Skip to main content

Summit tackles ways to help children exposed to domestic violence

Many public and private agencies offer support to survivors of intimate partner violence, yet there are very limited resources for a survivor’s children even when they are exposed to the same violence.

Nearly 50 participants from the service sectors of child abuse prevention, mental health, child protection services, child courts, law enforcement and academia, tackled this challenging issue on Jan. 13 during a day-long “Visioning Summit,” which focused on North Carolina’s children and domestic violence. Distinguished Professor Rebecca Macy, who researches family and interpersonal violence, helped organize the conference as part of her work with the N.C. Domestic Violence Commission. Ph.D. Student Laurie Graham also worked closely with Macy on the conference.

The UNC School of Social Work’s Jordan Institute for Families sponsored the summit, along with collaborative partners from the Center for Child and Family Health, the state domestic violence commission, N.C. Council for Women, and UNC’s Injury Prevention Research Center.

“The purpose of this summit was to talk about how children are being impacted by domestic violence and what do we, as various stakeholders, want to do about it,” Macy said.

Nationally, research from the Centers for Disease Control shows that 1 in 3 women will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes; many of these women have children. In fact, a third to two-thirds of domestic violence cases are associated with child maltreatment, meaning the cases involve serious neglect or child abuse that warrant intervention from child protective services. Long-term, researchers have found that exposure to such violence can negatively affect a child’s overall development and health.

“We know that about two-thirds of kids exposed to domestic violence will have academic problems and social and emotional problems, including with friendships and peer relations,” Macy explained. “About a third will do about as well as other kids. But for a big chunk of kids who are exposed to domestic violence, things generally worsen in their lives.”

Many of these children continue to struggle, including with depression or substance use, and are at risk for becoming victims of abuse or abusers themselves, Macy added. “Ultimately, we need more evidence about some of these long-term consequences, but it doesn’t look good.”

Currently, there is no systematic way of identifying children who have been exposed to domestic violence because not one single organization, program or agency in the state takes full responsibility for their needs. So, a child could be identified, for example, through interactions at school, a mental health agency, a shelter, child protective services or by law enforcement—all agencies that may have different opinions about how best to tackle domestic violence.

“So the challenge is how to intervene across the continuum and how to get all these systems and service silos cooperating and all working at the same table together,” Macy said.

Some groups, such as the Child Advocacy and Services Enhancement (CASE) Project, Project Broadcast, Mothers Overcoming Violence through Education and Empowerment (MOVE), and Strong Fathers, have shown some success in improving the well-being of children and families affected by domestic violence. These organizations, all of which presented during the conference, focus on innovative strategies and solutions that among other things, raise general public awareness, support research, strengthen parenting skills, promote the training of domestic violence providers and increase opportunities for parental involvement in education.

However, there still remains a lack of funding for programs serving kids who have witnessed domestic violence—just one of several other challenges summit participants agreed must be addressed.

Others include:

  • An inconsistency in how child welfare and domestic policies are interpreted. throughout the state as well as conflicting child welfare and domestic violence policies.
  • A lack of funding for professional training on evidence-based practices and
  • A high turnover in personnel serving this population.

By the end of the day, participants offered several recommendations for next steps, including a call for more collaborative research efforts to evaluate developing services and programs that focus on children who have been exposed to domestic violence. Additionally, the group noted the need for more services and programs to support children and funding to sustain them. Finally, participants agreed that agencies must consider the philosophical differences between them and how these differences influence practices, programs and policies.

“Because domestic violence can have such a huge impact on child well-being, we need to find solutions together that account for the services we have and the service philosophies that we have,” Macy said.