Children's exposure to domestic and family violence

Key issues and responses
CFCA Paper No. 36 – December 2015

Defining domestic and family violence

There is some debate with regard to the terminology used to describe violence experienced by women and children, and varying terminology is used in policy, practice and research (Campo, Kaspiew, Tayton, & Moore, 2014). The Australian Government's National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children (COAG, 2009a) adopts the UN (1993) definition, which states that violence against women is:

any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty.

This can include a range of specific forms of violence experienced by women and girls, including sexual violence, intimate partner violence, and domestic and family violence, as well as practices that are harmful to women and girls, such as female genital mutilation and forced marriage (UN, 1993; World Health Organization [WHO], 2010).

"Intimate partner violence" or "domestic violence" generally describe violence perpetrated by a current or previous partner, and is the most common form of violence against women (Phillips & Vandenbroek, 2014; WHO, 2010). "Domestic violence" and "family violence" are the terms commonly used to describe violence perpetrated against women in the home. Family violence is a broader term encapsulating violence between family members as well as intimate partners (Phillips & Vandenbroek, 2014). Family violence is the preferred term in Indigenous populations as it better captures the kinship and extended family relationships in Indigenous communities (Cripps & Davis, 2012).

The National Plan (COAG, 2009a) also distinguishes between domestic violence and family violence:

Domestic violence refers to acts of violence that occur between people who have, or have had, an intimate relationship. While there is no single definition, the central element of domestic violence is an ongoing pattern of behaviour aimed at controlling a partner through fear, for example by using behaviour which is violent and threatening. In most cases, the violent behaviour is part of a range of tactics to exercise power and control over women and their children, and can be both criminal, and non-criminal. Domestic violence includes physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse … Family violence is a broader term that refers to violence between family members, as well as violence between intimate partners … the term family violence is the most widely used term to identify the experiences of Indigenous people, because it includes the broad range of marital and kinship relationships in which violence may occur. (p. 2)

Sexual violence includes sexual harassment, sexual bullying, sexual coercion, unwanted touching or kissing, and sexual assault (Tarczon & Quadara, 2012). Sexual violence can occur in community or work contexts as well as in intimate relationships and/or families. Intimate partner violence, domestic violence and family violence include behaviours that are coercive and controlling and include physical abuse, emotional/psychological abuse, sexual abuse, financial deprivation and social and cultural isolation (COAG, 2009a). Domestic and family violence may also refer to violence experienced by men in the home; however, most definitions recognise that domestic and family violence is gendered in nature and that the overwhelming majority of violence experienced in the home is perpetrated by men against women and children (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2013; Australian National Research Organisation for Women's Safety [ANROWS], 2014).

This discussion paper uses the term "domestic and family violence", as it best reflects the types of violence children are directly and indirectly exposed to in the home. The nature of children's exposure to domestic and family violence is manifold, ranging from witnessing (including seeing and overhearing violence and witnessing its effects) to being directly involved. As Powell and Murray (2008) explained, children were previously seen as "silent witnesses" to domestic and family violence; however, a now substantial body of research indicates children may be involved in domestic and family violence in a range of ways, including being forced to watch or participate in assaults or intervening to stop the violence occurring (Buckley & Holt, 2007; Carroll-Lind, Chapman, & Raskauskas, 2011; Edleson, 1999; Edleson, Mbilinyi, Beeman, & Hagemeister, 2003; Indermaur, 2001; Morris, Humphreys, & Hegarty, 2015; Mullender et al., 2002; Stanley, Miller, & Richardson Foster, 2012).