According to multiple sources, children who are exposed to domestic violence are more likely to experience emotional, mental, and social damage that can affect their developmental growth. This allegedly leads to drug and alcohol abuse, criminal activity, and a higher probability the child will commit suicide. But that’s not always the case.
While it is undoubtedly true that some children exposed to some level of domestic violence will experience some negative consequences, it is misleading to generalize the long-term effects of domestic violence on children. Every child is different, and every child will respond differently to violence in the home depending on variable factors such as:
- The length of exposure
- The age at which the child was exposed
- The presence of siblings and/or other adults
- The level of violence (physical, verbal, implied, etc.)
- Whether the exposure was direct (seen) or indirect (perceived)
- The environment in which the domestic violence took place
- The child's resilience and coping mechanisms
- The degree of support provided post-exposure (and by whom)
Consequently, while there is plenty of literature relating to the long-term effects of domestic violence on children, it is important not to take individual studies out of context. For example, some studies focus on specific types of domestic violence, or domestic violence in specific environments, or on domestic violence events where child abuse is also a factor - of which there are also many types.
It is also the case that the conclusions of studies can be influenced by which state they are conducted in. Twenty-four states have statutes defining what constitutes exposure to domestic abuse; and whereas some states' definitions apply to family members under the age of thirteen who are present at the time a violent event occurs, other states apply their definition of exposure to any person of eighteen years or less who perceives a violent event has taken place.
Furthermore, due to the wide range of definitions of what constitutes exposure to domestic abuse, there is also a wide range of guesstimates relating to how many children in the United States are exposed to domestic abuse. Whereas the United Nation's agency UNICEF suggests between 339,000 and 2.7 million children are exposed to domestic violence in the United States, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services' Office on Women's Health places the figure above 15 million.
An Absence of the Cause-Effect Relationship
One of the best-researched sources of information about the long-term effects of domestic violence on children is Erika Kimball's “Edleson Revisited”. Kimball builds on the work of Californian Professor Jeffrey Edleson and his 1999 review - “Children's Witnessing of Adult Domestic Violence” - in which he claimed there was a lack of evidence supporting the cause-effect relationship between witnessing domestic abuse and negative developmental growth.
Edleson supported his claim by observing most studies looking into the long-term effects of domestic violence on children use adult's reports of children's experiences to arrive at their conclusions. In her review, Kimball compares subsequent studies to see how their conclusions differed according to who was being asked the questions. The result of Kimball's review explains why misconceptions exist about the long-term effects of domestic violence on children.
To summarize Edleson's and Kimball's findings, when adults report children's experiences, it is often the case the adult is a third-party caregiver caring for a child or young adult with an already-developed drug or alcohol problem, involved in criminal activity, or with suicidal tendencies. When children report children's experiences, there is often no difference between the amount of violence they witness at home and what they see on the TV, at school, or in the community.
Therefore, while it is true that exposure to domestic violence may have been a contributing factor to adults that have experienced negative developmental growth, there is no proof children exposed to domestic violence are more likely to experience emotional, mental, and social damage than children not exposed to domestic violence - the exception being when children are both exposed to domestic violence and are the victims of child abuse.
The Less Studied Consequence of Domestic Violence
While there is plenty of literature relating to the long-term effects of domestic violence on children, a less studied consequence of domestic violence is injuries to law enforcement officers. According to one source, more than 4,000 officers are injured each year attempting to help victims of domestic violence; and, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, more officers are killed responding to domestic violence calls than in any other type of firearm-related incident.
To address the increased risk of injury, some jurisdictions operate special domestic violence response teams, while other use 9-1-1 technology solutions, such as Smart911, to advise officers of previous domestic violence calls, background information, and suspect descriptions. A further benefit of this platform is that members of the public can create safety profiles to advise PSAP operators of issues such as vulnerable children, protection orders, and firearms kept on the premises.
This information not only helps protects law enforcement officers but can lead to the faster resolution of domestic violence calls - mitigating the injuries a victim may suffer and limiting children's exposure to violence in the home. Therefore, regardless of whether or not there are any long-term effects of domestic violence on children, implementing a comprehensive system can be of benefit to jurisdictions and communities throughout the country.
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