the most prevalent behavioral tactics by perpetrators include:
- Abusing power and control. The perpetrator's primary goal is to achieve power and control over their intimate partner. In order to do so, perpetrators often plan and utilize a pattern of coercive tactics aimed at instilling fear, shame, and helplessness in the victim. Another part of this strategy is to change randomly the list of "rules" or expectations the victim must meet to avoid abuse.74 The abuser's incessant degradation, intimidation, and demands on their partner are effective in establishing fear and dependence. It is important to note that perpetrators may also engage in impulsive acts of domestic violence and that not all perpetrators act in such a planned or systematic way.
- Having different public and private behavior. Usually, people outside the immediate family are not aware of and do not witness the perpetrator's abusive behavior. Abusers who maintain an amiable public image accomplish the important task of deceiving others into thinking they are loving, "normal," and incapable of domestic violence. This allows perpetrators to escape accountability for their violence and reinforces the victims' fears that no one will believe them.
- Projecting blame. Abusers often engage in an insidious type of manipulation that involves blaming the victim for the violent behavior. Such perpetrators may accuse the victim of "pushing buttons" or "provoking" the abuse. By diverting attention to the victim's actions, the perpetrator avoids taking responsibility for the abusive behavior. In addition to projecting blame on the victim, abusers also may project blame on circumstances, such as making the excuse that alcohol or stress caused the violence.
- Claiming loss of control or anger problems. There is a common belief that domestic violence is a result of poor impulse control or anger management problems. Abusers routinely claim that they "just lost it," suggesting that the violence was an impulsive and rare event beyond control. Domestic violence is not typically a singular incident nor does it simply involve physical attacks. It is a deliberate set of tactics where physical violence is used to solidify the abuser's power in the relationship. In reality, only an estimated 5 to 10 percent of perpetrators have difficulty with controlling their aggression.75 Most abusers do not assault others outside the family, such as police officers, coworkers, or neighbors, but direct their abuse toward the victim or children. This distinction challenges claims that they cannot manage their anger.
- Minimizing and denying the abuse. Perpetrators rarely view themselves or their actions as violent or abusive. As a result, they often deny, justify, and minimize their behavior. For example, an abuser might forcibly push the victim down a flight of stairs, then tell others that the victim tripped. Abusers also rationalize serious physical assaults, such as punching or choking, as "self-defense." Abusers who refuse to admit they are harming their partner present enormous challenges to persons who are trying to intervene. Some perpetrators do acknowledge to the victim that the abusive behavior is wrong, but then plead for forgiveness or make promises of refraining from any future abuse. Even in situations such as this, the perpetrator commonly minimizes the severity or impact of the abuse.
It is equally important to acknowledge that abusers also possess positive qualities. There are abusers who are remorseful, accept responsibility for their violence, and eventually stop their abusive behavior. Perpetrators are not necessarily "bad" people, but their abusive behavior is unacceptable. Some perpetrators have childhood histories where they were physically or sexually abused, neglected, or exposed to domestic abuse.76 Some suffer from substance abuse and mental health problems.77 All of these factors can influence their psychological functioning and contribute to the complexity and severity of the abusive behavior. Perpetrators need support and intervention to end their violent behavior and any additional problems that compound their abusive behavior. Through specialized interventions, community services, and sanctions, some abusers can change and become nonviolent.78
Indicators of Dangerousness
Different levels of violence and types of abuse are perpetrated by domestic violence offenders. Some abusers rarely use physical violence, while others assault their partners daily. There are perpetrators who are only abusive towards family members and others who are violent toward a variety of people. There are abusers who are more likely to inflict serious injury or become homicidal. Some frequently degrade the victim, while some rarely, if ever, implement that particular tactic.
It is critical that professionals and community service providers who intervene in domestic violence cases engage in thorough and continuous assessment of the perpetrator's level of dangerousness. Evaluating this dangerousness involves identifying risk indicators that reflect the capacity to continue perpetrating severe violence.79 Although domestic violence homicides or severe assaults cannot be predicted, there are several risk factors that help determine the likelihood that severe forms of violence may be imminent. The greater the number or the intensity of the following indicators, the more likely a severe or life-threatening attack will occur:
- Threats or thoughts of homicide and suicide;
- Possession or access to weapons;
- Use of weapons in a threatening or intimidating manner;
- Extreme jealousy or obsession with the victim;
- Physical attacks, verbal threats, and stalking during a separation or divorce;
- Kidnapping or hostage taking;
- Sexual assault or rape;
- Prior abusive incidents that resulted in serious injury;
- History of violence with previous partners and children;
- Psychopathology or substance abuse.80
The above factors pose a substantial risk to victims of domestic violence and possibly to their children. It also is important to ask for the victim's assessment of the abuser's dangerousness. Extremely dangerous perpetrators can be safety threats to people who are involved in the victim's life, individuals trying to help, or the children. It is crucial that community professionals who work with violent families incorporate these risk indicators into their assessments and interventions because failure to do so can seriously compromise the lives of everyone involved.
Parenting and the Perpetrator
Can perpetrators be supportive parents when they are abusive towards the other parent? An emerging issue facing victims of domestic violence and child advocacy groups is the role and impact that perpetrators have in their children's lives. There are perpetrators who have positive interactions with their children, provide for their physical and financial needs, and are not abusive towards them. There also are perpetrators who neglect or physically harm their children. Although abusers vary tremendously in parenting styles, there are some behaviors common among perpetrators that can have harmful effects on children:
- Authoritarianism. Perpetrators can be rigid and demanding with their children. They often have high and unrealistic expectations and expect children to obey without question or resistance. This parenting style is intimidating for children and alters their sense of safety around the abuser. These perpetrators are more likely to use harsher forms of physical discipline, which can make the children increasingly vulnerable to becoming direct targets of violence.
- Neglect, irresponsibility, and lack of involvement. Some abusers are infrequently involved in the daily parenting activities of their children. They may view their children as hindrances and become easily annoyed with them. Furthermore, the perpetrator's preoccupation with controlling the partner and meeting his or her own emotional needs leaves little time to engage the children. Unfortunately, the perpetrator's physical and emotional unavailability can produce unrequited feelings of anticipation and fondness in the children who eagerly await attention.
- Undermining the victim. The perpetrator's coercive and violent behavior towards the victim sometimes sends children a message that it is acceptable for them to treat that parent in the same manner. More overt tactics that weaken the victim's influence over the children include the perpetrator disregarding the victim's parenting decisions, telling the children that the victim is an inadequate parent, and belittling the victim in the presence of the children. Being victimized by abuse can lead children to perceive the parent in a weaker, passive role with no real authority over their lives.
- Self-centeredness. Some perpetrators use their children to meet their own emotional needs. Perpetrators may expect their children to be immediately available only when they are interested and often overwhelm them with their problems. This can result in children feeling burdened and responsible for helping their parent while their own needs are neglected.
- Manipulation. To gain power in the home, perpetrators may manipulate their children into aligning against the victim. Abusers may make statements or exhibit behaviors that confuse the children regarding who is responsible for the violence and coerce them into believing that they are the preferable parent. Abusers also may directly or indirectly use their children to control and intimidate the victim. Perpetrators sometimes may threaten to abduct, seek sole custody of, or physically harm the children if the victim is not compliant.81 Sometimes these are threats exclusively and the abuser does not intend or really want to carry out the action, but the threats are typically perceived as being very real.
Children's perception of the perpetrator's violence can play a significant role in the nature of their relationship. Children often feel anxious, scared, and angry when they witness abuse. At the same time, many children also feel affection, loyalty, and love for the abuser. It is common for children to experience ambivalent feelings towards the abuser and this can be difficult for them to resolve.82
Domestic violence can influence the children's feelings toward the victim. Many children know the abuse is wrong and may even feel responsible for protecting the battered parent. Yet, they also experience confusion and resentment towards the victim for "putting up" with the abuse and are more likely to express their anger towards the victim rather than directly at the perpetrator.83
Children need additional support as they struggle with their conflicting feelings towards the perpetrator. The responsibility of perpetrators as parents primarily focuses on preventing the recurrence of the violence. Some victims want their children to have a safe and positive relationship with the perpetrator, and some children crave that connection. Consequently, community service providers are confronted with the challenge of developing resources and strategies to help perpetrators become supportive and safe parents.84
Examples of specific approaches that programs and service providers can use that will assist perpetrators in taking responsibility for the harm they pose to their children include:
- Educating abusers on the damaging effects of their behavior on their partners and children;
- Providing intensive parenting skills programs that emphasize the needs of children affected by domestic abuse;
- Offering safe exchange and supervised visitation programs;
- Encouraging abusers to support their children attending groups for youths exposed to domestic violence;
- Recruiting nonviolent fathers to mentor domestic violence perpetrators.85
A provocative issue for CPS caseworkers, service providers, and other community groups is determining the role abusers should have as parents or caretakers.86 Many voice legitimate concerns regarding the safety of the child victims.
There are special considerations and challenges in attempting to engage fathers who are abusive to their children or spouse, in activities that promote healthy involvement with the family. Some groups, such as some of those in the fatherhood movement, address this issue by helping fathers to increase their responsible involvement in their children's lives.87 Other groups, either through a prevention effort or an intervention treatment, seek to increase compassion, emotional awareness, and self-regulation skills in the belief that these skills remove the motivation for abusive behavior.88 Although juvenile court and protective order laws are designed to assign responsibility for child support and parental involvement, CPS caseworkers often face challenges in engaging fathers in the safety and care of their children. The difficulty with engaging some fathers in child protection efforts, however, stems from a cultural and gender bias of placing parenting responsibilities primarily on women.89 This is evidenced in child welfare systems where cases are tracked through the mother's name and subsequent case planning efforts are focused on her to make significant changes.90 Unfortunately, involving fathers or male caretakers typically does not occur unless they are willing participants or easily accessible in the CPS process. Thus, fathers can become essentially "invisible" in CPS efforts and unaccountable for the well-being of their children.91 Please see "Practice Recommendations for Assessing the Domestic Violence Perpetrator" in Chapter 4 for specific steps on engaging abusive parents. Unquestionably, balancing the protection of adult and child victims with the rights and responsibilities of perpetrators will require continuous dialogue and a movement towards collaboration. If communities are dedicated to ending domestic violence, they must strive to hear the voices of adults and children who suffer from abuse so that a collective agenda of building healthy, safe, and stable families can be accomplished.
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