Defending Childhood Recommendations: Domestic violence services

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Attorney General Eric Holder affirms that children’s exposure to violence is nothing less than a national crisis. With this public health issue comes serious ramifications for the future of our country and the young men and women who will soon be called upon to build that future.

In response to these troubling statistics and others, Holder launched the Defending Childhood Initiative in 2010, which has since resulted in a report on prevalence of childhood exposure to violence and recommendations to address it. Throughout the month of July we’ll take a closer look at some of the recommendations, what is being done and what you can do to help.

One of the Task Force recommendations is to “ensure that parents who are victims of domestic violence have access to services and counseling that help them protect and care for their children.”

Everyone knows that within intimate relationships, conflicts occur. When parents handle differences calmly, particularly in the presence of their children, they are helping to shield their children from toxic stress. On the other hand, heated confrontations in front of children are much more likely to teach even young children that home is far from safe. This is particularly true when there are frequent hostile interactions between parents. Repeated exposure to such conflicts can be a source of chronic stress. Infants can begin to worry for their parents and to see their parents as frightening. Toddlers and school-aged children are likely to learn aggressive behavior and develop poor social and emotional skills.

Persistent strife between a mother and father drains parents’ emotional resources and diverts their attention from their child’s needs. In time, it can reduce both the quantity and quality of parent-child interactions. Also, parents who are violent with one another are at a higher risk for physically abusing their children. Domestic violence has been found to be the single most common precursor to child death in the United States, an alarming fact.Adults who witnessed domestic violence as children are more likely than others to have relationship difficulties and emotional problems.  

To optimize parents’ ability to support their children’s healing from exposure to violence, some parents may need to work on their own trauma issues in individual therapy. Interventions that are common in the child welfare system (such as anger management or parenting classes) may not be trauma-informed and, therefore, are usually ineffective. It is critical that programs and services understand that many parents and other caregivers currently in domestic violence situations have their own trauma histories. Practitioners and advocates will be more successful in engaging parents in treatment (their children’s or their own) if they first establish a sense of safety, trust, personal choice, collaboration, and hope for reaching their goals

There are many evidenced-supported trauma interventions for both adults and children. Mental health professionals should choose interventions that address the needs of the family while taking into account safety issues, level of intervention, phase of treatment and co-occurring disorders.  

Effective trauma-informed interventions include the following components:

  • Building a strong therapeutic relationship acknowledging family and individual strengths
  • Psycho-education about responses to trauma, including impact on the brain
  • Relational engagement and attachment
  • Enhancing family and social supports
  • Cognitive processing or re-framing

The Safe Start Center has developed several resources to provide trauma-informed care to families that live with domestic violence. The Children Exposed to Domestic Violence toolkit, is a collection of resources for parents, extended family members, and other professionals interacting with vulnerable families who wish to learn more about the prevalence and negative consequences of children’s exposure to domestic violence and learn ways to be helpful.

The domestic violence-focused toolkit includes a new issue brief for agencies and shelters, a collaborative effort with Futures Without Violence and the Vermont Network Against Domestic & Sexual Violence. Also included is an engaging infographic with fast facts and tips about children and domestic violence.

How have you seen organizations work with children in domestic violence situations? Let us know in the comments below!


Defending Childhood Task Force Recommendations: A closer look
Defending Childhood Recommendations: Identification
Defending Childhood Recommendations: Engage fathers


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