Child Parent Contact Following Domestic Violence

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services


Abstract & Summary

What follows concerns itself with some recent research into domestic violence. The author of this article has written a number of articles on this subject, including the effect of domestic violence on children. Included in this article is a current piece of research dealing with domestic violence and contact by the child with a parent following separation. Also considered, is the prevention and dealing with the effects of domestic violence, leading to the assessment and treatment of the child’s view on having contact with the parent who has committed domestic violence. Assessing individuals before contact with children is considered and the types and sequence of contact arrangements with a parent involved in domestic violence. Finally, a question and answer is presented on the subject: “Can those who commit domestic violence be trusted with contact and possible care of their child/children?”

Child Parent Contact Following Domestic Violence

The relationship and domestic violence and parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome has long been noted and yet given scarce attention when considering contact arrangements once the parents have parted. There is relatively little research dealing with the precise aspect of contact between parents who have been involved in domestic violence issues. This is despite the fact that the family courts appear to be aware of judging whether there should be contact or not between children and a parent who has been found to have been involved in domestic violence, either when it has been committed by one or both parties.


My own research into domestic violence (Lowenstein, 2005 a,b,c) indicates that males are still predominantly responsible for domestic violence but the gap between the genders is narrowing. A study of child contact issues when there has been domestic violence by one or both parents, indicates that fathers are responsible for approximately 35% of such incidents and mothers for about 15% (Lowenstein 2009). In many cases violence occurs by both parents towards one another (approximately 50%).

The victim tends to be mainly the mother but also sometimes children when they are involved, or involve themselves, in the altercations of their parents. Children when old enough frequently come to the defence of the parent victim. They are clearly anxious and upset when they note animosity and especially physical or verbal aggression between their parents.

Many victims of violence accept what occurs or keep quiet about the “battering” received whether this be from the male or female parent. Both parents, and especially mothers in the past, have feared abandonment with economic consequences to themselves. Hence many of the incidents remain unreported and unresolved. This sometimes has tragic consequences for the victim and also the perpetrator and the emotional security of children. One study surprisingly found that there were a greater number of “mutual” domestic violence cases rather than it being carried out by one party alone inflicting the damage on the other (McCarroll et al., 2005).

By 2002 there were approximately twice as many mutual cases of domestic violence as non mutual cases. The severity of the abuse tended to be higher towards mothers than fathers. In recent times, however, as already stated there has been an increase in female violence towards the male (Henning & Feder, 2004).

Domestic violence is not always in the form of physical aggression by one or both parties in the relationship. Abuse can be emotional, economic, financial or sexual abuse, including forcing sex on an unwilling partner (Honig, 2004). Sometimes there is abuse which is verbal, spiritual such as criticising the religion of the other, destruction of property etc.

An abusive relationship comes in three sequences: 1) tension builds up with the frustration leading to abuse; 2) the abuse itself by one or other parties or mutual abuse follows; 3) feelings and expressions of remorse and a desire to make a relationship work once again with step 1 following this.

The effect of domestic violence on children

As already mentioned, children have great difficulty in coping with abusive parents. Sometimes the children themselves are injured in a hostile, physical affray between the partners. This can and does lead to anxieties for the children involved and a tendency towards, especially in the young child, being followed by bed wetting, nail biting, thumb sucking, self mutilation, anxiety, headaches, tummy aches, low self esteem, insecurity, delayed emotional development, lack of bonding with one or both parents, as well as depression and feelings of guilt. Older children may leave home and drift into asocial and antisocial behaviour patterns.

Present research

Problem – The assessment of non custodial and custodial parents who have committed domestic violence against a partner or been the victim of domestic violence. Also of concern is contact with the children following separation of the partners.

Subject – The subjects consisted of 24 consecutive referrals in relation to one parent seeking contact with a child/children.

Table 1

Persons committing domestic violence

Situation Frequency
Fathers violent to mothers 8
Mothers violent to fathers 4
Mutual domestic violence 12

Table 2

Parents seeking contact with their child/children

Situation Frequency
Absent fathers seeking contact 19
Absent mothers seeking contact 2
Contact opposed by mother 17
Contact opposed by father 1

Table 3

Success of contact with absent parent

Situation Frequency
Number of children having successful unsupervised contact with absent parent 21
Number of children failing to have successful contact with absent parent 5
Number of children who have suffered from contact with separated parent 0
Preventing and dealing with the effect of domestic violence on children and possible consequences of domestic violence

There are but two ways in which the previous mentioned symptoms of domestic violence can be prevented or dealt with:

    1. Parents to accept the need to seek help and treatment while still together or living physically separated.
    2. Separating the parents who then receive treatment, or separating the parents on a permanent basis if their treatment proves unsuccessful. This leaves one parent, usually the mother, to care for the children on a day to day basis, while father (sometimes mother) resides elsewhere.

The child/children of families where domestic violence occurs require to undergo treatment due to their unfortunate experiences while living with conflict. Following this the possibility of contact with the absent parent needs to be explored. The way this is carried out will be discussed later. Of primary importance is to ascertain whether the child is safe with the absent parent who has committed domestic violence, or who has been a part of mutual domestic violence incidents.

Most parents separated from the home seek contact with their children (see Table 2), while most parents who have custody of children after domestic violence tend to resist allowing contact between the children and the now absent parent (see Table 2). Most alleged domestic violence perpetrators are males or the domestic violence has been of a mutual nature (see Table 1).

Virtually all children in a sample studied who have had contact with an absent parent, have benefited from such contact when it occurred (see Table 3). It is however, important to ascertain how the perpetrator of domestic violence will behave towards the child/children and the child’s attitude towards that parent. We will consider this following which we will concern ourselves with the parent who has committed domestic violence before contact with children is considered. The custodial parent should ideally actively encourage the child/children to participate in the contact with the now absent parent by neither directly or subtly undermining such contact taking place.

Assessing and treating the child’s view on having contact with the parent who has committed domestic violence

Children who have suffered from domestic violence issues between parents have frequently been damaged by the experience. They have, in the process, lost one of the parents and they are undoubtedly anxious about losing the other one. The child/children have also been left with fear towards the now absent parent. Additionally, the attitude of the parent left to care for the child/children is likely to be hostile toward the now absent parent.

This will have been communicated to the child. The child/children identify on the whole with the parent who was the victim of the domestic violence. This frequently leads to the child/children rejecting the now absent parent. Hence, children are likely to reject. at least in initially, such absent parents and wishing no contact with them. This opposition to contact will almost certainly be supported by the parent who has custody of the child. In the long term however, it is harmful for children to fail to have contact with a good parent who is not abusive and has never been abusive towards them.

Hence for two reasons at least, the child/children will resist contact unless the following occurs: the child’s fear of, and animosity towards the absent parent is treated urgently. The basic tenet of such treatment is to make the child/children aware of the fact that while their parents no longer wish to, or can be together, this does not indicate a lack of love by both parents towards the child/children.

The Court and Social Services including CAFCASS need to be deal with this being aware of the negative experiences the child has had and how to overcome these negative experiences. The Court and Social Services need also to be made aware of the harmful effect of the process of alienation which is likely to have occurred, and continues to occur, as practiced by the custodial parent due to the implacable hostility between the parents. This often leads to turning the child/children against the now absent parent. This alienation aims to destroy any positive feelings the child has developed over time towards the now absent parent with whom the child/children may have had a close, happy, as well as loving relationship in the past.

Assessing the absent parent before contact with child/children is considered

The procedure for assessing participants (fathers or mothers) who are now absent from the family with a view to having contact with their child/children requires the following steps:

    1. One or more in-depth interviews to ascertain whether the individual is likely to have a positive or negative effect on the child.
    2. An assessment of the individual’s personality and likely behaviour during contact using objective and projective personality tests.

Any signs of habitual aggressive behaviour in their personality towards the child, or habitual misuse of alcohol and/or drugs should rule out contact (Galvani, 2004). This is at least for the time being, unless the parent is willing to undergo treatment for the addiction, following which there may be a re-consideration. The influence of parents seeking contact with the child/children needs to be positive and of emotional value to the child. Contact between a parent and a child/children requires to be immediately curtailed if a parent shows hostility towards the child/ children whatever the child’s conduct may be.

Children who have been alienated by a parent will frequently not wish to see the absent parent or will display hostile behaviour towards the alienated parent for the reasons given in the previous section. Parents seeking contact must be prepared for this possibility such as being rejected by the child/children or the child/children being abusive towards that parent. Despite such behaviour such a parent should show understanding and love towards the child/children and not react in a hostile manner.

Those arranging contact need to use a step by step procedure, based on the individual case in question. Children who have experienced domestic violence between parents urgently need treatment to counteract these harmful experiences. Once it has been established that the individual parent is prepared to face the frequently angry and fearful child/childrne there is a need for close supervision and observation in a neutral contact centre. This will be discussed next.

Types of sequence of contact arrangement with a parent involved in domestic violence

Once the individual seeking contact with a child has been ascertained as appropriate and the child has equally been assessed, then a sequence of step by step contact strategies can be implemented. Each case must be determined on an individual basis. What follows should therefore be regarded as an illustration of a general rather than an individual programme, and merely act as guidelines.

Sequence or order of contact:

      1. The initial contact between a child and the absent parent needs to be supervised in a contact centre. It is essential to use an intermediary to hand a child over to the contact centre where the non custodial parent awaits the arrival of the child. The parents should at no time meet each other or see each other at the contact centre unless this has been agreed between both parties. There needs to be close monitoring of the contact between the child and the parent so that the child feels comfortable and secure with the interaction with that parent. The contact may need to be curtailed or interrupted when there are signs that either the child or parent finds it painful or difficult to continue. The length of each contact should be pre-determined as well as the frequency of it. It all depends on how matters develop during contact. Following the constant supervision of contact and providing such contact goes well over a number of sessions, the next step is in order.
      2. The next step is allowing short periods of non supervised contact between the parent and the child while in the contact centre, providing the child is happy with this. This could mean interacting and playing with the child depending on the child’s age within the contact centre and eventually allowing the parent to take the child out unsupervised for a defined period to a playground or to have a meal together etc.
      3. Eventually, if all goes well, such unsupervised contact interludes could be extended to have more contact time, without or with very limited supervision.
      4. The next step, if all goes well, the parent should be with the child for one half a day or a full day and extending this as appropriate etc.
      5. This could be followed by an overnight stay with the absent parent and later an weekend stay with that parent.
      6. With a mediator, the frequency and time spent with the non custodial parent can be discussed in advance and decisions made accordingly. This is best done by establishing the views of the parents separately. In some cases it may be possible in some instances to see the previously estranged parents together providing both agree with this and such meetings are harmonious. It would obviously to be of value to the child to see the parents discuss their role of parenting together and in harmony. This step is only possible when both parents have conquered their hostility toward on another.
Can those who commit domestic violence be trusted with contact and possible care of children?

Following an acrimonious separation or divorce, the above question is frequently asked by the courts. Expert witnesses such as Psychologists of Psychiatrists are frequently involved in attempting to advise on a solution. Of primary importance is the safety of the child while in the presence of the perpetrator(s) of domestic violence are given secondary consideration. Children suffer significantly from acts of domestic violence. Therefore there is a need for the separation of the parents physically and legally. This is because it is imperative to keep the warring factions with their hostility apart until some form of harmony has been established via mediation.

This is not always possible and in that case the separation must continue totally between the parents. An intermediary is needed in contact cases where children are passed from one parent to another. Such contact arrangements need to be individualised and carefully planned in advance with intermediaries involved. Such contacts may be increased or decreased depending on the circumstances and the child’s “independent” views and needs.

One needs to be aware of certain aspects in such cases:

    1. The alleged or real victim of domestic violence is likely unjustifiably to oppose contact between a child and the alleged perpetrator of domestic violence. This is even the case if the alleged perpetrator has in the past never been aggressive towards the child. The basis of such opposition to contact is the implacable hostility the custodial parent feels towards the how absent parent.
    2. There may in many instances have been domestic violence by both parties towards one another but the parent who has the custody of the child is in a much more powerful position to dictate the terms of contact.
    3. Once the alleged perpetrator(s) and victim of domestic violence (the child) have been assessed by an expert (Psychologist or Psychiatrist) decisions can be made as to which type of contact is in the best interest of the child. This has to be examined carefully with the parents taking a secondary role in such contact since it is to the benefit of the child that is of primary consideration. The motive of the parent wishing contact with the child needs to be assessed carefully. The same must be said of the parent who seeks to prevent the contact of the child with the now absent parent. The decision on contact and the type of contact must rest with the judiciary and not either parent.
    4. It should be stated categorically that it would be unfair and unjust to conclude that because one or both adults have demonstrated aggression or abuse towards the other that this automatically means they are likely to display such aggression or abusive behaviour towards their children. This view is not always accepted by those who make decisions regarding a child’s contact with a parent.
    5. One must be aware of the fact that the alleged victim of domestic violence can at times seek to alienate the child against the now absent parent so that the child is unjustifiably brainwashed and hence unwilling to seek contact with the now absent parent. Children are in fact frequently brainwashed against the non custodial parent by informing children that their father or mother is likely to be aggressive towards them. This can only be overcome by frequent good contacts between the child and the now absent parent from the family.


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Henning, K., & Feder, L. (2004). A comparison of men and women arrested fro domestic violence: Who presents the greater threat? Journal of Family Violence, 19(2), 69-80.

Honig, A. S. (2004). Don’t let anyone rent space in your head. PsycCRITIQUES 49(7), 00-00.

Lowenstein, L. F. (2005a). Domestic Violence: Recent Research Part 1. Justice of the Peace, Vol 169, No.37, 715-717.

Lowenstein, L. F. (2005b) Domestic Violence: Recent Research Part 2. Justice of the Peace, Vol 169, No. 38, 733-735.

Lowenstein, L. F. (2005c) Domestic Violence: Recent Research Part 3. Justice of the Peace, Vol 169, No. 39, 758-761.

McCarroll, J. E. Ursano, R. J., Fan, Z, & Newby, J. H. (2005). Patterns of mutual and non-mutual spouse abuse in the US army (1998-2002). Violence & Victims, 19(4), 453-68.