Children's exposure to domestic and family violence

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

Responding to children exposed to domestic and family violence

Policy responses

The complexity of the relationship between the different policy responses of family law, child protection, and domestic and family violence, and their respective effects on children, has been widely examined in the literature (e.g., Hester, 2011; Humphreys, 2008; Powell & Murray, 2008). Hester referred to the fraught relationship between these sectors as the "three planet model", with each sector having their own histories, philosophies, laws and sets of professionals, which makes responses to domestic and family violence involving children difficult, contradictory and, at times, leading to unsafe situations for the children.

Domestic and family violence and allegations of child abuse and/or neglect in the context of the breakdown of parental relationships in Australia may intersect two separate legal systems. This is because the state/territory-based child protection system is responsible for investigating child safety concerns but these concerns are issues that are also relevant to the resolution of post-separation parenting arrangements in the federal family law system (Higgins & Kaspiew, 2011). Significant issues have been identified in relation to the interaction of these legal systems in terms of achieving effective and timely outcomes in the best interests of children (Australian Law Reform Commission [ALRC] and NSW Law Reform Commission [NSWLRC], 2010; Chisholm, 2009; Family Law Commission [FLC], 2009; Higgins & Kaspiew, 2011). The Family Court of Australia's Magellan case management system has, to some degree, ameliorated difficulties arising from the lack of coordination between these overlapping frameworks for family law cases involving serious allegations of child sexual abuse (Higgins, 2007). However, a comprehensive approach that deals with the "jurisdictional (and consequently philosophical and administrative) gaps" (Higgins & Kaspiew, 2008, p. 236) between the child protection system and the family law system remains outstanding, particularly as only a small number of cases with safety concerns are heard in the Family Court of Australia; the majority are heard in the Federal Circuit Court of Australia, which does not use the Magellan system.

This absence of a comprehensive approach is particularly pertinent given the prevalence of concerns about domestic and family violence and child abuse and neglect in family law cases (Carson et al., 2013; Kaspiew et al., 2009; Kaspiew, Carson, Dunstan, Qu et al., 2015). The recent AIFS Evaluation of the 2012 Family Violence Amendments (Kaspiew, Carson, Dunstan, Qu et al., 2015)3 showed that there is an increasing emphasis on identifying family violence and safety concerns across the family law system, but that "refinements in practice in this area are required" (p. ix), as well as the development of effective screening approaches across the family law system, including in family dispute resolution.

Another area of contention in policy and practice, is that the recognition that domestic and family violence is a form of harm to children has led to policy and legislative responses to women and children that are potentially problematic (Buckley, Whelan, & Carr, 2010; Cross, Mathews, Tonmyr, Scott, & Ouimet, 2012; Humphreys, 2008, 2014; Powell & Murray, 2008). Mandatory reporting of domestic and family violence where children are present is enshrined in law in New South Wales, Tasmania and the Northern Territory (CFCA, 2014). Children reported to child protection as a result of domestic and family violence are recorded as at being risk of "emotional abuse", which now accounts for the majority of mandatory notifications (Zannettino & McLaren, 2014). This increase in reporting to child protection authorities has overburdened the system, without necessarily improving child safety (Humphreys, 2007; Jacob & Fanning, 2006). Studies in the USA and Australia suggest that an unintended consequence of mandatory reporting is that women living with domestic and family violence are less likely to call the police because of the fear of mandated child protection referral, which is of particular relevance in Indigenous communities, given the history of child removal (Cross et al., 2012; Humphreys, 2008).

Humphreys (2008) identified a philosophical/theoretical tension arising out of the different historical trajectories of domestic and family violence services and child protection (see also Hester, 2011). While domestic and family violence services arose from the feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s, child protection has a more ambiguous and coercive history linked to the forcible removal of children (Humphreys, 2008). Furthermore, there are problems in the way in which child protection responds, whereby it can hold women responsible for children's safety; failure to protect may therefore become an accusation levelled at mothers rather than the perpetrators of violence (Douglas, Walsh, & Blore, 2009; Humphreys, 2008, 2014; Powell & Murray, 2008).

These differences in understanding pose a problem for effective collaboration between sectors. For example, a study assessing barriers to collaboration between child protection workers and domestic and family violence workers undertaken in South Australia (Zannettino & McLaren, 2014) found that differing perceptions of domestic and family violence and families' needs stymied effective collaboration. Child protection workers tended to hold mothers responsible for protecting their children from abuse, while domestic and family violence workers were more focused on the perpetrator and the "ways that domestic violence affected a mother's relationship with her children and capacity to parent effectively" (Zannettino & McLaren, 2014, p. 427). Lack of a shared/common response to child safety limited collaboration. Zannettino and McLaren argued that the sectors may find common ground for more effective collaboration by developing practices that "focus on empowering abused mothers, strengthening the mother-child relationship, enhancing children's emotional wellbeing" and going beyond the immediate crisis response to ensure there is a continuum of service providers available to support mothers and children (p. 430).

There is general consensus among practitioners and researchers that collaboration between the domestic and family violence and child protection sectors (and across other sectors such as health, social support and education) is essential to improve the outcomes of vulnerable children (Campo, Kaspiew, Tayton, & Moore, 2014; Healey & Humphreys, 2013; Sabates & Dex, 2015; Zannettino & McLaren, 2014). Yet, as Walsh, Tilbury and Osmond (2013) pointed out, collaboration is not straightforward:

The interface between child protection system and adult service system is a maze of differing eligibility thresholds, knowledge bases, service types, funding and contract requirements, and ethical and legal considerations. (p. 68)

Healey and Humphreys (2013) stressed the importance of governance structures to facilitate collaboration between sectors. They argued that a clear governance system must be implemented in some form in order for integration/collaboration to survive in the long term.

Child-aware approaches

One way in which policy has responded to children's needs, is the development of child-aware approaches, an initiative of the Second Three-Year Action Plan for the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-2020 (COAG, 2012). Child-aware approaches work within a framework of early intervention and prevention, emphasising family-sensitive, child-inclusive, strengths-based, collaborative and culturally appropriate approaches to delivering family and social support services (Hunter & Price-Robertson, 2014). Child-aware approaches recognise that parental problems can "adversely affect children in a number of ways" (Hunter & Price-Robertson, 2014, p. 4). Building the capacity of adult services - including domestic and family violence, drug and alcohol services, mental health and homelessness services - to "be sensitive to the needs of children, and more generally to the ways in which children and families are often implicated in parents' 'personal' problems" is a key component of the national framework (p. 13).

Adult-centred domestic and family violence crisis response services have not always been child aware, and have been critiqued for failing to meet the needs of children. For example, Humphreys (2011; 2014) critiqued the traditional fracturing of women's and children's services, arguing that adult services need to be better equipped to respond to the needs of children (see also Bell, 2006; Bunston & Sketchley, 2012; Spinney, 2013; Walsh, Tilbury, & Osmond, 2013). The Salvation Army's Safe from the Start program is a good example of a child-focused program operating within an adult service (Spinney, 2013). The community-run program uses play-based therapy in adult crisis refuges with specifically sourced books and toys that help children (aged 0-6 years) to make sense of their experiences of domestic and family violence.

Preventing homelessness: Safe at Home programs

Another example of a policy response to children and domestic and family violence is the development of Safe at Home programs. As described above, domestic and family violence is the leading cause of homelessness for children. The right of women and children to remain safely in their home is increasingly being recognised as a best practice response to women and children experiencing domestic and family violence (Crinall, Hurley, & Healey, 2014; Spinney & Harper, 2013; Tually et al., 2008), and several policy initiatives have been developed accordingly (Barrett Meyering & Edwards, 2012; Tually et al., 2008). The development of these policies and practices has been in response to the acknowledgment that a lack of housing options may mean that women and children stay in, or return to, violent homes (Tayton, Kaspiew, Moore, & Campo, 2014). Safe at Home programs allow women and children to stay in the family home through legal exclusion of the perpetrator. This recognises that women and children have a fundamental right to remain free of violence in their own homes and that perpetrators should be held accountable (Barrett Meyering & Edwards, 2012; Crinall et al., 2014). Existing research indicates that current programs are effective at meeting the needs of children (Mackay, 2011; Spinney, 2012; Tually et al., 2008). However, they require "collaboration, cooperation, consistency, information sharing and formal agreements … between a range of agencies and sectors" (Crinall et al., 2014, p. 42).

Therapeutic responses

There is relatively little literature that considers the most effective responses to children who have been exposed to violence. As Bunston, Pavlidis, and Cartwright (2015) pointed out, this is generally because children are a "hard to reach, sometimes hidden cohort and service provision is often variable" (p. 3). Furthermore, while many programs exist for children in the community, very few have been evaluated, as they tend to be delivered by community-run, underfunded organisations with little capacity for undertaking evaluations (Bunston et al., 2015; Kwok, 2013). For example, in the AIFS review of domestic and family violence response and prevention services and programs for children, stakeholders and service providers described a range of interventions for children delivered across major metropolitan and regional areas, but very few had been evaluated (Campo et al., 2014).

Therapeutic responses can include individual counselling, group work and mother-child interventions, with the aim of strengthening parent-child attachment relationships through play-based or counselling-based therapy (Bunston et al., 2015). There is emerging evidence suggesting that therapeutic programs that work conjointly with mother and child are promising (Bunston, 2008; Bunston & Heynatz, 2006; Bunston et al., 2015; Graham-Bermann & Hughes, 2003; Humphreys, 2011; Humphreys, Thiara, & Skamballis, 2011; Humphreys et al., 2015; Lieberman, Diaz, &Van Horne, 2011). Such programs allow mothers and children a safe space to talk about their experiences and recognise the effects of the violence on their relationship; however, they should also be customised to meet the diversity of issues facing women and children (Humphreys et al., 2015).

Many mother-child therapeutic interventions are based on neurobiological theories or attachment theories and evidence-based practice (e.g., Bunston et al., 2015; Lieberman et al., 2011) but, as Morris, Toone, Utter, & Christovitchin (2011, p. 38) argued, they present challenges to both policy-makers and services, as they require adequate flexible funding, supportive work environments and appropriately skilled and trained staff. In the AIFS review of domestic and family violence response services and interventions aimed at children (Campo et al., 2014), practitioners and service providers consulted for the study reported that there was a lack of both funding and adequate qualified staff to meet demand for therapeutic interventions, and existing programs had long waiting lists.

Box 2: Trauma-informed care or practices

As discussed above, the co-occurrence of domestic and family violence with other forms of child maltreatment is high and the effects of trauma on children exposed to domestic and family violence have been well established in the literature. As such, trauma-informed care is often recommended in therapeutic responses to children (Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, & Parenting Research Centre, 2013; Bunston, 2008) and is particularly emphasised for Indigenous children who may be exposed to multiple forms of maltreatment (Atkinson, 2013).

Trauma-informed practice doesn't necessarily imply that the service/intervention will focus on treating childhood trauma; rather it refers to models of service/care/interventions that are sensitive and aware to the possibility that people seeking help or using services may be victims of trauma, and that the issues/behaviours they present with might therefore be symptomatic of that trauma (Knight, 2015).

Atkinson (2013) states that in trauma-informed care in therapeutic responses should:

  • "understand trauma and its impact on individuals (such as children), families and communal groups
  • create environments in which children feel physically and emotionally safe
  • employ culturally competent staff and adopt practices that acknowledge and demonstrate respect for specific cultural backgrounds
  • support victims/survivors of trauma to regain a sense of control over their daily lives and actively involve them in the healing journey" (p. 1).

Working with children to prevent domestic and family violence

Responding effectively to children exposed to domestic and family violence is pertinent, but recent policy approaches to violence against women emphasise the urgency of addressing domestic and family violence before it occurs through the development of primary prevention strategies targeting people across the lifespan, including in childhood. Evidence shows that no single factor causes violence against women; rather it is determined by a complex interplay of multiple and interrelated factors at four levels of influence: individual, family, community and society (Fulu, Kerr-Wilson, & Lang, 2014; VicHealth, 2007; WHO, 2010). Gender inequality, including norms regarding gender roles and identities, are central to understanding the perpetration of violence against women and children. However, the way in which gender inequality intersects with other factors - such as exposure to violence and abuse in childhood, substance abuse, mental health and poverty - are also important (Heise & Fulu, 2014; WHO, 2010). Current thinking and policy on primary prevention of domestic and family violence promotes targeted and universal strategies delivered in various contexts and across multiple levels of influence, prioritising a cultural shifting of attitudes and norms regarding gender, and violence-supportive attitudes (Fulu, et al., 2014; VicHealth, 2007; WHO, 2010).

Though evidence of effectiveness is only emerging, it is believed that primary prevention targeting children and young people should focus on:

  • increasing children and young people's knowledge and attitudes toward violence against women;
  • promoting gender equitable attitudes;
  • equipping children with critical skills to challenge violence-supportive attitudes and dominant gender stereotypes; and
  • developing respectful relationship skills (Carmody et al., 2009; Flood & Kendrick, 2012; Fulu et al., 2014; Our Watch, 2015).

Though a number of localities (including sporting clubs and community groups) might be appropriate, schools are seen as the most obvious and convenient locale for this kind of work, though it is important that programs are based on a whole-of-school approach, and focused on achieving meaningful change across the school community, not merely one-off workshops (Carmody et al., 2009; Flood, Fergus, & Heenan, 2009).

The evidence regarding the efficacy of school-based primary prevention programs in changing attitudes and reducing future violence is promising, though results vary widely (Fulu et al., 2014; Stanley, Ellis, Farrelly, Hollinghurst, Bailey, & Downe, 2015; Whitaker et al., 2013; WHO, 2010; Wolfe et al., 2009). Evidence for achieving changes in knowledge and attitudes is stronger than for reducing future violence (Stanley et al., 2015), and longitudinal data from at a least one US-based program and one Canadian program show some limited evidence of reduction in future violence (Foshee et al., 2004; Wolfe et al., 2009). It is important, however, that programs for children and young people are culturally appropriate and adequately address the diversity of needs in specific populations of children (Stanley et al., 2015; Tayton et al., 2014). A key finding in a review of interventions, programs and studies of primary prevention targeting children (Stanley et al., 2015) was that many programs fail to cater for diverse groups, including children already exposed to domestic and family violence, CALD children, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer (LGBTIQ) children and young people.

School-based primary prevention with children and young people is widely supported in advocacy and policy frameworks such as in the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and Their Children (COAG, 2009a). The nationwide Respectful Relationships in Australian Schools program is funded through the national plan and delivered through secondary schools across the country. There are several other evaluated Respectful Relationship programs, such as LoveBites (Flood & Kendrick, 2012), which target older children and young people. The review of prevention and early intervention services undertaken by AIFS (Campo et al., 2014) found that while there were several emerging programs for primary-school-aged children across Australian locales, such as the Growing Respect program (Walsh & Peters, 2011), there were many more targeting secondary-school-aged children and young people, including several that had been evaluated (e.g., Fergus, 2006; Flood & Kendrick, 2012; Flood et al., 2009). There is a need to further develop school-based domestic and family violence programs for younger children.

School-based early intervention and response programs

Since significant numbers of children are already involved in violent relationships or exposed to domestic and family violence in the home, activities categorised as primary prevention can come, in fact, after the event for some children (Ellis, 2008; Ellis, Downe, Farrelly, Hollinghurst, & Stanley, 2015). In light of this, there is some discussion in the literature around the advantage of schools as sites for early intervention and response programs (Ellis, 2008; Thompson & Trice-Black, 2012). For children exposed to domestic and family violence, it is thought that a social learning theory model of prevention and early intervention should focus on developing skills and knowledge that will enable children to learn different ways of dealing with conflict, and in "unlearning" problem or undesirable behaviours (Ellis et al., 2006). However, given that all children are exposed to harmful gender norms and violence-supportive attitudes through media, advertising, peer groups and their own families, it is thought that primary prevention work that challenges these norms and attitudes would be beneficial for all children, including those already exposed to domestic and family violence (Our Watch, 2015).

For example, Ellis et al. (2006) argued that the social learning approach might be useful in interventions aimed at children, as long as gender is also addressed in these programs. They argued that this approach can be both universal and specific: those living with domestic and family violence can gain support and protection in non-stigmatising ways, while simultaneously enabling all children and young people to develop skills, knowledge and attitudes "to conduct non-abusive relationships" (p. 70). Ellis' review of school-based programs in the United Kingdom (Ellis, 2004; Ellis et al., 2006) suggest that school-based programs can serve several functions: awareness-raising about domestic and family violence, promotion of respectful relationships, challenging gender stereotypes and fostering non-violent conflict resolution, as well as providing support for children who may be experiencing domestic and family violence. Thompson and Trice-Black (2012) also proposed that schools are an ideal location for providing group counselling and play therapy to children exposed to domestic and family violence, and additionally, to act as a "safe and neutral" site in which to develop healthy, positive relationships, gain academic and emotional support and develop resilience and healthy coping skills. It is crucial that school-based programs addressing domestic and family violence manage disclosures appropriately by establishing close links and with external support services and ensuring that schools have the skill and capacity to adequately respond to children's potential disclosures (Ellis et al., 2015; Stanley et al., 2015).

3 Substantial reforms were made in 2012 to the Family Law Act 1975 with the introduction of the Family Law Legislation Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Act 2011(Cth). The reforms were intended to improve the family law system's response to family violence, and better support disclosures of family violence, child abuse and child safety by parents within the family law system (Kaspiew, Carson, Dunstan, Qu et al., 2015).