Infants and Children in Danger of Maltreatment due to Domestic Violence
(The problem of violence in the home)

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services


Abstract & Summary

The question is frequently asked : What effect has domestic violence on children? Firstly, the causes of domestic violence are considered. This is followed by the diagnosing of domestic violence (DV) and dealing with it. The attitude of society and laws are considered, but most importantly the effect on children trapped in families racked by DV. The reaction is two-fold: Children can be in actual physical and emotional danger, and secondly children who witness DV are influenced and frequently identify with the perpetrator(s) or their victim(s). Separation from the perpetrator of DV is essential. There is also the need to treat the perpetrator of DV successfully, before there is a return to the family home.

Infants and Children in Danger of Maltreatment due to Domestic Violence

 (The problem of violence in the home)


Society is always concerned about the possibility of the maltreatment of children by their parents. This is especially the case of very young children. Such fears must be acknowledged as a possibility. Social Services need to make decisions that can be problematic and frequently open to criticisms. What follows, it is hoped, will make such decisions easier.

The objective in what follows is based on the research and personal experiences of one expert witness and consultant clinical psychologist from his involvement with parents and Local Authorities responsible for child custody actions. This includes at times removing children, even newly born children from their parents and thereby protecting them from real or alleged threats to their welfare. One of these threats is domestic violence within a relationship and between parents. We will consider the attitude of society towards domestic violence and the abusers involved in violence, as well as the traits of such abusers. We will also look at the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of domestic violence.

The usual approach is proactive: violent offenders must leave the home. It also means taking such children into care at times in order to be certain that they are protected from the double danger encountered as a result of domestic violence including:

1.         Being directly in physical danger due to domestic violence taking place.

2.         The indirect impact of domestic violence being witnessed by the child.

We will consider each one of these in turn, noting the changes in thinking that have occurred in society, mostly for the better but still one third of women in the United States have at some point in their lives suffered abuse, termed domestic violence (Lowenstein 2005c). No racial, educational or socio-economic group is immune from domestic violence.

Attitude of society

Recent times have produced evidence that society is less tolerant now than it was in the past, of domestic violence and abuse in general. This is due to it being reported more openly than was the case in the past. Domestic violence, unlike in the past, is now recognized as dangerous, inhuman and not to be tolerated.

The same can also be said of the physical, sexual and emotional abuse of children as well as child neglect, which is another form of abuse. All these lead to future emotional problems (Teisl & Cicchetti, 2007).

Who are the abusers

Abusers frequently are men and men who have themselves been physically abused as children and adolescents and who have themselves experienced DV. They develop in time the tendency to be abusive to their partners. Some also suffer from a variety of emotional problems. Such individuals are more likely to abuse substances such as alcohol and/or drugs. This leads to a display of anger due to an inability to control violent behaviour (Downs et al., 1996). All these interacting factors are more likely to lead to hostility (Shackman et al., 2007). It will also lead to paranoid ideations and other symptoms including depression and anxiety. All these factors affect the capacity for good personal relationships and good parenting roles.

Traits of abusers

Childhood violence is associated with antisocial attitudes and behaviour in later life as well as predicting perpetrating partner violence. Milner & Chilamkurti (1991) noted that there were certain traits which physical abusers had. They were more likely to be more easily stressed, suffer from expecting their children to practice inappropriate behaviour intentionally. They often lack self –control and need control over others, especially their partner as well as their children frequently using harsh disciplinary measures.

We will now consider the immediate dangers for children living in a milieu of domestic violence involving their parents and followed by the indirect repercussions on children living in an atmosphere of domestic violence.

Being in physical danger due to the domestic violence taking place

Children living in a family where domestic violence is the norm, are likely to be in greater physical and emotional danger than where domestic violence is not the norm. This happens in at least 3 ways:

  1. When they are inadvertently caught up in displays of violence by either or both partners during the violent conflict.
  2. When they appear to take sides between the parents. This may be in the form of seeking to protect their parent from the aggressive behaviour of the other.
  3. Identifying either with the aggressive perpetrator(s) of abuse or identifying with the victim.

Eighty percent of children exposed to spousal abuse are likely themselves to suffer from physical abuse by one or both parents (Lowenstein, 2005a; Hoshmand, 2004; Pagelow, 1990). Living in an environment where there is regular threat of, or actual, violence, is conducive to a feeling of insecurity and powerlessness. On the contrary such children live in an atmosphere of anxiety and stress and yet feeling powerless to do anything about it.

The impact of domestic violence being witnessed by the child

Children learn about violent behaviour at least in part from their parents. This is likely to lead to future partner violence when such children mature into adults. The children also are likely to imitate one or other of their parents in the abusing of substances which lead to a lack of inhibition of violent aggressive behaviour.

Children who witness domestic violence grow up in a climate of insecurity, anxiety, due to tensions between their parents and a display of substance abusing and physical violence. Sometimes this is from one parent only towards the other. Very often it is both parents displaying violence towards one another. The child identifies with one parent (the victim, or perpetrator). Such role models are influential in the manner in which the child develops into an adolescent and as an adult.

Memory of aggression by their parents remains as a memory for most of their lives (Goodman & Rosenberg, 1991). These children witnessing such violence frequently develop a low self-esteem, become themselves aggressive and have educational problems and develop maladjustment (Hoshmand, 2004; Graham-Bermann & Levendosky, 1998; Kolbo et al., 1996).

Very young children frequently suffer from nightmares, sleep problems, bed wetting, encopresis (soiling), headaches, stomach aches and asthma. In the case of children there is a likelihood they may wish to prevent aggression between their parents and feel guilty at not being able to stop such behaviour. Pagelow (1996) found boys more likely to turn to aggression themselves, while girls display clinging behaviour, being withdrawn and suffering from a variety of anxieties.

Domestic violence and its association with child abuse and neglect

There is evidence that in the research that violence or neglect towards children is also associated with mental disorders. Egami et al., (1996) found that 58.5% of adults who reported having been abused as children and 69.3% of those who were neglected as children had mental problems. Many of these problems were intergenerational with such abusive behaviour being passed on from one generation to the next (Zuravin et al., 1996).

The American Department of Health and Human Services (1991) define spousal violence as :

 “The use of physical violence by the abuser to gain control and power over the victim……Most victims are women.”

There are three types of domestic violence and abuse: physical, sexual and psychological or emotional abuse. They may appear separately or together.

The characteristics of women who are abused report fear towards their spouse because of threats of actual physical or sexual violence perpetrated. Such women frequently have a history of being abused in childhood by their own parents or carer (Cascardi et al., 1995). We will consider the causes, the diagnosis and dealing with domestic violence.

The causes and incidence of domestic violence

The problem of intimate violence between partners looms large over society and it is most commonly, but by no means exclusively, against women (Lowenstein, 2005a). For the year 1998, in the United States, 1,036,340 people were battered by a partner (Hook, 2004). This may well be an underestimate since many victims remain silent and hence undetected and untreated. Much domestic violence is mutual abuse (Henning & Feder, 2004).

Women from the developing world are especially prone to being victims of physical and sexual violence. Here the term “patriarchal terrorism” is sometimes used (Johnson, 2004). There were at least 10 causes of associated aspects to domestic violence (Lowenstein, (2005a).  These are:

1.         Need for power, control and dominance.
2.         Cultural aspects with women seeking greater independence when living in a Western culture, as well as early and arranged marriages.
3.         Lack of protection by the Authorities.
4.         Nexus of violence and poverty.
5.         Psychological problems.
6.         The influence of alcohol and substance abuse occurring.
7.         Homicide and violent behaviour.
8.         Common law relationships.
9.         Past abusive experiences.
10.       Sexual problems and pregnancy leading women to become less interested in sex. (Lowenstein (2005a).

The diagnosis of domestic violence

The effect of domestic violence on victims, be they women or men, or children, can be catastrophic (Lowenstein 2005b). The victims often suffer from both physical and emotional disturbances at the time or in later life. There is therefore a powerful need for both legal and psychological involvement to prevent DV from happening. The victims frequently do not report such behaviour out of shame, or fail to leave such abusive partners for various reasons. Many such victims (mainly women) live in poverty (Lowenstein, 2005b; Eby, 2004; Belfrage & Rying, 2004). It is said that higher rates of suicide occur in victims of DV. In many cases the perpetrators also suffer from psychiatric problems in at least 80% of cases and this has led to the perpetrators committing suicide also. This is sometimes also the case of male victims of domestic violence as well as male perpetrators of domestic violence who had been seriously provoked (Busch & Rosenberg, 2004).

The result is that such victims live in an atmosphere of stress, physical ailments, as well as poorer pregnancy outcomes (Feder et al., 2005).Such victims need long and consistent support even once the abuse has ceased (Plichta, 2004; Lowenstein 2005b). Mental illness such as depression and anxiety as well as despair are often involved (Mollon, 2004; Aznar, 2004).

Self esteem is very much affected due to rape and other traumatic experiences endured by a victim living in an atmosphere with an abusive spouse (Frieze, 2005). These victims are also compelled to see the effect of their abuse on their children (Huth-Bocks et al., 2004). If pregnant, the women often have a negative attitude to their newly born infant.

Children’s attitudes to domestic violence has already been delineated. The reaction of children is especially apparent in different cultures such as those from Africa, African Caribbean, Ireland and Southern Asia (Goel, 2005; Burman & Chandler, 2005). Here victims of domestic violence hold positions of inferiority within the family compared with the perpetrator who is usually the male. Here there is the need to provide women with greater independence and empower them economically (Chronister et al., 2004) via obtaining work (Swanberg & Logan, 2005).

Dealing with and treating domestic violence

Dealing with domestic violence requires that the first consideration be the children of the union and most especially their physical safety and their psychological security. As an expert witness I am frequently involved with such cases by Social Services and families. My view has always been that the removal of children surrounded by domestic violence between the parents should be the last resort. Failing to do so however, when children are in real danger, is reckless and can lead to tragic results. A thorough evaluations of the family is therefore of paramount importance.

Frequently a parent must choose between the security of their children and the removing of an abusing partner. It is for this reason that the perpetrator of abuse should not remain with the family until it has been shown that the abuser has accepted treatment and is totally free of the need to abuse a partner in future.

Decisions concerning this need to be reached with considerable certainty. Such relationship problems, if it is decided that the parents should once again live together, need to be monitored carefully for some time. Anger management treatment and the developing of empathy in the perpetrator(s) of abuse, can be the way forward. Only after this has been successfully done can the abuser and/or the children be returned to the home. Such abusers must not only be free of any further violent behaviour, but show respect and care for their partner. When such partners are addicted to substances such as alcohol or drugs, they need to be confirmed to be free of these before any consideration can be given concerning the rehabilitation with the family. As may be noted, it is vital to protect the potential victims of abuse, and most importantly the children, from any danger via an abuser.

“Perpetrators of abuse must not only accept that what they do is wrong but there must be “zero tolerance” in relation to this. The abusers must also develop the capacity to change both attitudes and behaviour. They need to deal with their anger and to attend treatment on the basis of this.”(Lowenstein, 2005c).
The police and legal profession need also to be involved in domestic violence cases.

In order to prevent deadly attacks on victims of domestic violence with weapons such as guns and knives these instruments need to be confiscated. Those who ultimately murder their partner tend to be fairly ordinary or conventional individuals. It must be noted that one third of female homicides in the United States are perpetrated by spouses or other intimate partners. Hence Judges need to urge that guns and other weapons are surrendered (Cole, 2004).

The modified “Conflict Tactics Scale” and the “Partner Violence Screen” have been used to predict the likelihood of future domestic violence including physical and/or verbal aggression (Houry et al., 2004). These tests identify women at high risk of physical, emotional and verbal violence. Few victims are aware of the danger they are in such as being killed or severely injured. There appeared to be a relationship between the substance abusing of the perpetrator and domestic violence as well as the use of physical and sexual violence against women (Testa, 2004).

Women who suffer from domestic violence are likely to suffer from depression, low self esteem and often have low socio-economic status as well as PTSD (Coker, 2004). Treatment recommended for victims of domestic violence is weekly group therapy after the perpetrator has left the home of the victim parent. In some cases it is necessary to remove victims of abuse to secret shelters with a child/children. The former partner is barred from having contact of any kind with the victim of abuse.

For perpetrators there is a need for additional individual therapy. Failure of a perpetrator to participate in treatment means no return to the former partner. In this way this could lead to contact with the child/children providing there is no direct aggression towards the children. In time there could be supervised contact for the perpetrator of abuse and this may lead in due course to unsupervised contact providing the supervised contact goes well.

After psychological assessment victims of domestic violence frequently gain support from being within a group, especially after a long term of experiencing “battering” (Kaser-Boyd, 2004). At the same time, abusers must face punishment and be offered treatment at the same time  both for their anger and substance abusing (Goodman & Epstein, 2005).

Dropping out of treatment by perpetrators is not an option, but imprisonment is the only remaining alternative, especially if perpetrators threaten their former partners with violence. Superficial compliance by the perpetrator is also not an option.

The emphasis must be on the treatment separately of the perpetrator and victim(s). The objective is to focus on solutions rather than problems (Lee et al., 2004). Findings are that there is a 16.7% recidivism rate. At the same time 83.3% of perpetrators showed a significant improvement in their relationship with their former partner after psychological treatment. This should be viewed as highly encouraging.


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