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December/January 2023Vol. 23, No. 10Defining Child Exposure to Domestic Violence: Lessons From a Historical Review of the Literature

Policies and practices about child witnesses of domestic violence vary across the United States. A paper published in Greenwich Social Work Review, "Defining Child Exposure to Domestic Violence: Lessons Learned From a Historical Review of the Literature," suggests that these policies and practices need to be clarified and refined. It explores the history of child welfare and the driving forces behind child welfare policies and practices, particularly in relation to child exposure to domestic violence, and provides evidence-based recommendations for creating policies that protect children who are exposed to domestic violence.

The paper examines the cultural assumptions and legal practices around parent-child relationships. It explains the evolution of legally recognized child maltreatment, which included poverty as neglect, child sexual abuse, and eventually child witnesses of domestic violence in the various evolutions of child welfare. In the mid-20th century, the child welfare field took on a medical model approach, which assumed that parents who abuse their children are pathological and need professional intervention and treatment. At first, this resulted in children being separated from their family (including the nonoffending parent), which could exacerbate the negative effects for the child. Conflicts between the child welfare and domestic violence fields resulted as laws and policies began to construe being a victim of domestic violence as being a perpetrator of child maltreatment since they were not preventing the child from being exposed to violence. 

The paper makes the following policy and practice recommendations:

  • Policies and practices should be grounded in a family-focused, strength-based model.
  • Policies should focus on family preservation whenever possible.
  • Child welfare agencies should partner with the family to build on their strengths.
  • States should emphasize partnering with families and connecting them with community supports.
  • Child welfare agencies should establish clear and standardized protocols for interventions.

Additional recommendations include creating clear guidelines at child welfare agencies and employing a more holistic view of child exposure to domestic violence when creating statutes.

For more details on the history of child welfare and the recommendations, read the paper.