Children's exposure to domestic and family violence

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

Prevalence

Violence against women is widespread in the Australian population; however, it is not possible to establish the full extent of the problem since many cases of sexual assault, domestic and family violence and other violence go unreported (Phillips & Vandenbroek, 2014). Recent statistical evidence suggests significant numbers of Australian children are exposed to domestic and family violence in the home. The 2012 Australian Bureau of Statistics' (2014) Personal Safety Survey found:

  • Thirty six per cent of women over 18 years of age have, since they were 15 years old, experienced physical or sexual violence by a known perpetrator (n = 3,106,500).
  • The most likely known perpetrator was a former partner, with 15% of women having experienced violence since they were 15 years old from a former partner (n = 1,158,700).
  • Of those women who had experienced violence by a current partner, 54% had children in their care at the time of the violence and 31% of the children had seen or heard the violence.
  • Of the women who had experienced violence by a former partner, 61% had children in their care at the time of the violence and 48% of the children had seen or heard the violence.

Children are at particular risk of experiencing domestic and family violence during and after parental separation. The AIFS Longitudinal Study of Separated Families (Kaspiew et al., 2009) found that of the 10,002 separated parents surveyed, 17% of fathers and 26% of mothers reported experiencing physical hurt from their partner.1 Of the parents who reported experiencing physical violence before separation, 72% of mothers and 63% of fathers reported that their children had witnessed the violence (Kaspiew et al., 2009). Similarly, the AIFS Survey of Recently Separated Parents (De Maio, Kaspiew, Smart, Dunstan, & Moore, 2013) found that the experience of family violence was common among separating families:

  • Sixty-eight per cent of mothers and 58% of fathers reported emotional abuse.
  • Twenty-four per cent of mothers and 16% of fathers reported physical violence.
  • Of the parents who reported emotional or physical violence prior to separating, 53% of fathers and 64% of mothers reported that their children had either seen or heard the violence or abuse.

Similar rates of child exposure to family violence were reported by parents in the 2015 Experiences of Separated Parents Study (in Kaspiew, Carson, Dunstan, De Maio et al., 2015).

The Victoria Police's (2014) Family Violence Incidence Reports showed that for the year ending 30 June 2014:

  • Victoria Police attended 65,393 family incidents; and
  • children were present at 22,445 (34%) of these incidents.

Within Indigenous populations, the prevalence of child exposure is more frequent, reflecting the higher rates of domestic and family violence that exist more generally within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission [HREC], 2006; Mouzos & Makkai 2004; Millward 2013; Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision (SCRGSP), 2011). Indigenous women and girls are 31 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of domestic and family violence than non-Aboriginal women and girls (SCRGSP, 2011). A nationwide survey of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Cripps, Bennett, Gurrin, & Studdert, 2009) found that:

  • one in four Indigenous women living with dependent children younger than 15 years reported being victims of violence in the previous year; and
  • violence was more prevalent in regional and city areas, and less in remote areas.

Other populations - including women and children from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities, and women and children with disabilities - are also at higher risk of experiencing domestic and family violence (Dawson, 2008; Frohmader, Dowse, & Didi, 2015).

Box 1: Methodological considerations

Several authors suggest that studies assessing the effects of children's exposure to violence may be fraught with methodological problems, and urge caution in drawing cause and effect assumptions regarding children's exposure (Chan & Yeung, 2009; DeBoard-Lucas & Grych, 2011; Gewirtz & Edleson, 2007; Goddard & Bedi, 2010; Heugten & Wilson, 2008). Studies assessing children's exposure, for example, are often based on unique populations of children drawn from women's refuges or shelters, thus representing the most recently and severely affected population (Gewirtz & Edleson, 2007).

It is also important to note that children's exposure to domestic and family violence occurs within what DeBoard-Lucas and Grych (2011) called a "constellation of risk" and disadvantage. That is, domestic and family violence often occurs alongside a host of other risk factors, such as parental substance abuse, poverty, family dysfunction, other forms of child abuse and neglect, mental ill health and social isolation (Bromfield, Lamont, Parker, & Horsfall, 2010; Gewirtz & Edleson, 2007; Goddard & Bedi, 2010; Higgins, 2004). As Holt, Buckley and Whelan (2008) highlighted, "the presence of multiple stressors in a child's life may both elevate the risk of negative outcomes and possibly render indistinct the exact relationship between domestic violence and those negative outcomes" (p. 803).

Developmental difficulties, psychosocial problems and poor outcomes in children who experience domestic and family violence might, therefore, reflect a convergence of risk factors that are consequently difficult to separate from the effects of exposure to domestic and family violence (Gewirtz & Edelson 2007; Holt et al., 2008). Price-Robertson, Higgins, and Vassallo (2013, p. 2) noted, for example, that focusing on individual forms of abuse can create the misleading impression that there are strong lines of demarcation between different types of childhood adversities and that they occur in isolation from each other.

A further methodological point of contention/concern is that studies generally only examine the effects of children's exposure to physical violence or do not distinguish between exposure to physical violence and exposure to emotional violence, such as coercion, control and verbal abuse.

1 Kaspiew et al. (2009) defined domestic and family violence as either physical or emotional abuse.