Working with Young Men Who Batter

In 1995, domestic violence was recognized as one of the foremost public health concerns in the U.S. by Congress. Since 1997, violence committed by adolescents has also received significant attention due, in part, to a number of high profile school shootings (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999). Teen dating violence, however, has received comparably little attention, despite its prevalence and the severity of its impact. Recognizing that this gap exists, researchers and practitioners have gradually begun to focus on adolescent males who perpetrate dating and family violence. As a result, juvenile batterer intervention programs have been developed in several jurisdictions across the United States. These programs attempt to hold young men who batter accountable for their violence and rehabilitate them whenever possible. No evaluations of these programs have been published, or to our knowledge conducted. Moreover, few efforts have been made to collect, summarize, evaluate and disseminate existing program methods or protocol.

This article offers an overview of the nascent juvenile batterer intervention programs. It identifies risk factors for teen dating violence perpetration as described by the literature and considers the utility of these findings, describes eforts to prevent re-offenses by juvenile perpetrators of domestic violence, discusses several shortcomings inherent in post-crisis intervention, and outlines current challenges within the field. In addition, the authors draw upon research from related fields to posit possible future directions for research and intervention efforts.


A growing body of research indicates that dating and family violence is a leading cause of injury for women and girls. Lifetime prevalence of teen dating violence victimization among girls in the U.S. is estimated to be between 9 and 41% (Avery-Leaf, Cascardi, O'Leary & Cano, 1997; Silverman, Hathaway, Freedner, Aynalem & Tavares, 1999; Sugarman & Hotaling, 1986). Although research in the area of adolescent-to-parent violence is limited, several studies suggest that approximately 10% of adolescents aggress toward their parents each year (Cornell & Gelles, 1982; Peek, Fischer & Kidwell, 1985; Straus, Gelles & Steinmetz, 1980). Adolescent male violence against female family members is a concern of many practitioners, and is reported by battered women as frequently coinciding with violence from adult partners (Bancroft & Silverman, in press). Many (e.g. Carlson, 1990; Hotaling & Sugarman, 1986) theorize that men who abuse family members provide a powerful model for family violence to adolescent males.         

Who are the boys most at risk for abusing and assaulting their dating partners? What can be done to prevent these adolescent batterers from becoming adult domestic violence offenders? While scientific inquiry into these topics is in its infancy, and intervention programs designed to address teen dating violence have yet to be established in most states, initial investigation and program development have taken place in select areas.

Who are adolescent male perpetrators of dating violence?

The profile of the adolescent male perpetrator of dating violence suggested by the literature is similar to the profile of other juvenile offenders. In short, teen boys who abuse their dating partners are more likely to have experienced child abuse or neglect (McCloskey, Figueredo & Koss, 1995; Wekerle & Wolfe, 1998; Wolfe, Werkele, Reitzel-Jaffe & Lefebvre, 1998), witnessed domestic violence (Hotaling & Sugarman, 1986), and to use alcohol or drugs (Cate, Henton, Koval, Christopher & Lloyd, 1982) than their non-abusive counterparts. In addition, several studies have established that adolescent males who abuse their dating partners are more likely to have sexist attitudes that support male domination over females (Follingstad, Rutledge, McNeil-Harlings & Polek, 1992; Henton, Cate, Koval, Lloyd & Christopher, 1983; Himelein, 1995; Koss & Dinero, 1989, Koss, Leonard, Beezley & Oros, 1985; Malamuth, Heavey, Barnes & Acker, 1995; Tontodonato & Crew, 1992) and are more likely to associate with peers that support these attitudes (Lavoie, Robitaille & Hebert, 2000; Roscoe & Callahan, 1985).

It is important to note that most research conducted on juvenile perpetrators of domestic violence to date is based on non-representative samples; no studies have utilized samples that would enable generalization to all juvenile perpetrators of dating violence. Therefore, the studies reflect only the profile of those adolescents who come to the attention of researchers—i.e., boys who come into contact with the criminal justice system or who readily admit to perpetrating violence during interviews or surveys. It is possible that there are many adolescent males who perpetrate violence and abuse that don’t fit the established profile and will remain undetected by research. Moreover, it is critical to bear in mind that no study has established that any of the risk factors listed above (such as witnessing domestic violence) actually cause youth to perpetrate violence. Risk factors only reveal which characteristics or life experiences juvenile perpetrators are likely to share in common. They don’t provide us with answers to the question: “What is it that causes the boys to be violent?”

Therefore, developing “profiles” or “prediction tools” based upon existing research is premature and could unfairly label adolescents. Practitioners who attempt to predict which adolescents are most dangerous based on available information run the risk of overestimating dangerousness for certain individuals and failing to identify those who are in fact dangerous. Investigation of resiliency or protective factors, in addition to research on the level of risk of individual offenders, may provide practitioners, survivors and policy-makers with more useful information (E. Gondolf, personal communication, June, 2000).

Keeping in mind the limitations of “risk factor” research, we offer the following review of what is known about adolescent males who are violent towards dating partners, female family members and others.

Parent-to-Child Violence: Maltreatment of children by parents is a consistent predictor of young males’ physically, sexually and verbally abusive behaviors (Wekerle & Wolfe, 1998; Wolfe et al., 1998; McCloskey et al., 1995) and later criminal behavior (Viemeroe, 1996). This evidence notwithstanding, it is also recognized that children who are maltreated by parents are not guaranteed to become adolescent or adult offenders; a significant proportion of children from abusive families are non-abusive to intimate partners (Widom, 1989). Adolescent males who are referred to programs for domestic violence perpetration should be screened for parent-to-child maltreatment and provided with services as needed.

Witnessing Inter-parental Abuse: Many studies support the contention that young males who witness parental domestic violence are at increased risk for becoming abusive themselves in adult intimate relationships. Through a comprehensive review of family violence literature, Hotaling and Sugarman (1986) found that 88% of studies with adequate comparison groups revealed that witnessing parental violence was a significant predictor of adult violence against a female partner. Childhood observation of inter-parental abuse may also predict the development of attitudes that support violence against women (Silverman & Williamson, 1997; Stith & Farley, 1993). Practitioners are cautioned against approaching all adolescent males who witness family violence as potential offenders. Similarly, the literature does not support an assumption that all adolescent males who perpetrate domestic violence have witnessed inter-parental abuse. Rather, all adolescent males who witness domestic violence must receive appropriate support services and education regarding healthy relationships. All identified juvenile perpetrators of domestic violence should be screened for witnessing inter-parental abuse.

Substance Use: Several studies have found that the perpetration of family and dating violence by adolescent males is strongly associated with alcohol consumption (Cate et al., 1982; Foo & Margolin, 1995; Makepeace, 1987; Malik, Sorenson & Aneshensel, 1997; O'Keefe, 1997; Symons, Lin & Gordon, 1998). No research has been conducted that establishes the effect of substance abuse intervention on teen dating violence perpetration rates. Many advocates predict that treating a juvenile perpetrator of domestic violence for substance abuse problems alone will not produce significant change in the perpetration of abusive behavior. Substance use and violence perpetration are often viewed as related, yet distinct, health problems that each require specialized intervention (Bennett, 1997).

Sexist Attitudes: Several studies have found that adolescent males who possess attitudes legitimizing violence against female partners are more likely to report being physically violent toward dating partners (DeKeseredy & Kelly, 1993; Riggs & O'Leary, 1996; Silverman & Williamson, 1997; Smith, 1990; Stithe & Farley, 1993). Thus, intervention programs that fail to address perpetrators’ sexist attitudes may have a minimal effect. To date, there have been no evaluations of adolescent intervention programs that do or do not address sexism, nonetheless, advocates encourage practitioners to include education about sex-role stereotyping, and concepts of masculinity and femininity, in intervention programs on the basis of available research on adolescent attitudes.

Peer Attitudes: At least three studies have found that having peers who support violence against women predicts one’s own dating violence behavior (DeKeseredy & Kelly, 1993; DeKeseredy & Schwartz, 1993; Silverman & Williamson, 1997). Based on this knowledge, some practitioners believe that encouraging juvenile perpetrators to form new peer relationships with non-violent and non-sexist males may reduce abuse perpetration.

Current Methods Of Intervention

Juvenile batterer intervention programs have emerged in the U.S. over the last decade. Most have developed in relative isolation from one another, despite the fact they often share similar philosophies. They have been developed by courts, survivor advocacy agencies, batterer intervention programs and community-based agencies that serve youth. As a result, the programs differ with regard to structure and methodology. As alternatives or complements to incarceration, such programs offer possible methods to re-educate young men about their relationships and their use of violence. Most juvenile batterer intervention programs utilize a psycho-educational group format and meet weekly for 1-2 hours. Intervention group activities may include discussions of healthy and unhealthy relationships, sex-role stereotyping, coping with anger or rejection, and the effect of alcohol or drug use on one’s behavior, among other topics. The atmosphere of groups is neither intimidating nor social; trained staff works to maintain a safe, encouraging, yet serious tone. Group cycles last from 12-52 weeks. Parents receive orientation information regarding the program and, in some communities, are involved in the intervention on an on-going basis. Intervention participants who re-offend may be expelled from the group or asked to re-start it, depending upon the program. In some communities, those who are expelled may face more severe penalties from a probation department or court.

Table 1: Features of Some Juvenile Batterer Intervention Programs



Number of Youth


Per year




Program Duration (in weeks)

Referring Entity

Expect Respect

Austin, TX

School Based


6-12 grade

School groups. Individual & Family Available onsite


Middle and High Schools

MOVE Youth Program


Agency based








52 minimum

Juvenile Courts

Mass DPH

10 Programs







Juvenile Courts,

Schools &



Seattle, WA

Comm. Centers






24 minimum




Juvenile Batterer Intervention Programs: Challenges and Dilemmas

Programs for adolescents who batter currently face a number of challenges and dilemmas, as do all new interventions. These challenges include public recognition of teen domestic violence as a phenomenon distinct from generalized violence; a dearth of culturally appropriate interventions and research; and partnering with a juvenile justice system perceived by many to suffer from pervasive racial and class biases.

Recognizing teen batterers: Between 1997-1999, seven incidents of teen-perpetrated domestic violence received national attention in the U.S.—perhaps the most widely-publicized of these events being the shooting in Jonesboro, AK. In the wake of these tragedies, media posed questions about the cause of “youth violence” or “school violence,” but failed to emphasize that in all cases the shooters were male and the intended victims female (Sousa, 1999). In fact, the incidents might have been more appropriately and specifically classified as “violence against women or girls.” An inability to perceive violence perpetrated by adolescent males as similar to domestic violence perpetrated by adults may limit our capacity to alter their behavior.

For many, it may be difficult to acknowledge that boys as young as eight or nine years old participate in “dating” relationships. As a result, in some cases abusive behavior may be dismissed or handled as though it were acceptable rough-housing. (For example, girls and boys may be told that if someone kicks or insults them, it is a sign of affection.) In order to offer victims of abuse consistent and comprehensive protection, and in order to provide young perpetrators with the services and intervention that they need, adults may be required to alter their own definitions of “dating.” Similarly, any incidents involving violence between adolescents should be assessed to determine if, and to what extent, dating or sexism was a motivational factor.

Culturally appropriate intervention and research: Although men of color are over-represented in batterer intervention programs, there are few culturally specific intervention strategies and insufficient research on violence in communities of color (Richie, 1998; Williams, 1997). While research does not demonstrate conclusively that culturally specific programs have improved outcomes for adult batterers (Gondolf, 2000), some resarchers have found that men of color have higher completion rates when working with staff of similar ethnic backgrounds (O. Williams, personal communication, September, 2000). It is possible that these results would hold true for adolescent offenders in culturally-specific intervention programs as well. Despite the fact that very few outcome studies of culturally specific batterer intervention programs have been conducted, practitioners have expressed a need for the development, implementation and evaluation of culturally specific models (Carillo & Tello, 1998; Williams, 1997).

Partnering with the juvenile justice system: The juvenile justice system has an important role to play in securing safety for victims and holding juvenile batterers accountable. In a number of jurisdictions, law enforcement agencies, probation departments and juvenile courts work with juvenile batterer intervention programs to monitor program compliance, enhance victim safety and to hold juvenile batterers accountable. Much work is still needed across the nation to establish a consistent juvenile justice response to teen dating violence.

There are, however, considerable drawbacks to relying on the juvenile justice system as the primary agency of response to teen dating violence. By nature, the juvenile justice system provides a response only once violence has occurred. Other than the deterrent effect of holding batterers accountable for their violence after the fact, it does not seek to prevent dating violence. There are also significant risks associated with youth involvement in the juvenile justice system. According to Amnesty International, "use of incarceration in the United States Juvenile Justice System is a matter of grave concern because of its inherent risks to the physical and mental integrity of children, and its potential for negative influence rather than rehabilitation." (Amnesty International, 1998). In addition, recent research demonstrates that the juvenile justice system continues to suffer from pervasive racial bias (National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 2000). Efforts to respond to teen dating violence in communities of color will be hindered by the perception that the domestic violence movement relies uncritically on what is perceived as a racially biased system.

Juvenile Batterer Intervention Programs: New Directions

As the field of teen dating and family violence intervention becomes more sophisticated, stakeholders are increasingly exploring new strategies, identifying needs and attempting to build on lessons learned in related fields. Examples of these new developments include partnering with schools, drawing on the strengths of ecological approaches to violence, and promoting efforts that attempt to link post-crisis intervention with primary prevention.

Partnering with school administrators and educators: While intervention with individual perpetrators of dating or family violence is essential, it as just as critical that social norms that support violence change. Educators have an enormous potential to affect the social environments in their classrooms and in their school-communities. School administrators have the power to design, promote and implement policies and curricular approaches that can significantly affect students’ attitudes and behavior. It is important that school personnel receive training on the topic of gender-based violence and are supported when they link existing literature or social studies themes to social norms regarding violence and gender (B. Rosenbluth, personal communication, November, 2000).

Research: Creating policy or awarding funding to intervention programs in the absence of evaluation research potentially places victims at continued risk for abuse and may waste resources. It is imperative that long-term follow-up evaluation studies of juvenile intervention programs are conducted and that the results be widely disseminated. Moreover, those who develop programs should base the design of curricula and intervention components on data collected from program participants; optimal interventions will be created if the service population is more fully understood.

Learning from related research: The last two decades have seen a proliferation in research and evaluation on violence prevention and intervention. While the bulk of the literature focuses specifically on youth violence, findings may be applied to dating and domestic violence intervention and prevention. In 1999, the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence evaluated several violence prevention and intervention initiatives. Those that utilize ecological approaches were shown to have high success rates with violent juvenile offenders (Center for Prevention and Study of Violence, 2000). The factors associated with the success of ecological approaches are potentially instructive for the nascent efforts to rehabilitate and hold accountable young men who batter.

Ecological approaches recognize that individuals often reflect the values of their families, communities, and societies, and that “effecting sustained change requires addressing the multiple problems of youth wherever they arise; in the family, the community, the health care and school systems" (Currie, 1998, p.105). Ecological approaches also recognize that treating offenders in isolation of their social environment is a "prescription for failure” (Currie, 1998, p.105). The evidence in favor of ecological approaches is supported by other studies that have found that involvement of the family seems necessary to effect sustained change (Henggeler, Melton, Smith, Hanley & Hutchinson, 1993; Tolan, Gorman-Smith, Huesmann & Zelli, 1997), and that community based efforts are more effective than institutional efforts (Tolan et al., 1997).

Ecological Approaches: Some adult and youth batterer intervention programs have attempted to integrate ecological principles into batterer intervention programs. Common to some of these approaches is the recognition that each participant serves as an important point of access to the family, community members, including peers, and institutions such as the faith community, schools, other community based agencies, the juvenile and family courts and to youth employment agencies. This access makes it possible to enlist family, community members and institutions in holding perpetrators accountable and ensuring victim safety. In some cases, however, it is acknowledged that involving family members is not always appropriate—the safety of the young men who batter may be jeopardized if abusive parents are included in the approach. Unlike many intervention strategies that work to affect behavior change by focusing on perceived deficits, ecological approaches emphasize individual and community strengths and build on emerging understandings of individual resiliency and community assets.

In Atlanta, the Men Stopping Violence (MSV) program attempts to affect the social ecology of adult program participants by involving their friends, and on occasions their sons, and by advocating for change across the broad range of institutions with which participants interact (S. Nuriddin, personal communication, April, 2000). Similarly, some juvenile batterer intervention programs have developed models that involve a wide range of stakeholders including city agencies, community based organizations and community members themselves. For instance, the MOVE Youth Program, a juvenile batterer intervention program based in San Francisco, CA, is implementing a model that involves family and community members in teen dating violence prevention (A. Silva, personal communication, May, 2000). In this way, ecological approaches such as those used by MSV and MOVE also serve as important opportunities for engaging in prevention, and in this way connect intervention and prevention efforts.

The Case for Prevention: Studies indicate that "punitive, legalistic approaches" are unlikely to have much effect on youth violence unless they are integrated into policies that focus funding and efforts on prevention (Tolan, 2000). Domestic violence prevention campaigns have been pursued in health care settings, in schools and through the media, and show promise in changing attitudes towards the use of violence (Edleson, 2000). Important lessons can be drawn from related fields that have been effective in changing adolescent behaviors and attitudes, for example regarding teen pregnancy prevention and child abuse awareness (Daro & Cohn Donnelly, 2000). Prevention efforts may be enhanced through collaboration with related fields, such as child welfare and youth violence, and by developing connections with a range of agencies that serve youth. These partnerships could include linkages with mentoring programs, employment training sites, arts and recreation programs, rites of passage programs, and literacy and media literacy projects (National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women, 1999).

Since lower education, lower-status jobs, and under-employment are all identified as probable risk factors for the perpetration of violence, effective prevention plans will need to address each of these, and the relationship between these potential risk factors and domestic violence should be further clarified by continuing research (Edleson, 2000; Kaufman Kantor & Jasinski, 1998). Prevention activities should also address peer behaviors and attitudes since these have been shown to affect boys’ choices about whether to use violence (Heise, 1998). Given the contemporary predisposition in favor of intervention and incapacitation, committing resources to prevention will require a shift in policy priorities (Tolan, 2000). Nevertheless, the returns on rigorously designed and well-implemented prevention may be significant in terms of money saved and lives enhanced.


The paper presented here offers a brief overview of the emerging field of working with adolescent perpetrators of domestic violence. The fact that there exists such a field, embryonic as it may be, is evidence of the increasing attention being paid to the devastating impact that intimate partner and family violence have on the lives of children and youth. While significant challenges remain, work being done to detect, deter and rehabilitate adolescent perpetrators represents an important step towards interrupting intergenerational cycles of violence and enhancing safety for victims.

Working with Men to Prevent Violence Against Women: An Overview (Part One)

There is a growing awareness that men, in partnership with women, can play a significant role in ending violence against women.   This has led to an increase in programs and activities that focus on men's roles in violence prevention.   Men should take responsibility for preventing violence against women because of the untold harm it causes to women in men's lives and the ways in which it directly hurts men.   Violence against women hurts men when it results in women being afraid of or suspicious of men due to fear of potential victimization and when it perpetuates negative stereotypes of men based on the actions of a few.   The behaviors and attitudes that cause violence against women may also be a cause of men being violent towards other men.   These same behaviors and attitudes may also keep men from having close and meaningful relationships with each other.   Finally, while only a minority of men are violent, all men can have an influence on the culture and environment that allows other men to be perpetrators.   For example, men can refuse to be bystanders to other men's violent behavior.

For all of these reasons men have a stake in ending violence against women.   To do this, men must accept and examine their own potential for violence and take a stand against the violence of other men.   In recent years, a number of authors have argued persuasively that men need to take responsibility for preventing men's violence against women, both in the United States (Berkowitz, 2002a; Funk, 1993; Katz, 1995; Kilmartin, 2001; Kivel, 1992), and internationally (Brienes, Connell, & Eide, 2000; Flood, 2001, 2003; INSTRAW, 2002; Kaufman, 2001).

This paper provides a brief overview of what is known about effective strategies for involving men in violence prevention efforts from the perspective of men who are recipients of anti-violence programs as well as from the men who provide them.   It defines the term "prevention" for men's violence against women, reviews best practices for involving men and for tailoring programs (for men in general and for particular groups of men) and, in Part Two, offers examples of prevention program formats and pedagogy.   These examples are provided to illustrate best practices rather than to describe specific programs, as this review is not intended to be exhaustive or comprehensive of all violence prevention efforts involving men.   Finally, in order to be useful to practitioners and educators the paper provides references to websites containing information about men's anti-violence organizations and programs.   While the conclusions and trends noted here are applicable to the prevention of all forms of men's violence against women, the preponderance of literature cited is from the rape prevention field where there has been more research conducted on this subject.

Defining Men's Roles in Prevention

Men can prevent violence against women by not personally engaging in violence, by intervening against the violence of other men, and by addressing the root causes of violence.   This broad definition provides roles for all men in preventing violence against women.   Men's involvement can take the form of primary or universal prevention (directed at all men, including those who do not appear to be at risk of committing violence and those who may be at risk for continuing a pattern of violence), through secondary or selective prevention (directed at men who are at-risk for committing violence), and/or through more intensive tertiary or indicated prevention (with men who have already been violent).  

For violence prevention these distinctions may be somewhat artificial because it can be argued that all men are at risk for perpetration by virtue of their socialization as men (Hong, 2000; Kaufman, 1985), because men can commit violence without defining it as such, and because men who have been violent can successfully participate in programs to prevent other men's violence.   "Prevention" is defined here as any program or activity that reduces or prevents future violence against women by men.   Programs for men who already have a documented history of violence against women, such as batterer's or perpetrator treatment programs, will not be discussed here.

Prevention programs can take the form of one session, a series of sessions or ongoing interactive educational workshops, leadership training, social marketing and social norms media campaigns (defined in Part Two of this paper), or through participation in one-time or ongoing public events.   These may focus directly on the issue of violence or on its specific forms (for example, sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and/or harassment, and stalking), or indirectly through men's involvement in consciousness raising, fatherhood and/or skill-building programs that foster attitudes and behaviors that may protect against violence, or by providing healthy resocialization experiences about what it means to be a healthy, nonviolent man.   In its broadest definition, violence prevention for men includes any activity that addresses the root causes of men's violence including social and structural causes as well as men's gender role socialization and men's sexism.

Among men's violence prevention programs those for school-aged boys have tended to focus on issues of sexual harassment and dating violence, those for college age men have tended to focus on sexual assault, and those for men not in college or older have tended to focus on domestic violence in longer-term partnerships.   In actuality it is important for all men to be involved in the prevention of all forms of violence against women, even when it may be developmentally or strategically appropriate to foster this involvement by focusing initially on one form of men's violence.

What Works in Men's Violence Prevention?

Due to evaluation literature that is limited in scope, it is difficult to assess the effectiveness of violence prevention programs for men.   For example, most prevention program assessments measure changes in attitudes that are associated with a proclivity to be violent rather than actual violent behavior.   Reviews of the literature suggest that sexual assault prevention programs for college men can be effective in improving attitudes that may put men at-risk for committing violence against women, although these attitudinal changes are often limited to periods of a few months (Brecklin & Forde, 2001; Breitenbecher, 2000; Lonsway, 1996; Schewe, 2002). In contrast, programs that focus only on providing information have not been found to be effective (Schewe, 2002). Among pre-college aged males, dating violence and harassment prevention programs offered to mixed gender groups in school settings can result in both attitude and behavior change for a few months or longer (Avery-Leaf & Cascardi, 2002).  

Despite the limited research, there is an emerging consensus regarding what constitutes effective violence prevention for men.   Violence prevention programs that have been found effective in evaluation studies tend to share one or more of the assumptions listed below.   Practitioners who work with men to prevent violence have also concluded that effective violence prevention programs for men share some or all of these assumptions:

•  Men must assume responsibility for preventing men's violence against women.

•  Men need to be approached as partners in solving the problem rather than as perpetrators.

•  Workshops and other activities are more effective when conducted by peers in small, all-male groups because of the immense influence that men have on each other and because of the safety all-male groups can provide.

•  Discussions should be interactive and encourage honest sharing of feelings, ideas, and beliefs.

•  Opportunities should be created to discuss and critique prevailing understandings of masculinity and men's discomfort with them, as well as men's misperceptions of other men's attitudes and behavior.

•  Positive anti-violence values and healthy aspects of men's experience should be strengthened, including teaching men to intervene in other men's behavior.

•  Work with men must be in collaboration with and accountable to women working as advocates, educators, and prevention specialists.

What is the Logic of these Assumptions?   First, research and experience have shown that putting men on the defensive or using blame is not effective and can even result in negative outcomes.   Thus, in Lonsway's review of the literature she stated:   "although educational programs challenging rape culture do require confrontation of established ideologies, such interventions do not necessitate a style of personal confrontation "   (Italics added, 1996, p. 250).   Thus, men should take responsibility for acting as perpetrators and bystanders of violence and the best way to accomplish this is to encourage men to be partners in solving the problem rather than by criticizing or blaming men (Berkowitz, 2002a; Men Can Stop Rape, 2000; Schewe, 2002).   Most men are not coercive or opportunistic, do not want to victimize others, and are willing to be part of the solution to ending sexual assault.   (In contrast, while men who are predatory or who have a history of perpetration may benefit from exposure to some education and prevention programs, more intensive treatment is likely required for these men to change previous patterns of perpetration).

The majority of men may already hold attitudes that can be strengthened to prevent and reduce violence and encourage men to intervene with other men.   For example, research has demonstrated that most men are uncomfortable with how they have been taught to be men, including how to be in relationship with women, homophobia, heterosexism, and emotional expression, and that they are uncomfortable with the sexism and inappropriate behavior of other men (Berkowitz, 2003; 2004).   Because many men already feel blamed and are on the defensive about the issue of men's violence (even when this defensiveness is misplaced), effective approaches create a learning environment that can surface the positive attitudes and behaviors that allow men to be part of the solution.   This can be accomplished in the context of a safe, nonjudgmental atmosphere for open discussion and dialogue in which men can discuss feelings about relationships, sexuality, aggression, etc. and share discomfort about the behavior of other men.

What Types of Discussions are Effective?   Literature reviews have suggested that the quality and interactive nature of the discussion may be more important than the format in which it is presented (Breitenbecher, 2000; Lonsway, 1996), a dimension that Davis (2000) has called "program process."   Because men are influenced by other men and by what men think is true about other men, this influence can be positively channeled in all-male groups.   Thus, effective violence prevention for men acknowledges the important influence that male peer groups have on men's actions (Schwartz & DeKeseredy, 1997), corrects misperceptions that men have about each other's attitudes and behavior (Berkowitz, 2002a), and channels this influence towards positive change.

The common element in successful prevention programs for men is the opportunity to participate in an experience where men are encouraged to honestly share real feelings and concerns about issues of masculinity and men's violence.   The opportunity for men to hear the attitudes and views of other men is powerful, especially because it empowers men who want to help and provides them with visible allies.   This strategy encourages the majority of men to take the necessary steps to avoid perpetrating and to confront the inappropriate behavior of male peers.  

Are All Male or Mixed Gender Programs More Effective?   Research suggests that these goals can be accomplished most effectively with male facilitators in all-male groups.   For example, Brecklin and Forde (2001) conducted a comprehensive meta-analysis of forty-three college rape prevention program evaluations and concluded that both men and women experienced more beneficial change in single-gender groups than in mixed-gender groups.   This was also the conclusion reached in five other literature reviews of rape prevention programs that all recommended that rape prevention programs be conducted in separate-gender groups when possible (Breitenbecher, 2000; Gidycz, Dowall & Marioni, 2002; Lonsway, 1996; Schewe, 2002; Yeater & Donohue, 1999).

While there are advantages to programs facilitated by men, skilled female facilitators can also work very effectively with men.   Women working with men need to be aware that men may view their leadership as reinforcing the assumption that violence prevention is a "women's issue" not relevant to men and must also find ways to prevent participants from attributing honest dialogue simply to the presence of a female.   It is also beneficial for men to see women and men co-facilitating in a respectful partnership.   Examples of programs for men that have been developed and led by women include those by Hong (2000) and Mahlstedt (1999).  

One of the main arguments for separate gender workshops is that the goals for violence prevention are different for men and women (Gidycz, Dowdall, & Marioni, 2002; Schewe, 2002).   Despite this being true in some settings, it may be necessary or more appropriate to offer violence prevention in mixed groups. Trainers must still take into account the gender differences that make such separation desirable, avoid the polarization that can occur in mixed-gender groups, avoid potential victim-blaming, not give information about victim-risk that could be useful to perpetrators, and avoid approaches that are blaming of men (Schewe, 2002).   While mixed gender workshops have been evaluated as successful with boys in school settings, these programs have not been compared with similar programs offered in all-male settings (see Avery-Leaf & Cascardi, 2002 for an excellent review of this literature

Partnerships with Women and Accountability to Women.   Attention to men's roles in preventing violence against women is only possible because of the decades of tireless work and sacrifice by female victim advocates, social activists, researchers, academicians, survivors, and leaders.   These courageous women have successfully challenged society to take notice of this problem and to begin to fund efforts to solve it.   Men's work to end violence against women must include recognition of this leadership and must never be in competition with or at the expense of women's efforts.   Thus, prevention programs for men should be developed to exist alongside of victim advocacy, legal and policy initiatives, academic research, rape crisis and domestic violence services, and educational programs for women.   Male anti-violence educators must recognize that we are accountable to the women who are the victims of the violence we hope to end, and must work to create effective collaborative partnerships and alliances that provide a role for women in men's programs (Flood, 2003).   To do this requires an understanding and exploration of men's privilege, sexism, and other biases, and an openness to learning from women and to working with them as allies.

Challenges to Men's Involvement.   Finally, it is important to acknowledge that there are many challenges and barriers for men who do this work.   Men who work to end violence against women are challenging the dominant culture and the understandings of masculinity that maintain it.   Thus, male activists are often met with suspicion, homophobia and other questions about their "masculinity." Men and women who feel threatened by this work often discredit male activists efforts and persons (Flood, 2003; Stillerman, 1998).   At the same time many men are grateful for the example set by male activists and for modeling a different way of being male.   Men who do this work are also frequently and unfairly given more credit for their efforts than women who do similar work (Flood, 2001).   Men engaged in violence prevention need to personally recognize these challenges and take responsibility to change these dynamics both personally and professionally.

Cultural Issues and Masculinities

While men in North America may share some common socialization experiences and definitions of what it means to be male, there are also important differences in terms of race, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, religion, and other identities that must be addressed in violence prevention efforts.   In addition, there are cultural differences regarding the appropriate context for prevention including how violence should be addressed.   Currently there is extensive literature documenting the need for culturally relevant and tailored programs in medical, psychological, and public health literatures, along with evidence for the ineffectiveness of approaches derived from dominant groups or paradigms.   Providing culturally competent programming should not be considered optional, but is a necessity for effectiveness.  

"Relevance" is a critical component of program success. It has been determined to be an important component of effective prevention programs and is discussed further in Part Two of this paper.   Because men from different identities have different experiences, relevant programming must address these differences, including experiences of racism among men of color, of homophobia for gay, bisexual and/or transgender men, the effects of economic inequalities for working class and poor men, and the cultural context for violence prevention within different communities.   As with every other issue, there is a danger of imposing definitions and understandings from more established violence prevention efforts (which, like the larger culture, is predominantly white and middle class) upon other cultures and communities.

An example of the importance of culturally relevant programs comes from research on the differential impact of programs on men from different racial backgrounds.   In one study, a generic race-neutral program was effective for European heritage men but not men of color, while a modified program with a co-presenter of color and relevant information (including statistics on violence in ethnic communities and dispelling of ethnically based rape myths) were effective for both groups (Heppner, Neville, Smith, Kivlighan, & Gershuny, 1999).   In other research conducted on perpetrators from different ethnic backgrounds, differences were found in personality characteristics and motivations for perpetration that may have important implications for designing culturally sensitive prevention programs for men (Hall, Sue, Narang, & Lilly, 2000; Kim & Zane, 2004).

Violence prevention efforts need to acknowledge these kinds of differences and also correct stereotypes and myths about the prevalence of violence among different groups of men.   Finally, men from different cultural groups have different experiences with the educational and criminal justice systems that may influence receptivity to violence prevention.   Violence prevention efforts that are community based, sensitive to ethnic and class issues, and accountable to the larger community have been developed in many communities and show promise. All of the above strongly suggest the critical importance of developing programs that are either tailored to the needs of a particular group, or conducted in a way that is inclusive and welcoming of all backgrounds.   A critical oversight is the lack of research examining the needs of gay, bisexual and transgendered men with respect to violence prevention programming.  


In recent years there has been expanded interest in developing programs and strategies that focus on men's responsibility for ending violence against women.   These programs create a safe environment for men to discuss and challenge each other with respect to information and attitudes about men's violence.   The literature suggests that these programs can produce short-term change in men's attitudes that are associated with a proclivity for violence, encourage men to intervene against the behavior of other men, and in some cases reduce men's future violence.   As these programs become more popular and as more men take leadership on this issue we are hopeful that the epidemic of men's violence against women will be significantly reduced and that all of our relationships will come closer to embodying ideals of respect, mutual empowerment, growth, and co-creation.

Working with Men to Prevent Violence Against Women: Program Modalities and Formats (Part Two)

In Part One of this paper an overview was provided of men's role in prevention along with effective strategies for ending men's violence against women, and the importance of creating culturally relevant programs that address all of men's identities was presented.   The discussion is continued in this document by providing an overview of best practices in prevention, the content and format of men's prevention programs, and an overview of different program philosophies or pedagogies.

It is a challenge to classify and summarize the many different types of violence prevention efforts that have been developed for men in recent years.   One-way to conceptually organize and describe them is in terms of:   1) program content; 2) program format (how the information is provided and delivered), and; 3) program philosophy or pedagogy.   In addition, extensive research within the prevention field regarding program effectiveness has identified best practices that can be applied to programs on all three of these dimensions.   These topics are reviewed below, beginning with best practices.

Best Practices in Prevention

The prevention literature suggests that effective prevention programs have a number of characteristics that are independent of particular issues or topical areas.   In particular, effective prevention programs are comprehensive, intensive, relevant to the audience, and deliver positive messages.   (For a more detailed discussion of these areas with respect to rape prevention see Berkowitz, 2001.)

Comprehensiveness.   Comprehensiveness addresses who participates in the intervention.   In a comprehensive program all relevant community members or systems are involved and have clearly defined roles and responsibilities.   Linking activities that are normally separate and disconnected can create positive synergy and result in activities that are more effective in combination than alone.   A comprehensive program views the target population as the whole community and emphasizes creating meaningful connections with colleagues.   This can foster awareness of what others are doing, develop a common prevention framework, and provide information and messages that are mutually reinforcing, integrated and synergistic. Within the domestic violence prevention movement, comprehensiveness has been encouraged through the development of coordinated community responses to men's violence and its prevention (Pence, 1999).  

Intensiveness.   Intensiveness is a function of what happens within a program activity.   Programs should offer learning opportunities that are interactive and sustained over time with active rather than passive participation.   In general, interactive interventions are more effective than those that require only passive participation (Lonsway, 1996; Schewe, 2002).   Interactive programs that are sustained over time and which have multiple points of contact with reinforcing messages are stronger than programs that occur at one point in time only.   As noted earlier, providing meaningful interactions between men that foster change is a critical element of successful violence prevention programs.

Relevance .   Relevant programs are tailored to the age, community, culture, and socioeconomic status of the recipients and take into consideration an individual's peer group experience.   Creating relevant programs requires acknowledging the special needs and concerns of different communities and affinity groups.   These programs are stronger when group-specific information is used in place of generic statistics (Schewe, 2002).   Relevance can be accomplished by designing programs for general audiences that are inclusive and acknowledge participant differences, or by designing special programs for particular audiences.   Relevant programs pay attention to the culture of the problem, the culture of the service or message delivery system, and the culture of the target population (Berkowitz, 2003).   Differences in these three cultures must be addressed in the design of programs.   Carillo and Tello (1998) provide an excellent example of the issues involved in designing culturally relevant programs for men of color from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.   Part One of this paper contains an extensive discussion of relevance from the perspective of developing culturally inclusive programs for men.

Positive messages should build on men's values and predisposition to act in a positive manner.   Men are more receptive to positive messages outlining what can be done than to negative messages that promote fear or blame.  

To design a program that incorporates these elements may seem like a daunting task.   It is important, therefore, to focus on quality and process rather than quantity.   A few interventions that are carefully linked, sequenced, and integrated with other activities will be more powerful than many program efforts that are discrete, isolated, and unrelated.

Program Content

As noted earlier, programs focusing on men's responsibility for preventing violence against women can address men's violence in general or focus on specific forms of violence, such as sexual assault and rape prevention, domestic violence prevention, dating violence prevention, stalking prevention, and sexual harassment prevention.   Other programs may address the issue of violence indirectly by teaching men relationship, parenting and fathering skills, how to manage aggression and anger, how men are socialized, and by providing positive re-socialization and bonding experiences for men.   There is some controversy in the field regarding whether these latter programs can be considered bona-fide violence prevention for men, with the answer depending on the content of the individual program and the degree to which links to men's violence are made explicit (for an excellent discussion of this issue go to in the Online Discussion Series).   Because they devote considerable attention to addressing socialization and cultural issues that underlie men's violence they certainly have a place in the larger task of redefining masculinity and male culture of which violence prevention is a part.   They may also be more appropriate with men who do not have a history of violence and when safety issues are not a concern.  

Program Format

Violence prevention programs that focus on changing individual men's behaviors can be offered as one-time only events, such as educational programs or workshops, or as multiple linked events over time.   These types of workshops have been traditional in the violence prevention field.   Recently, there have been attempts to also address the larger culture of violence and target the general population through the use of media in the form of social marketing campaigns that provide positive messages about men, social norms marketing campaigns that provide data about healthy anti-violence norms, and through activist events such as the White Ribbon Campaign and appropriate participation in Take Back the Night.   There is very little research on these larger efforts, although preliminary research suggests that social norms marketing campaigns can change relevant attitudes and in some cases behaviors (Berkowitz, 2003; Bruce, 2002; Hillenbrand-Gunn et. al, 2004; White, Williams & Cho, 2003).   It may be even more powerful to combine both types of interventions in a synergistic fashion so that men participating in individual workshops are also exposed to supportive media campaigns outside the workshop setting.

Program Philosophy

Violence prevention programs for men may differ in terms of their pedagogy, i.e., their philosophy regarding how to help men change.   Programs may focus on building empathy towards victims, the development of personal skills, learning to intervene in other men's behavior, re-socialization of male culture and behavior, or media efforts to change the larger environment.   While there has been debate about whether men's violence prevention efforts should be pro-feminist, it is this author's contention that violence prevention for men is pro-feminist by definition because it is about changing men in ways that support the feminist agenda of creating of a society in which women and men are treated equally and equitably (see Capraro, 1994 and Corcoran, 1992 for a discussion of the feminist underpinnings of men's anti-violence efforts).   These program philosophies are briefly summarized below.

Fostering empathy for victims .   It is undeniable that men need to understand and be empathic to the experiences of victims and that development of such empathy may discourage men from harming women.   Presenting stories of victims in person, by video, or through interactive theater, can help create such understanding and empathy.   For victim stories to have an impact it is important that men's defensiveness first be reduced.   Victim empathy programs are useful when men are not sufficiently aware of the problem of men's violence.   However, they fall short of asking men to make changes in our own and other men's behavior and run the risk of appealing to a male-helper mentality.   In addition, they are not appropriate for coercive and/or opportunistic men with impaired empathy.   The literature on empathy induction programs has been reviewed by Berkowitz (2002a), Lonsway (1996) and Schewe (2002).

Individual change .   Learning skills such as managing anger, understanding gender based privilege, relationship skills (including communication, partnership, and parenting skills), or how to ensure that intimate relationships are consenting can all help to reduce men's violence.   Research has established that deficiency in these skills is associated with violence and that teaching men these skills may decrease the likelihood of future violence when the acquisition and maintenance of these skills is encouraged in a supportive environment (Low, Monarch, Hartman, & Markman, 2002).   However, while focusing on personal skill development moves beyond empathy development by asking men to change behavior and take responsibility for actions and intentions in relation to others, it still does not address the larger cultural context that supports and maintains men's violent behaviors.  

Bystander interventions .   Programs attempting to reduce bystander behavior teach men how to intervene in the behavior of other men (see for example, Berkowitz, 2002; Katz, 1995).   Men who are likely to commit violence are men who over-identify with traditional masculine values and roles and who are especially sensitive to what other men think.   The focus of bystander intervention programs is to provide the majority of men who are uncomfortable with these men's behavior with the permission and skills to confront them.   Bystander interventions move beyond empathy and individual change to make men responsible for changing the larger environment of how men relate to each other and to women.   This can change the peer culture that fosters and tolerates men's violence.

Re-socialization experiences .   Socialization focused programs explore the cultural and societal expectations of men that influence how men are taught to think and act in relation to women.   A socialization-oriented discussion inevitably focuses on men's homophobia, heterosexism, and sexism.

Social marketing and social norms marketing .   In recent years there has been an effort to augment and reinforce small group interventions through the use of media campaigns that portray men in positive, non-violent roles or through social norms marketing campaigns that provide data about the true norms for men's behavior (see Bruce, 2002; Hillenbrand-Gunn et al, 2004; Men Can Stop Rape, 2000; White, Williams, & Cho, 2003).   The social norms approach relies on the assumption that men commonly misperceive the attitudes and behaviors of other men that are relevant to violence.   For example, men think that other men are more sexually active than themselves, are more comfortable behaving in stereotypically masculine ways, are less uncomfortable with objectification of women and violence, are more homophobic and heterosexist, and are more likely to endorse rape myths (Berkowitz, 2003, 2004).   Because of the powerful influence that men have on each other, correcting these misperceptions can free men to act in ways that are healthier and more aligned with personal values.   In one study, for example, it was found that the strongest influence on whether men were willing to intervene to prevent violence against women was the perception of other men's willingness to intervene (Fabiano, Perkins, Berkowitz, Linkenbach, & Stark, 2004).   Thus, correcting misperceptions among men about violence-related attitudes is an emerging and important prevention strategy that can be implemented in media campaigns or in small group interventions.  

All of these approaches are interdependent and overlap in practice.   Considering these four approaches is helpful in adapting a program to the needs and characteristics of a specific audience.   They can be thought of as occurring in a developmental sequence starting with creating an awareness of the problem of violence against women, to fostering personal change, and ending with a commitment to impact the behavior of other men, all within a context that is consistent with the goals and practices of feminist thinking.


Effective prevention programs for men must be developed that are consistent with the prevention literature - i.e., they must be comprehensive, intensive, and relevant.   These programs can focus on a variety of issues relevant to men's violence, including specific forms of violence and the larger cultural context that makes men's violence possible.   Such programs may attempt to foster empathy in men, change individual men's attitudes and behaviors, encourage men to intervene against other men's behavior, and provide men with positive re-socialization experiences.   Programs may also be developed utilizing social marketing and social norms marketing techniques to present images of men in new and different roles and by providing alternative perspectives on men's behavior. All of the programs share common assumptions and philosophies for working with men that were reviewed in Part One of this paper.

Update of the 'Battered Woman Syndrome' Critique


Battering and the effects of battering are complex phenomena, which often are not well understood by the lay public. In addition to physical injury, individuals who have experienced battering often confront an array of psychological issues that differ in both type and intensity. The effects of domestic violence vary according to the social and cultural contexts of individuals' lives and include differences in the pattern, onset, duration, and severity of abuse. Importantly, this context is also determined by institutional and social responses to the abuser and to the survivor of abuse and many other factors characteristic of both persons in an abusive relationship: level of social support, economic and other tangible resources, critical life experiences (e.g., prior trauma, violence history, developmental history), and cultural and ethnic factors (Dutton, 1996; Dutton, Kaltman, Goodman, Weinfurt, & Vankos, 2005; Heise, 1998).

Although individual women experience and respond to battering differently, a number of reactions are common among those who have been exposed to these traumatic events. “Battered woman syndrome” (BWS), a construct introduced in the 1970s by psychologist Lenore Walker, is sometimes used in an attempt to explain common experiences and behaviors of women who have been battered by their intimate partners (Walker, 1989; Walker, 2006) . However, through more than three decades of accumulated empirical research, we have come to recognize major limitations in both the original and revised conceptualizations of BWS, as well as with the term itself (Osthoff & Maguigan, 2005). The use of BWS to describe the experience of women who have been victimized by intimate partner violence or to explain their response to such violence and abuse is both misleading and potentially harmful. As currently defined, the construct of BWS has several important limitations: (1) BWS is often not relevant to the central issues before the court in a specific case, (2) BWS lacks a standard and validated definition, (3) BWS does not reflect current research findings necessary to adequately explain either the experience of individuals who have been battered or their behavior in response to battering, and (4) BWS can be unnecessarily stigmatizing (Biggers, 2005; Ferraro, 2003). This paper reviews the definition, evolution, and utilization of BWS in the courts, and offers a critique of its framework and its use.

What is Battered Woman Syndrome?

BWS is a term typically used to refer to women's experiences that result from being battered. It has evolved from a term used to describe a broad range the victim's (e.g., learned helplessness) and abuser's (e.g., cycle of violence) behaviors to a mental health disorder describing symptoms experienced by an individual following traumatic exposure (e.g., Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD).

Learned Helplessness

Initially, BWS was conceptualized as “learned helplessness” (Walker, 1977), a condition originally conceptualized by Seligman and his colleagues (Miller & Seligman, 1975) to describe the failure of dogs to escape a punitive environment, even when given the opportunity to do so. The theory was later used to explain depression in humans (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978). Walker (1977) applied the theory of learned helplessness to describe women's seeming lack of effort to leave or escape an abusive relationship or their failure or inability to take action to protect themselves and their children.  

Seligman and colleagues (Peterson, Maier, & Seligman, 1993) have clearly refuted Walker's use of learned helplessness by stating that

In sum, we think the passivity observed among victims/survivors of domestic violence is a middling example of learned helplessness. Passivity is present, but it may well be instrumental. Cognitions of helplessness are present, as is a history of uncontrollability. But there may also be a history of explicit reinforcement for passivity. Taken together, these results do not constitute the best possible support for concluding that these women show learned helplessness (p. 239).

Seligman and colleagues further argue that passivity may be instrumental behavior that functions to minimize the risk of violence, instead of reflecting “learned helplessness” as it was originally conceptualized. Some women who have been battered may appear helpless or intentionally use “passive” behavior (e.g., giving in to demands) to stay safe. Indeed, research with low-income African-American women who have experienced domestic violence showed that, as violence toward women increased, they increased their use of both passive (placating) and active (resistance) strategies for dealing with the violence (Goodman, Dutton, Weinfurt, & Cook, 2003). Further, as Seligman suggested, women sometimes use strategies that may seem passive or tantamount to “doing nothing,” but these may actually be active efforts to reduce the risk of violence and abuse to themselves and their children. Indeed, the intended and actual function of a particular strategy is understood only in the context of the lives of the individual woman and her partner, as well as their relationship together.

Cycle of violence

Another early definition of BWS referred to the “cycle of violence” (Walker, 1984), a theory that describes the dynamics of the abuser's behavior, which is characterized in three stages: tension building, acute battering, and contrite loving. The theory suggests that the abuser keeps the survivor within his control largely by the contrite loving behaviors that follow even severe violence. There is little empirical evidence testing the cycle of violence theory. Walker's own early research showed that only some of the women interviewed in her study reported patterns of abuse consistent with this theory, with 65% of all cases reporting evidence of a tension-bulding phase and 58% of all cases reporting evidence of loving contrition afterward (Walker, 1984). Further, a recent study (Copel, 2006) of the patterns of abuse in a small sample of women with physical disabilities did not find a contrite loving phase in the aftermath of abuse.

Posttraumatic stress disorder

In an attempt to standardize criteria for BWS, Walker (1992) revised the definition to be synonymous with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychological condition which results from exposure to a traumatic event. Indeed, PTSD is described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Many single instances of domestic violence, and certainly the cumulative pattern of violence and abuse over time, easily meet the DMS-IV-TR criteria of a traumatic stressor. These criteria are (1) events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or other and (2) intense fear, helplessness, or horror. The symptoms that defined PTSD include (1) intrusive symptoms (images, thoughts, perceptions, nightmares; distress at exposure to cues that symbolize or remind one of the traumatic event; physiological reactivity to exposure to internal or external cues that resemble the traumatic event), (2) emotional numbing1 (feeling detached or estranged, inability to recall important aspects of the trauma) and behavioral avoidance (efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, conversations associated with the trauma and activities, places and people that arouse recollections of the trauma), and (3) hyperarousal (difficulty sleeping, anger and irritability, difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response) (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). The psychometric validity of PTSD symptoms has been recently validated with women exposed to intimate partner violence (Krause, Kaltman, Goodman, & Dutton, 2007).

Walker again revised the definition of BWS in 2006 to include not only the three symptom clusters of PTSD (re-experiencing, numbing of responsiveness, hyperarousal), but also three additional criteria (disrupted interpersonal relationships, difficulties with body image/somatic concerns, and sexual and intimacy problems) (Walker, 2006). Many “associated features” (e.g., impaired ability to regulate emotion, dissociative symptoms, shame, feeling permanently damaged, hostility, social withdrawal, feeling constantly threatened, impaired relationships with others) often accompany PTSD, but these are not included in the criteria for its diagnosis. Walker has not provided a rationale for selecting a particular subset of these associated features and for including them as criteria for BWS.

During the 1980s, BWS was included in educational programs and materials of many domestic violence advocates, in trainings for lawyers and judges and was used by some therapists and counselors to describe the experiences of women exposed to domestic violence. Having a scientific-sounding term like BWS to describe what they learned from talking and working with women who had experienced domestic violence proved useful in some cases; it increased credibility with other professionals and the general public. However, as the field developed, more and more practitioners grew to understand the problems and limitations of using BWS; most stopped using the term. During the past 15 years, numerous articles and books have been published discussing the limitation of BWS (Ferraro, 2003; Ferraro, 2006; McMahon, 1999; Schuller, Wells, Rzepa, & Klippenstine, 2004; Stark, 2007; USDOJ/DHHS, 1996). Instead, today many practitioners use the term “battering and its effects” to describe the experiences of women exposed to domestic violence (Osthoff & Maguigan, 2005). Even so, it is important to note that some experts and attorneys continue to utilize the term BWS in their work.  

Use of BWS in Expert Testimony

Expert testimony about battering and its effects has been introduced in a wide range of criminal and civil cases. Most typically, it has been introduced by the defense in cases involving women who are criminally charged, especially women who have killed their abusers. It can also be offered by the prosecution in criminal cases, usually to explain why the survivor of a crime has recanted or is unwilling to participate in the prosecution, or to explain other behaviors that might be difficult for jurors to understand without the aid of expert testimony (e.g., why don't the survivors leave, why would a survivor return to an abuser, why did the survivor act emotionally unaffected right after a shooting). Expert testimony about battering and its effects has also been introduced in civil matters, such as child custody cases, marital dissolution, tort, or personal injury cases. Here we will focus more heavily on the use of the testimony in criminal cases, and more specifically in self-defense cases, although many of the issues described here are also applicable to other uses of expert testimony.

It is in the legal (rather than clinical) arena that BWS continues to be most firmly embedded and to receive the most attention. Indeed, the term BWS appears in some state statutes, as well as in numerous legal decisions. Even today, it is not uncommon to hear about cases that involve expert testimony on BWS. Notwithstanding widespread misconception, BWS is not a legal defense. Regrettably, even to this day, many myths persist about a specialized legal defense using the BWS. Osthoff and Maguigan (2005) outline five basic misconceptions related to the legal defense of women exposed to domestic violence. The most central misconception is that defendants who have been battered invoke a separate “battered syndrome defense.” There is no special “battered women's defense” or “battered woman syndrome defense” (Maguigin, 1991; USDOJ/DHHS, 1996). Other important misconceptions are that expert testimony is only about BWS and that it is based on an analysis of the victimization dynamic only, excluding information about women's strengths, including responsibility (e.g., taking care of her children, providing economic resources to her family), agency (e.g., making decisions intended to protect herself and her children from violence and abuse), and capacity (e.g., competence to act independently and endurance to continue functioning in the face of great adversity).    

Both expert and lay testimony about battering and the effects of battering may be useful in support of (but not to replace) already existing legal defenses, such as self-defense or duress when the defendant in a criminal case is a women who has experienced domestic violence. Also, it may be offered to explain the defendant's behavior to support a different criminal defense or defense theory other than self-defense or duress and/or to negate the specific intent element of a crime.  

In criminal cases involving a woman who has experienced domestic violence as the defendant, it is necessary for jurors to understand why the defendant did what she did. The context of her behaviors – including her motivation – is essential for determining the ultimate issues in a criminal case. For example, a homicide can be ruled as murder if judged to be premeditated “cold-blooded” intent to kill, or it can be ruled as justifiable if understood as an act of self-defense from a “reasonable” perception of danger. When the defendant is a woman who has been battered, what she did (and in some cases, did not do) is not always understandable to the lay individuals on the jury. Judges and jurors can hold myths and misconceptions, which may result from their limited experiences with women who have been battered, and bring these misunderstandings and biases to the bench or jury box. Without information to better understand the defendant's experiences and behaviors, judges and jurors often inaccurately evaluate and unfairly judge the defendant. For example, they may not understand why the defendant did not “simply” leave the batterer, assuming that leaving would have made the woman safe. As a result, they may blame the woman for the abuse she experiences. They may believe that unless the defendant had previously reported the abuse, she is not to be believed when she later asserts self-defense against an abusive partner. It is essential that judges and jurors have the information necessary to fairly understand a defendant's situation, especially when jurors are asked to put themselves “in the defendant's shoes.”  

Thus, expert testimony can be useful to aid the factfinder in determining the “ultimate issue” (e.g., in a self-defense case, reasonable perception of immediate danger), as well as to educate the factfinder about common myths and misconceptions (Maguigin, 1991) . Expert testimony may cover a wide range of topics, such as domestic violence and abuse, characteristics of abusers, the emotional and physical effects of violence and abuse on women and children exposed to domestic violence, women's efforts to protection herself and her children, women's use of strategies to cope with domestic violence, including the use and responsiveness of community resources, the impact of domestic violence on economic stability, employment, and social and family relationships and the influence of contextual factors (e.g., race and ethnicity, economic status, prior trauma history, alcohol and substance abuse, physical and mental health status) on battering and the effects of battering.  

What is Wrong with Battered Woman Syndrome?

Even though expert witness testimony can be useful in cases involving domestic violence, there are serious limitations of using BWS as the framework for this work. Where expert testimony is used to explain an individual's state of mind or behavior, to support a particular defense, or to bolster credibility (when allowed) in situations that might otherwise seem unreasonable or unlikely (Parish, 1996) , a packaged “syndrome” can be convenient and have the perceived legitimacy of a “diagnosis” (Schuller & Hastings, 1996). A number of factors, however, make this package particularly problematic. The most fundamental of these concerns is the lack of relevance of BWS to the issues before the court. A second concern is the lack of a standard and validated definition of BWS with which to guide experts' use in evaluation and testimony. Third, BWS does not adequately incorporate the vast scientific literature on victims' response to battering. Finally, BWS suggests a pathology that can stigmatize the defendant unnecessarily and inaccurately.  

BWS may not be relevant to the issues before the criminal court.

An initial limitation of BWS testimony is that it may not be relevant to the specific issues before the court in a particular case; that is, PTSD (whether referred to as BWS or not) simply may not be relevant for those issues which require explanation by the expert witness.

For example, BWS may not be helpful for explaining why a woman returns to an abuser after separating or fails to call police. She may be reluctant to tell others about the abuse. Expert witness testimony may be needed to challenge mischaracterizations when a woman is well-educated, has access to economic resources, or has specialized training (e.g., police officer) since a judge or jury often does not understand how such a woman could not simply leave or protect herself against an abusive partner. BWS is not particularly relevant for these issues. A woman who appears unemotional right after or right before shooting her abusive husband may be thought merely to have killed in “cold blood.” PTSD may be relevant here, but dissociation as a part of acute stress disorder may be even more accurate. Certain experiences that an abused woman may have had (e.g., substance abuse history, prostitution, criminal history) can easily lend themselves to victim blaming. Expert witness testimony may be required to understand how these experiences do not necessarily negate the reality that the woman may have been abused by her partner, or that she perceived her partner's behavior as an imminent threat to her safety. These particular experiences may make it even more difficult for a woman who is being abused to seek help and effectively protect herself and her children from abuse. Typically, BWS is not adequate or perhaps even relevant to these issues.

According to Federal Rule 702, "If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise" (Federal Rule of Evidence, 2009). There is a great deal of scientific literature that can be brought to bear and is potentially helpful to understand the evidence and to determine facts in issue in domestic violence cases. However, BWS is simply insufficient to this task.

First and foremost, an expert witness needs to know the relevant questions for which expert testimony is needed. Too often an attorney will begin with one question: “Does she have BWS?” without considering the particular relevance of this question to the defense theory or considering how the defendant's particular abusive history is specifically relevant to her conduct. The goal of the expert testimony in most cases is not to “prove” that the defendant has been battered. Rather an expert can help the jury understand better the defendant's experience of abuse and why those experiences are legally relevant. For example, in self-defense cases, perhaps the most relevant question is, "What factors would inform the court to better evaluate the defendant's assertion that she was in immediate danger?" When the expert focuses his or her evaluation on this question, the result is an analysis of those factors that support or fail to support the reasonableness of the defendant's perception of immediate danger, given the circumstances.

Since the expert cannot testify to the ultimate issue, the expert offers to the court an analysis that allows the trier of fact to make a more informed decision about these “ultimate” issues. BWS is neither necessary nor sufficient to explain the defendants' perception of immediate danger. Relying on BWS as the primary explanation for the defendant's perception of danger offers the untenable formulation that only when the defendant has a clinical diagnosis of PTSD is her perception of danger reasonable. BWS is simply not a sufficient explanation for this central question or most other questions typically posed to the expert witness in criminal cases involving a woman who has experienced domestic violence

BWS lacks a standard definition and evidence of scientific validity.

BWS – even as currently conceptualized – lacks both a standard definition and evidence of scientific validity for many of the purposes for which it is used. As stated, BWS is not recognized in the DSM-IV-TR. Although the International Classification of Diseases, 10th Version (ICD-10; World Health Organization, 1993), classifies “battered spouse syndrome” and “effects of abuse of an adult” as maltreatment syndromes, these do little to clarify the definition for use in legal matters. Although numerous articles have been written about BWS, few include validation through empirical research. The term BWS does appear in several state laws, but its definition is not consistent from state to state when a definition is actually included in the language of the statute, which often it is not.

If it is argued that BWS is really just PTSD, then BWS is entirely redundant and there is no need for a separate term. Clear and well-validated criteria for a PTSD diagnosis exist. Expert testimony relying primarily on PTSD can – and is – used by expert witnesses in court. However, it is only appropriate to do so when PTSD is relevant for explaining a particular issue before the court that might not otherwise be well understood by the jury or judge. PTSD might well explain important issues before the court in some cases. An example is when a woman's perception of danger is explained by an intrusive recollection or subjective experience of “reliving” prior domestic violence that may be “triggered” by events leading to the criminal act (e.g., shooting). In this example, the focus is on the woman's internal psychological state (e.g., PTSD), not on external events to explain the perception of threat posed by the abuser's behavior. While this explanation “fits” some battered women who might – due to PTSD – experience objectively nonthreatening events as threatening and might respond in self-defense, it fails to account for many women's accurate understanding of unique danger cues learned over repeated incidents of violence and abuse from their abusive partners.

Indeed, there is a large scientific literature pertaining to PTSD, including empirical research, theoretical and conceptual articles, and clinical case studies. And, a significant portion of this research includes victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as other types of traumatic events, such as child abuse, vehicle accidents, terrorism, and combat. At this point in time, the scientific community does not distinguish PTSD arising from one type of trauma vs. another. When the diagnostic criteria are met, a PTSD diagnosis is appropriate regardless of trauma type. However, clear scientific evidence for PTSD does not translate to support of the construct of BWS. There is no “type” of PTSD called BWS.  

The inclusion of associated features in Walker's 2006 revised definition of BWS further contributes to the lack of standardization in its definition. The reliability of several of the measurement scales used in Walker's study (2006) to “operationalize” BWS using these additional indicators of BWS is unacceptably low. Further, no threshold level of these additional criteria for defining BWS was described. For example, how much or what kind of body image distortion is required to meet criterion for BWS? Does sexual dissatisfaction refer to an abusive partner or someone else and how much dissatisfaction is required to be considered BWS? Again, how much loss of the perception of power and control is necessary? Regrettably, Walker's newer definition has clouded the criteria for assessing BWS even more than had previously been the case. Perhaps more importantly, these issues really have little relevance for many issues raised in criminal cases?

Without standard and validated criteria, we do not have a way to determine with reliability who meets criteria for BWS and who does not. This is a problem in the legal context because, without a scientifically accepted definition or standard criteria, the use of BWS can fail to meet basic standards of scientific reliability and, therefore, may be inadmissible as expert testimony in court under the scientific reliability prong according to Daubert v. Merrl Dow Pharmaceuticals (1993). In sum, because it is not clear what is meant when we say BWS and because we do not have a clear way of measuring the condition, BWS is not even a good shorthand term for explaining the experience of women who have been abused by their intimate partners. Thus, the lack of a clear definition of BWS makes it difficult for jurors and judges, attorneys, parties to a legal case and the lay public, to understand even what is being referred to when the term BWS is used.

BWS does not adequately incorporate current research.

The state of knowledge concerning battering and its effects has increased dramatically in the past three decades since BWS was first introduced. Simply, scientific knowledge continues to expand on an ongoing basis as new research is completed. A qualified expert witness is compelled to rely on the most rigorous available scientific evidence that is pertinent to an evaluation of a defendant and providing expert testimony.

When an expert witness is called to testify in a legal matter involving battering and its effects, he or she is required to have command of the current scientific literature as the foundation for sound theoretically- and empirically-based testimony. It is clear from the current scientific literature what advocates have known, which is that no single profile adequately characterizes women's experiences following domestic violence. BWS is often used to describe victims as if they all experience similar effects from having been exposed to battering and all respond in the same way. For example, we know that patterns of violence and abuse vary across women, as does their desire to remain in relationships, the extent to which they stay or leave (Bell, Goodman, & Dutton, 2007) , and the extent of traumatic effects (Dutton et al., 2005) . BWS is often used as if it were a standard against which to determine whether a particular woman is justified in her actions against an abusive partner, is credible as a woman claiming to have experienced domestic violence, or deserves consideration in some other way. While we know that there is a range of common reactions to being battered by an intimate partner (Dutton, Hohnecker, Halle, & Burghardt, 1994) , how an individual woman experiences or reacts to being battered will vary depending on her psychological, social, cognitive and practical circumstances. Given this reality, it is not appropriate to describe “the profile of a battered woman” or to describe the effects of battering as a “syndrome.”

The expert witness must rely on the continually expanding body of existing scientific literature to develop a formulation in each case about factors that address pertinent questions posed to the expert. This body of scientific knowledge, which provides relevant information for the issues before the court, is extensive. A few of these research areas include primary stress appraisal (“How do victims evaluate the seriousness of actual and threatened violence and abuse?”), secondary stress appraisal (“What options do abused victims perceive that they have to deal with violence and abuse?”), coping (“What do victims actually do to deal with violence and abuse?”, “Why don't victims leave or do other things that some others might expect?”), traumatic stress reactions (“What are the traumatic and related mental health effects of being exposed to violence and abuse?”), and social and cultural context (“How does having children, poverty, gender, racism, immigration status, heterosexism, and other social and cultural factors influence a victim's experience of violence?” “How do these factors influence the way in which she responds to it?”). Notably, there is very little empirical research on BWS per se.

A full discussion of alternatives to BWS as a framework for expert testimony in cases involving battering is beyond the scope of this paper. Briefly, these include expert testimony referred to as “social agency” (Schuller et al., 2004; Schuller & Hastings, 1996) or social framework (Monahan & Walker, 1988) testimony, both of which are available generally to criminal defendants and are not specific to the defense of victims of domestic violence. Another option is simply referring to the testimony as about “battering and its effects” (Osthoff & Maguigan, 2005; USDOJ/DHHS, 1996). These three approaches all refer to the idea that the issues presented to the expert can be explained in terms of the context in which victims experience violence and abuse – relying on the available scientific literature and the expert's experience to inform that testimony.  

BWS can be stigmatizing.

For whom is BWS intended to explain experience and behavior? The answer is not clear. BWS is sometimes used as if to describe the experiences of all women who have experienced domestic violence. At other times, it is used to describe a stereotypic image of the so-called “good” or “sympathetic battered woman.” The “image” of a woman who has experienced domestic violence is often clouded by stereotypes based on race, culture, ethnicity, social and economic class, and sexual orientation.  

BWS often evokes the image of a woman who ends up “snapping” and killing her abusive partner. BWS often creates a stigmatizing image of pathology, which may affect the decision-making of judge, jury, clinician, and/or researcher (Schuller et al., 2004). Interestingly, some research using simulated jurors found that testimony utilizing BWS and PTSD in combination was associated with jurors' opinions focusing on the women's deficits, a pathological view of the hypothetical defendant, even more than BWS alone (Terrance & Matheson, 2003) . Although BWS is intended to explain the experience of women who have been abused, the use of “syndrome” language defined essentially as a mental disorder (PTSD) helps to create an image of pathology. Ironically, a woman with PTSD may also reasonably perceive immediate danger, but not because of PTSD. Nevertheless, the image of PTSD or BWS runs counter to the self-defense argument that the defendant's perception of immediate danger was reasonable for someone in her circumstances and therefore that her actions were justifiable under the law. It is difficult to argue that a defendant who is viewed as “flawed,” “damaged,” “disordered” or “abnormal” by virtue of a mental health diagnosis (PTSD) should be justified in her actions based on the reasonableness of her perceptions. Her perceptions – and even her actions – may be understandable, given her history of domestic violence and its impact on her (e.g., PTSD). However, this argument is likely to be insufficient for a straightforward self-defense claim.

Expert testimony to explain a victim's experience and behavior must also rely on information about non-psychological effects of battering, including disruption of a woman's economic stability and employment, impairment in physical health, and alterations in her view of the world and others in such a way as to influence her trust of others and sense of safety in day-to-day life. Women can feel trapped in an abusive relationship because of the very real threat of further violence, lack of economic resources, and lack of institutional and social support (Anderson et al., 2003; Fleury, Sullivan, & Bybee, 2000) . In most cases, a woman's behavior is best characterized as logical within the context of her abuser's behavior and functional in its attempt to stop the violence and abuse, not the product of a mental health problem. Although emotional dependence and feelings of hopelessness may keep a woman in a relationship with an abusive partner (Short, McMahon, Chervin, Lezin, Sloop, & Dawkins, 2000), these emotions are not defined as a mental disorder. Even when mental health problems, such as PTSD and depression, result from battering, and influence a woman's decisions or her behavior, they are usually only a part of it. Empirical evidence has found that predictions of risk of future assault by women who have experienced domestic violence are often correct (Bell, Cattaneo, Goodman, & Dutton, 2008; Cattaneo, Bell, Goodman, & Dutton, 2007; Heckert & Gondolf, 2004; Weisz, Tolman, & Saunders, 2000).

If a women's behavior is not understood in the full context of their lives, important decisions in a legal case can be incorrectly influenced by stereotypes or assumptions about how or why women who are battered behave the way that they do. In sum, the concept of BWS does a poor job of describing for the court the range of experiences or behaviors of women exposed to domestic violence. Thus, in the courtroom, the use of BWS by those with scientific knowledge and specialized experience with domestic violence fails to serve those who demand, and deserve, the very best: jurors and judges and, ultimately, women who have endured domestic violence.


The conceptualization of BWS helped the field focus on the fact that battering has adverse effects on those who have been exposed to it. Over three decades later and an accumulation of a wealth of scientific knowledge, BWS is now recognized as a flawed model (Rothenberg, 2002, 2003), even as a shorthand reference. Its use persists, in part, because it conveniently packages in a single phrase a far more complex issue. Indeed, we need to understand the unique experiences of each defendant informed by the large and continually growing body of scientific literature that is pertinent for understanding an individual's experience and reaction to having been exposed to domestic violence. This information can be invaluable in support of expert testimony for explaining the state of mind and behavior of a woman who has experienced domestic violence and who has been charged with criminal conduct that was influenced by her history of violence and abuse.

    Violence against women and children is centuries old, but only over the past 25 years have communities made significant improvements in their responses to each problem. In the 1970s, state legislatures created systems to help abused children, and by the 1980s many grassroots women's organizations had set up shelters for battered women. These two response systems were designed with very different mandates, funding, and goals. As a result, tensions and problems now emerge as service providers, the courts, and communities try to more effectively help those families in which violence against women and children is overlapping and intertwined.

Domestic violence advocates have learned that the concerns of battered women are inextricably linked to the welfare of their children and that the safety decisions of battered women are typically guided by the needs of their children.

As a result, domestic violence organizations have worked hard to address the needs of the children of battered women, including providing a variety of concrete services like children's play and educational groups, support activities, and therapeutic services. Advocates have also broadened the scope of their work to include case-level and systemic advocacy for children.

Over the last ten years, domestic violence advocates have learned that it will take a coordinated effort to effectively protect women and their children. No single organization can do this work by itself. Without collaboration and coordination among agencies, it is the battered women and their children who pay the price: their safety is jeopardized and their needs for security and stability are compromised.

"Building Bridges Between Domestic Violence Organizations and Child Protective Services" was prepared as a new resource for advocates seeking to strengthen efforts to help battered women with abused and neglected children. This paper provides both background information and a framework for collaboration with child protection agencies that will support the work of domestic violence advocates as they try to improve safety for women and their children.

The paper covers the following topics:

  • Why must domestic violence advocates and child protection staff work together to keep battered women and their children safe?
  • What effects does domestic violence have on children?
  • How does the child protection system work?
  • How can domestic violence organizations and child protection agencies collaborate effectively and respond to policy challenges constructively?


Last night Gina's boyfriend Mark came home drunk again. They started arguing about money, and Mark slapped and punched Gina. Seven-year-old Sammy ran into the kitchen and started hitting Mark and yelling, "Stop hurting my Mommy!" Mark picked Sammy up by the seat of his pants and yelled, "Stay out of this, you little bastard, you're just like your father - a real loser." He then dropped Sammy, who crashed to the floor. Sammy started crying, and Gina yelled at him to get out of the kitchen. Gina and Mark's one-year-old daughter Jessie started crying in the other room. Mark told Gina to just "let her cry, or she'll grow up to be a stupid baby like you."

A neighbor called the child abuse hotline to report that there was fighting in the apartment next door and that she could hear the children crying again and worried that they were being hit.

Gina's situation is all too familiar to domestic violence advocates and child welfare workers. A woman is the victim of physical assaults and verbal abuse. Her children's lives are altered by her situation - their well being, and often their safety, are compromised by the actions of an abusive partner. Sometimes, before the woman can fully consider the alternatives available to her, she is reported to child protection authorities because neighbors, friends, or service providers are concerned that the risk to her children is too great. Soon, she finds herself meeting with a child protection caseworker whose assessment of her situation could result in the removal of her children.

The actions of the police, child protection workers and others can have a tremendous impact on the immediate and long-term safety of both Gina and her children. However, domestic violence advocates and child protection workers might start from different places of emphasis. For example, advocates considering Gina's situation might focus on the following questions:

  • How does Gina view the risks to herself and her children? What supports and resources does Gina have available to help her keep herself and the children safe? What is her current safety plan? Will it be effective, or does she need additional information and resources?
  • How dangerous is Mark? Does he understand how he is hurting Gina and the children? Has he ever been arrested for his violent behavior? How did he respond? Will he obey court orders?

A child protection worker might focus on these questions:

  • What happened on the night of the incident according to Gina, her children, and the neighbor? Was Sammy physically injured when Mark dropped him? If so, did Mark or Gina make sure he got medical attention? Has this happened before? Has Mark every hit Sammy or Jessie?
  • What steps has Gina taken to protect the children? Can Gina protect the children? Are there other indications that the children are neglected or abused or at serious risk of harm?

Once advocates and caseworkers answer these questions, each will begin a series of activities to help family members achieve safety. These efforts are likely to help some family members. For example, a battered woman's shelter will provide safety for mother and children in the short term. However, once the shelter period is over, lack of resources may send her back to an abusive partner, placing her and the children at renewed risk.

At the same time, foster care placement - arranged through the child protective system - can provide safety for the children, but it may not be needed or desirable if the mother is able to provide for their care. Even if she can't, foster care does nothing to address her safety concerns.

Family preservation workers can also provide a valuable resource to the family, with frequent home visits to provide help and monitor the safety of mother and children, even if the abusive partner returns. But this intervention can be problematic if the family preservation worker does not have strong skills in handling a domestic violence situation.

Finding strategies that help both women and children to be safe is a dilemma that challenges domestic violence advocates and child protection workers every day. Despite mutual interests, those working with battered women and their children find that not all approaches are useful in achieving safety for all victims. Some approaches don't last long enough. On occasion, interventions to help one victim - giving the mother time to develop a plan - might actually increase the risk to another group of victims, the children.

When advocates and child protection workers are able to effectively assist women and children, it is likely that they have done so by coordinating safety assessments and interventions for both the mother and child. Together, they have also found ways to better understand how services for battered women and their children work, and how these services can work together. This has meant sharing vital information about the differing laws that guide domestic violence advocates and child protection caseworkers, the values and principles that guide their responses, and the tools and resources that are available in each system.

For advocates, collaboration can mean a significant and positive change in their work on behalf of women and children. Child protection workers are not experts in domestic violence. Typically, they must have general casework skills to deal with a variety of family needs. Only a few workers have training opportunities that would allow them to develop expertise in the dynamics of battering and its impact on children. While most are familiar with local battered women's shelters, they often have limited information about the range of related services and supports that are available through advocates, the courts, and other systems. Domestic violence advocates can change this through collaboration.

Likewise, advocates can be frustrated in their interactions with a child protection system whose powers are substantial and whose rules may often seem arbitrary and subjective. Collaboration can help unravel the complexity of the child protection system to reveal ways in which advocates can work effectively with child protection workers to keep both battered women and their children safe.


  • children experience their mother being battered and also see injuries that result from the violence;
  • children are injured during a violent episode; this may occur inadvertently when a batterer attacks, a victim tries to defend herself or the children, or the child tries to protect a parent; or
  • children are directly abused or neglected.1

While effects on individual children may vary, researchers have concluded that many children who are exposed to violence exhibit at least some symptoms related to this experience. These symptoms might include fearfulness, sleeplessness, withdrawal, anxiety, depression, and externalized problems such as delinquency and aggression.2

Research also suggests that these problems are often alleviated when children and their mothers are offered adequate social, emotional, and material support and safety.

The Overlap of Domestic Violence and Child Maltreatment

Through their work with women like Gina, front-line workers in domestic violence and child protection agencies are increasingly aware that when there is child maltreatment there is often domestic violence. Data from research and from direct practice in shelters and in child protective service programs are supporting their experience.

In one nationwide survey of 6,000 families, researchers found that 50% of men who frequently assault their wives also frequently abuse their children.In a 1991 Boston City Hospital study, researchers reported that 59% of mothers of abused and neglected children had medical records that suggested that their partners had battered them.

Although there is little formal research on domestic violence in child protection caseloads, some data support a link between domestic violence and child abuse and neglect. For example, in a 1990 review of substantiated child protection cases, the Massachusetts Department of Social Services reported that workers noted domestic violence in 30% of the cases.Because the agency did not prepare or require caseworkers to consider domestic violence in the investigation and assessment process, the study was believed to underestimate the actual incidence of domestic violence. In a subsequent study, conducted after implementing policies and training in domestic violence, the Department found that in 48% of records reviewed workers identified domestic violence or cited "protecting an adult from domestic violence" as a goal of service.

As with any case type, domestic violence cases can range from those where child maltreatment is highly unlikely to those in which there is serious or life threatening harm to children. Thus far, several other child protection agencies have documented a disturbing link between domestic violence and fatal child abuse. In 1993, the Oregon Department of Human Resources reported that domestic violence was present in 41% of families experiencing child abuse and neglect resulting in critical injuries or death.The Massachusetts Department of Social Services made a similar finding when a 1994 review of child abuse- and neglect-related fatalities revealed that 43% of mothers identified themselves as victims of domestic violence.In New York City between 1990 and 1993, the public child welfare agency found that 55.6% of the families with child homicides had a documented history of domestic violence in the four years preceding the fatality.

Although we are learning more about the connection between domestic violence and child maltreatment, we still know little about how the two interact within the family. There is no evidence, for example, that fatal child abuse is more likely to occur where there is domestic violence. A better understanding of domestic violence will help child protection workers to best target their interventions. Also, if advocates and child protection workers strengthen their knowledge and skills in assessing the risk to children, they will be better able to reduce the number of children and women experiencing serious harm.

The child protection movement began more than 100 years ago and galvanized around a highly publicized New York City case involving a young child, Mary Ellen, who was brutally beaten by her caretakers.

This case led to the creation of the first child protection agency and state statute providing agents to conduct court investigations into child maltreatment.Early activists sought protection for children and punishment for abusers. As the child protection movement evolved, new mechanisms emerged to support this work including:

  • the first juvenile court, in Illinois, in 1899;
  • a federal oversight agency - The Children's Bureau - which still exists today; and
  • the Social Security Act in 1930, which provided the first national directive and funding for child welfare services.

Each of these events was critical in the development of the nation's child protection system. Nonetheless, much of our modern system has emerged over the last 37 years, beginning in 1962, when Dr. C. Henry Kempe identified the "battered child syndrome." His work resulted in the first broad public awareness of child abuse and neglect.

Since then, both state and federal governments have been proactive in their response creating new legislation to direct child protection efforts. Throughout this period we have seen dramatic increases in the number of children and families served, the array of services, and the scope of legal requirements guiding the system. The key components in our current system are highlighted in the following table.


TABLE 1: Key Features of the Child Protection System

Federal Legislative Framework

  • Child Abuse Prevention &Treatment Act of 1974
  • The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978
  • Adoption Assistance & Child Welfare Act of 1980
  • The Adoption & Safe Families Act of 1997

Primary Service Mandate

  • Safety for children

Secondary Service Goals

  • Permanency for children by strengthening family or seeking alternative permanent families. (e.g., adoption)
  • Well-being of children

Service Providers

  • Government agencies providing statutorily mandated services
  • Contracted and community services used to reduce risk & address family problems

Support and Authority Used to Assist Victims

  • Child protection worker responsible (through state statute) to monitor families and offer supportive services
  • Supportive & authoritarian roles also carried by community agencies and police/courts, respectively

Examples of Services and Tools Used to Respond

  • Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline
  • Joint police & child protective services response including investigation & assessment
  • Shelter, kinship, and foster care placements
  • Treatment services like parenting classes, substance abuse treatment & counseling
  • Case management & referral
  • Temporary & permanent custody of child

Court Role

  • Juvenile or Family Courts provide protection (e.g., legal custody) & oversee decision-making of CPS
  • Criminal Courts used in a few extremely serious cases.


Federal statutes that guide child protection agencies

While child abuse and neglect laws vary from state to state, they all must comply with the basic requirements established in the following federal statutes:

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 (CAPTA).
The act required that each state establish a mandatory reporting system for child abuse and neglect. Through a series of revisions, the most recent of which became law in 1996, the act has established detailed criteria for state programs receiving the limited funds available under the act. These include provisions guiding the definition of abuse and neglect in state statutes; requirements for confidentiality for children and families; immunity for individuals who report abuse and neglect; and provisions requiring guardian-ad-litems for children.

The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA).
This act establishes the jurisdiction of Indian tribes in child custody cases involving Indian children. The act provides specific procedures for the timely notification of tribes when Indian children come to the attention of child welfare agencies and placement is being considered, so that tribal membership can be determined..

The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (P.L.96-272).
This act establishes procedural safeguards for children to try to ensure that they do not linger in foster care. As amended in 1983, the act establishes administrative and judicial case review to try to ensure that the protective and "best interests" needs of children were met. The statute also requires child welfare agencies to make reasonable efforts to prevent placement and provide services to reunify families. The statute also supports agency programs to secure an alternative permanent family when reunification is not possible.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA).
This act is broad in its scope, addressing family preservation, child protection, permanency planning, and adoption concerns. Among its key provisions is a focus on child safety as the first priority in child welfare decision-making. It also calls for states to pass legislation detailing specific criteria for timely permanency planning in all cases and expedited termination of parental rights in cases of extreme child abuse and neglect.


Core values of the Child Protection System

The principal purpose of a child protection service is to protect children whose parents or caregivers are unable or unwilling to provide for their safety, basic needs, and emotional security.11Within this framework, it is understood that children are not able to protect themselves and that those who act on their behalf must be guided by what is in the child's best interests. The following values hold true:

  • Every child has a right to adequate care, supervision and freedom from maltreatment.
  • Every child should have a safe permanent family.
  • Parents have the primary responsibility and are the primary resource for their children.
  • In most circumstances, the most desirable place for children is in their own safe and caring family.
  • Most parents want to and can be adequate parents.
  • Most parents experiencing difficulty can be helped to be adequate parents.
  • When parents cannot or will not fulfill their protective responsibilities, the community has the right and obligation to intervene.

Once the child welfare agency intervenes to protect a child, two key principles guide its work:

1. Safety is always the first consideration in determining how the best interests of a child will be met.
2. The child's wellbeing and need for a more permanent family are also critical considerations.

At a casework level, this typically means that when it can be done safely, services must be provided to strengthen the parent's ability to provide a safe and permanent home for the child. Whenever safety cannot be assured while the child is at home, placement outside the home is made and services are geared at strengthening the family so that the child may be returned home. When this cannot be accomplished in a reasonable timeframe, the agency must look quickly to other resources, including relatives and adoptive families, to provide a permanent family for the child.

The basis for this approach can be found in both state and federal statutes. At the state level these laws may also provide more specific guidance to caseworkers by outlining timelines for key decisions and criteria for certain agency actions. For example, statutes often prescribe the number of days within which a child abuse investigation must be completed and sometimes detail what contacts or assessments are required in order to complete an investigation. States vary widely with regard to the specificity of their child abuse laws and policies. Advocates seeking to collaborate should become familiar with their state statute, and with related state and local policies.

B. How do cases move through a child protective agency?

The following chart provides a brief description of the flow of cases through the typical child welfare system.


What happens during CPS intake and screening?

To best describe how the child protection system operates, let's return to the report filed regarding Gina and her children. Before a visit was made to her home, the child protection agency "screened" the report made by the neighbor to determine how it should be handled. Often this means answering only a few simple questions. First, if the allegation were true as reported, would it constitute abuse or neglect according to the state law? Second, is the report credible? In Gina's case the intake worker "screened in" or accepted the report, believing that it was reliable and that Gina's children may be at risk. Had the worker found otherwise, the report would be "screened-out." At that point, it would typically be closed or referred to another agency for assistance.


What happens during an investigation or assessment?

Once a case is screened in, the child protection caseworker begins an assessment of the situation. This assessment or investigation typically begins with an interview of the parents and children that is usually conducted in the family home. During this interview, the worker tries to determine what has happened, and whether or not the children are at immediate risk. [See Appendix A for a more a detailed description of the CPS investigation and assessment process.]

After receiving the hotline report, a child protection caseworker met with Gina and her children to begin an assessment. The worker learned that Sammy and Jessie are Gina's only children and that Sammy's father is Gina's ex-husband, who does not live in the area. Gina talked freely about the current incident and said she yelled at Sammy to leave the kitchen so he wouldn't get hurt.

Although Sammy was not hurt this time when Mark dropped him, he and Jessie are afraid of Mark. Mark has never hit them, but Gina is afraid that if she leaves Mark alone with them he might. Gina also told the worker that the one time Mark came home really drunk, she and the kids stayed at a friend's house overnight. Gina also reported that Sammy and Jessie sometimes had difficulty sleeping after an episode of abuse and that she is really worried about them.

A separate interview with Sammy corroborated their mother's account of the incident. The children also stated that they were afraid of Mark and that they worried about their mother. Sammy is upset because his Mother yelled at him to leave the kitchen that night and he didn't know what to do. He went into Jessie's room to try to get her to stop crying. When Mark is in a "bad mood," Sammy says, his mother tells him to stay in his room.

The interview with Mark was very brief. Mark admitted to having a "few too many" but dismissed the rest of the allegations as just the "fantasy world of a busybody neighbor."

In instances like Gina's, the caseworker will also talk with the neighbor to confirm her report and might contact the police to gather information about their history of calls to the home. In addition, the caseworker might contact a daycare center, school, or pediatrician for additional information about the family.

Based on this information, it is the caseworker's responsibility to make several determinations.

  • Is there reason to believe that the allegations of child abuse or neglect are true? State law sets the legal standard against which this is measured. Typically, evidence does not have to "be clear and convincing" but there must be "reasonable cause to believe" that allegations are true. The answer to this question determines whether a case is substantiated (also called "founded").
  • What, if any, risk of harm to the children currently exists and what is the likelihood that they will be at risk in the future? This assessment of current safety and future risk usually helps a worker to determine what, if any, services will be provided to the family. Cases where the risk is believed to be minimal are usually closed, unless the agency and family agree to services on a voluntary basis.Low to moderate risk cases may receive in-home services designed to support the family, improve parenting, and ultimately lower the risk of future abuse and neglect. Higher risk cases often result in either intense monitoring through in-home services or in the removal of the child from the family to achieve safety.

The worker decides to substantiate a finding against Mark because of the risk created when he gets drunk and violent. The caseworker believes that Gina has not intentionally harmed her children and that she has made efforts to protect them. The worker is concerned about Mark's ongoing violence against Gina and its effects on the children. The worker has agreed not to remove the children on the condition that Mark remains out of the home. At this point the caseworker opens a case for in-home services and begins a more in-depth assessment of the family's service needs.

What happens during the assessment and service planning phase?

Once an initial investigation or assessment is completed, the child protection worker is responsible for continuing to gather information about the family and to determine what services are needed.

As the worker spends more time with Gina, he finds out the following: Gina moved to this community two years ago. She and Mark began dating right after she moved. At first, he was very kind to her and to Sammy, helping her get settled and taking Sammy to ball games. He convinced Gina they would "be a family" if she let him move in. As soon as she became pregnant, things got bad. Mark starting drinking more and he would fly into rages, destroying property and attacking Gina. She wanted to ask him to leave, but she quit her job when she became pregnant with Jessie and now relied on Mark for financial support. Mark's parents have also been supportive, and she's worried that if she asks him to leave, she'll lose contact with them. The worker is now also convinced that Gina is severely depressed and may have an alcohol problem.

The worker tells Gina she must get a protective order to assure that Mark can not legally come back to the apartment and that she must get an alcohol and psychological evaluation.

At this point the worker has begun the process of planning services. The service plan will later be written down and signed and will outline the types of resources clients must access and the requirements they must address.

What is the role of the legal system in child protection?

Juvenile and Family Court Proceedings

The caseworker drops by Gina's home to see how she and the kids are doing. Gina, obviously drunk, answers the door. The worker can see that the apartment is in disarray and can hear Jessie crying. She asks to see the children. Gina tells her to go away and to leave her family alone. As the worker heads back to her car to call for help, she sees Mark standing in the back yard.

Gina will no longer talk to the caseworker, so the caseworker decides that the children must be removed from their home in order to be safe. She begins the paperwork to get a court order giving the CPS agency the authority to take Sammy and Jessie out of their home and place them in foster care.

During the initial hearing, however, the judge decides to place Jessie and Sammy with Gina, on the conditions that she comply with the recommendations of the substance abuse evaluation and treatment program and that Mark move out and also attend a substance abuse and batterer intervention program.

Nationwide, only about 15% of children in substantiated abuse and neglect cases are removed from their homes.As a result, the court is not involved with most children who come to the attention of the child protection agency. Nonetheless, the court plays a critical role in certain circumstances. First, court intervention is needed when an investigation and assessment indicate that a child cannot remain at home safely. In these instances, the court's authority is required to take legal custody of the child so that placement and other services may be provided to protect the child. In certain limited circumstances, the child protection agency may place a child out of the home voluntarily with permission of the parent. Policies governing voluntary placements vary across jurisdictions, but even these placements are subject to juvenile court review after six months.

In many jurisdictions, the court may also be involved and allow the children to remain at home with the parent. In these cases the court may oversee the safety of the child and the parents' compliance with the case plan agreement either through an order of supervision or by taking legal custody of the child.

When court intervention is needed, federal and state statutes guide the court in overseeing the protection of children.These oversight responsibilities include assuring that:

  • the child protection agency has made reasonable efforts to prevent the removal of the child from the home;
  • there is a sufficient basis for state intervention on behalf of the child;
  • the child is adequately represented;
  • each parent has received adequate due process including notice; representation; and the right to be heard, present evidence, remain silent and appeal;
  • a proper case plan has been prepared for each parent;
  • the child protection agency has either made reasonable efforts to reunite the child with the family once placement has occurred, and/or the agency has documented that reasonable efforts are not warranted because reunification would be detrimental to the safety of the child;
  • each case is reviewed regularly by the court to ensure that the child's need for a permanent family is addressed in a timely manner; and
  • the child protection agency has made efforts to find a permanent home when the child cannot be returned home.

The courts also play an integral role in decision-making in child protection. Key steps in the court process include:

The Petition. In most states, child protection workers cannot, on their own authority, remove children from their home. They must rely on the authority of either the police or the courts (or in a few cases medical personnel). Even when a child is removed without a court order, the child protection agency is required to file a petition with the court based on timelines established in state law (typically 72 hours or less following removal). The petition contains facts about the alleged abuse or neglect and provides the basis for juvenile court involvement.

The Initial Hearing. This is a critical point in the child protection process. During this hearing the court will decide whether or not the allegations in the petition support the need to remove the child or continue a temporary custody order to protect the child. It is also at this hearing that the court ensures that parents have an attorney to advocate for their rights in the process and that a guardian ad-litem (or alternatively a Court Appointed Special Advocate - a CASA) is appointed to ensure that the child's best interests are addressed.

Adjudicatory Hearings. These are held to determine whether or not the petition is true - i.e., the child has been abused and neglected - and whether the child should be declared dependent - i.e., whether custody or supervisory authority should be removed from the parent and transferred to the court or the child protection agency.

Dispositional Hearings. These are held so that the court may decide what action should be taken after the child is declared dependent. Choices may include returning the child home with supervision from the child protection agency, out-of-home care, and orders for service to the parents and children.

Review Hearings. Following the dispositional hearing, the court typically sets a date(s) to review the status of the case, including the case plan, the parents' progress in meeting the requirements of the case plan, and recommendations for changes in the case plan, the child's placement or custody.

Permanency Hearings. These are held so that the court may establish a permanent plan for the child. This hearing also considers information documenting the current status of the case in determining how and when the child's need for a safe and permanent family will be met. New requirements established in the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 require that a permanency hearing be held within 12 months of a child's entry into care (and at 15 months for children already in care). This requirement puts an enormous burden on battered women to make quick and effective safety plans for themselves or else run the risk of losing their children permanently.

Once the court is involved, the number of people involved in the case can increase dramatically. In addition to family members, the child protection caseworker, service providers, and the judge, legal counsel represents each of the parties to the case. This means that one or more attorneys will represent the parents. The child protection agency will also be represented. Finally, the court will assign a guardian-ad-litem (an attorney) and/or a court appointed special advocate for the child. With these participants, and through this process, the case plan, services to family members, and, ultimately, the outcome of the case are decided.

Law Enforcement

Law enforcement plays an integral role in the protection of children from child abuse and neglect. In nearly all jurisdictions, police share responsibility with the child protection agency to receive and respond to reports of child maltreatment. In so doing, they carry two primary roles. First, they are responsible for the immediate protection of the child - particularly in cases where there is an imminent risk of harm. In many cases, this includes the authority to take protective custody of the child to ensure safety. Second, police are obligated to investigate child abuse and neglect when a crime may have been committed. In many jurisdictions, these investigations only occur when children have been killed or seriously injured as a result of abuse or neglect, when there is sexual abuse of a child, or when there is evidence of other criminal activity by the parent or caretaker.

An additional role for law enforcement is the safety of service providers. In many jurisdictions, police provide protection for caseworkers when they are entering a potentially dangerous situation.

Each of these responsibilities is carried out in coordination with the child protection agency. While many jurisdictions operate informally, in some states, statute or policy requires formal agreements between child welfare and police. Cross reporting of cases between the police and child protection may be mandated to ensure that cases are appropriately investigated and services provided. Jurisdictions may also establish protocols for joint investigations to ensure that the work of the two agencies is coordinated, to minimize the trauma of multiple interviews for children, and to ensure that juvenile and criminal court actions are coordinated.

Several communities across the country have already built collaborations that address domestic violence and child maltreatment collaboratively. Among these are:


The AWAKE Program.

Located at Children's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, this strengths-based and family-centered program was one of the first to make the link between domestic violence and child protection. Offering counseling, support groups, and advocacy to battered women with abused and neglected children, the program successfully promotes safety for mothers and children. In 16-month follow-up with a group of 46 mothers served by advocates, 85% of the women reported they were free from violence, and in only one family had children been placed in foster care.


Massachusetts Department of Social Services.

This practice integration model has brought domestic violence expertise to traditional child protective services through a statewide program in which domestic violence specialists work hand-in-hand with child protection caseworkers. The specialists provide case consultation, direct advocacy, and linkages to community resources for battered women and children served by the child welfare agency. Policy guidance supports decision-making that is responsive to the concerns of battered women beginning with screening and investigation and including risk assessment, family assessment, case planning and service delivery.


Michigan's Families First Domestic Violence Collaboration Project.

This cross-system collaboration between shelter programs and family preservation programs is offered in eleven communities across the state. The program provides intensive services designed to keep children safe and with their mothers. The program has also provided models for cross-training that integrate principles from family-centered practice, child protection, and domestic violence.

These three pioneering programs are among a growing array of models that are serving battered women and their abused and neglected children (see Appendix B for suggestions about building positive collaborations).

In Jacksonville, Florida, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, child protection and domestic violence programs are working together in community partnership models. In San Diego and Minneapolis, hospital-based programs are in place, and partnerships among police, hospitals, and child protection are developing. In Hawaii, Healthy Start programs are combining early intervention for children with screening and intervention in domestic violence. [For more examples, see Family Violence: Emerging Programs for Battered Mothers and their Children, published in 1998 in Reno, Nevada, by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.]

B. What Would a Collaborative Response Look Like?

The following scenario provides one example of how domestic violence advocates and CPS workers could collaboratively respond to families in which there is domestic violence and risk to the children. This particular example, rather than neatly solving the complex issues in such families, shows a process through which advocates and workers provide ongoing resources to the adult victim, while taking actions necessary to protect the children.

When Gina talked with her caseworker about Mark's violence, he told Gina about a collaborative program between the local domestic violence shelter program and CPS. Gina agreed to participate, and the worker called the shelter to let them know that Gina would call that afternoon. When Gina called, an advocate talked with her to get a basic understanding of her situation and needs and then set up a time to meet with Gina the next day. Gina told the advocate that she believes Mark could be a good partner and father to Sammy if he didn't drink. She also admitted that she probably drinks too much and just doesn't seem to have "any energy anymore." The advocate talked with Gina about Sammy and Jessie. She validated Gina's efforts to keep them out of the way, but also tried to make sure that Gina understood how the drinking and the abuse affect them and what actions CPS must take if the kids are in danger. They talked about what Gina thinks will keep her and the kids safe.

After getting Gina's permission to talk to the worker, the advocate called the worker, and they developed a plan to propose to Gina and to Mark. The proposed plan called for the following: Mark would move out of the apartment, go to a substance abuse/batterer intervention program sponsored by CPS, pay child support, and visit with Jessie while his parents supervised. Gina would attend counseling to address her substance abuse and depression and would bring Sammy to a children's group run by the shelter. After 6 months, CPS would reevaluate the potential danger to Sammy and Jessie. Both parents agreed to this plan.

After six weeks of attending classes, Mark stopped going. He also told Gina he wasn't going to pay child support for a child he only sees once a week. Desperate for money and tired of single parenting, Gina invited Mark to move back in.

The CPS worker was notified about Mark's lack of attendance. The worker called the domestic violence advocate to let her know, and went out to check on Sammy and Jessie. The advocate also contacted Gina to see how she might help.

C. Principles for Domestic Violence-Child Protection Collaboration

Successful collaboration requires a shared framework for the response to battered women and their children. Core principles already guide collaborative efforts in communities across the country. The following discussion explains each principleand raises key policy challenges that face advocates and child protection workers as they practice together to keep children and their battered mothers safe.

Principle 1:    The safety of children is the priority.

Every procedure, policy or practice of an integrated response to child maltreatment and domestic violence must ensure that children are protected. For example, services to support a battered mother's safety and autonomy must not compromise safety for children. Commitment to this principle can provide essential common ground as child protection workers and domestic violence advocates work through the complex issues of building a collaborative response.


Abuse and Women with Disabilities

Defining Disability and Abuse

For the purpose of this paper, the term disability will encompass the following impairments: disability that can increase vulnerability to abuse may result from physical, sensory, or mental impairments, or a combination of impairments; physical disability resulting from injury (e.g., spinal cord injury, amputation), chronic disease (e.g., multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis), or congenital conditions (e.g., cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy); sensory impairments consisting of hearing or visual impairments; and mental impairments comprising developmental conditions (e.g., mental retardation), cognitive impairment (e.g., traumatic brain injury), or mental illness.

Emotional abuse is being threatened, terrorized, severely rejected, isolated, ignored, or verbally attacked. Physical abuse is any form of violence against one's body, such as being hit, kicked, restrained, or deprived of food or water. Sexual abuse is being forced, threatened, or deceived into sexual activities ranging from looking or touching to intercourse or rape.

Prevalence of Violence Against Women with Disabilities

The prevalence of abuse among women in general has been fairly well documented, yet only a few North American studies (review by Sobsey, Wells, Lucardie, & Mansell, 1995), primarily from Canada, have examined the prevalence among women with disabilities.

The DisAbled Women's Network of Canada (Ridington, 1989) surveyed 245 women with disabilities and found that 40% had experienced abuse; 12% had been raped. Perpetrators of the abuse were primarily spouses and ex-spouses (37%) and strangers (28%), followed by parents (15%), service providers (10%), and dates (7%). Less than half these experiences were reported, due mostly to fear and dependency. Ten percent of the women had used shelters or other services, 15% reported that no services were available or they were unsuccessful in their attempts to obtain services, and 55% had not tried to get services.

Sobsey and Doe (1991) conducted a study of 166 abuse cases handled by the University of Alberta's Sexual Abuse and Disability Project. The sample was 82% women and 70% persons with intellectual impairments, and covered a very wide age range (18 months to 57 years). In 96% of the cases, the perpetrator was known to the victim; 44% of the perpetrators were service providers. Seventy-nine percent of the individuals were victimized more than once. Treatment services were either inadequate or not offered in 73% of the cases.

The Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services (Toronto Star, April 1, 1987) surveyed 62 women and found that more of the women with disabilities had been battered as adults compared to the women without disabilities (33% versus 22%), but fewer had been sexually assaulted as adults (23% versus 31%).

An extensive assessment of the sexuality of noninstitutionalized women with disabilities, which included comprehensive assessment of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, was conducted by the Center for Research on Women with Disabilities (CROWD) through a grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. This study also covered other areas that may be associated with abuse, such as sexual functioning, reproductive health care, dating, marriage, parenting issues, and the woman's sense of self as a sexual person. The design of the study consisted of (1) qualitative interviews with 31 women with disabilities, and (2) a national survey of 946 women, 504 of whom had physical disabilities and 442 who did not have disabilities. Disabilities reported most frequently included spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and joint and connective tissue diseases.

Abuse issues emerged as a major theme among the 31 women interviewed in the first phase of this study. An analysis of reports of abuse in those interviews was described by Nosek (1996). Twenty-five of the 31 women reported being abused in some way. Of 55 separate abusive experiences, 15 were reported as sexual abuse, 17 were physical (nonsexual) abuse, and 23 were emotional abuse.

The findings from the qualitative study were used to develop items for the national survey. Two pages of the 51-page survey were devoted to abuse issues, encompassing more than 80 variables, including type of abuse by perpetrator and age when abuse began and ended, plus two open-ended questions. Analyses of these data (Young, Nosek, Howland, Chanpong, & Rintala, 1997) have revealed that abuse prevalence (including emotional, physical and sexual abuse) was the same (62%) for women with and without disabilities. There were no significant differences between percentages of women with and without disabilities who reported experiencing emotional abuse (52% versus 48%), physical abuse (36% in both groups), or sexual abuse (40% versus 37%). The most common perpetrators of emotional and physical abuse for both groups were husbands, followed by mothers, then fathers. Emotional abuse by husbands was reported by 26% of all women in both groups; physical abuse by husbands was reported by 17% of all women with disabilities and 19% of all women without disabilities. The most common perpetrator of sexual abuse was a stranger, as reported by 11% of women with disabilities and 12% of women without disabilities. Women with disabilities were significantly more likely to experience emotional and sexual abuse by attendants and health care workers. Women with disabilities reported significantly longer durations of physical or sexual abuse compared to women without disabilities (3.9 years versus 2.5 years). In an analysis of sexual functioning, abuse was found to be a significant predictor of lower levels of satisfaction with sex life among women with disabilities (Nosek, Rintala, Young, Howland, Foley, Rossi, & Chanpong, 1995)

Others have reported a history of sexual abuse among 25% of adolescent girls with mental retardation (Chamberlain, Rauh, Passer, McGrath, & Burket, 1984), 31% of those with congenital physical disabilities (Brown, 1988), 36% of multihandicapped children admitted to a psychiatric hospital (Ammerman, Van Hasselt, Hersen, McGonigle, & Lubetsky, 1989), and 50% of women blind from birth (Welbourne, Lipschitz, Selvin, & Green, 1983). In spite of these high percentages, few women receive treatment from victim services specialists (Andrews & Veronen, 1993).

Abuse Interventions for Women with Disabilities

There have been virtually no studies that examine the existence, feasibility, or effectiveness of abuse interventions for women with disabilities. In both the disability rights movement and the battered women's movement, it is generally acknowledged that programs to assist abused women are often architecturally inaccessible, lack interpreter services for deaf women, and are not able to accommodate women who need assistance with daily self-care or medications (Nosek, M.A., Howland, C.A., & Young, M.E. 1998). Merkin and Smith (1995), in discussing the needs of deaf women, state that counseling is more effective when sensitive to deaf culture issues and appropriate communication techniques.

Crisis interventions typically include escaping temporarily to a woman's shelter, having an escape plan ready in the event of imminent violence if the woman chooses to remain with the perpetrator, and escaping permanently from the abuser. These options may be problematic for the woman with a disability if the shelter is inaccessible or unable to meet her needs for personal assistance with activities of daily living, if the shelter staff are unable to communicate with a deaf or speech-impaired woman, if she depends primarily on the abuser for assistance with personal needs and has no family or friends to stay with, or if she is physically incapable of executing the tasks necessary to implement an escape plan such as packing necessities, hiding money, and driving or arranging transportation to a shelter or friend's home.

Andrews and Veronen (1993) list four requirements for effective victim services for women with disabilities. First, service providers need to provide adequate assessment of survivors, including questions about disability-related issues. Second, abuse service providers should be trained to recognize and effectively respond to needs related to the disability, and disability service providers should be trained in recognizing and responding to physical and sexual trauma. Third, barriers to services should be eliminated by providing barrier-free information and referral services, by ensuring physical accessibility to facilities, by providing 24-hour access to transportation, to interpreters, and to communication assistance, and by providing trained personnel to monitor risks and respond to victims receiving services through disability programs. Finally, persons with disabilities who are dependent on caregivers, either at home or in institutions, may need special legal protection against abuse.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline keeps a database of battered women's shelters throughout the country, with indications of their architectural accessibility and the availability of interpreter services. Although the hotline is equipped with telecommunication devices for persons who are deaf, it is rarely used. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has issued a manual that gives specific guidelines for battered women's programs on implementing accessibility modifications according to the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and increasing sensitivity and responsiveness among program staff to the needs of abused women with disabilities (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1996).

Critique of Studies on Abuse and Disability

Until recently, the problem of abuse among people with disabilities has received very little attention. Early studies suffered from many methodological weaknesses. Essential constructs and variables important to statistical analysis were rarely defined. There was a particular lack of distinction among emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. The studies used unstandardized measurement instruments and techniques. Global references were made to the type of abuse, for example, emotional versus sexual; however, there was little attempt to document or categorize specific incidents by perpetrator. Samples in these studies were generally quite heterogeneous in terms of disability type, gender, and age. There was also the use of convenience sampling, such as using clients of intervention programs or police reports, as opposed to representative or random sampling. Statistical analyses rarely go beyond frequencies and measures of central tendency. Due to the heterogeneity of the samples, analyzing specific experiences of individuals with specific characteristics (such as sexual abuse among adult women with mental illness) would result in subsamples too small to allow the use of more sophisticated analytic procedures.

The recent study by the Center for Research on Women with Disabilities addressed a number of these issues. It had clearly defined variables; assessed types of abuse, perpetrator, and duration of abuse; sampled a broad range of women nationwide, including an able-bodied comparison group; and was restricted to a defined sample of adult women with physical disability. The issue of designing and implementing appropriate intervention studies for women with disabilities has received no attention beyond observation and speculation.


There is no question that abuse of women with disabilities is a problem of epidemic proportions that is only beginning to attract the attention of researchers, service providers, and funding agencies. The gaps in the literature are enormous. For each disability type, different dynamics of abuse come into play. For women with physical disabilities, limitations in physically escaping violent situations are in sharp contrast to women with hearing impairments, who may be able to escape but face communication barriers in most settings designed to help battered women. Certain commonalities exist across disability groups, such as economic dependence, social isolation, and the whittling away of self-esteem on the basis of disability as a precursor to abuse. Research that employs methodologic rigor must be conducted with women who have disabilities such as blindness, deafness, mental illness, and mental retardation. Particular attention must be paid to identifying vulnerability factors that are disability-related as opposed to those factors experienced by all women.

We must know more about interventions that are effective for women with disabilities. Considerable work has been done in this area for women in general; however, many of the recommended strategies are not feasible for women with disabilities. Few of the strategies listed in classic safety plans are possible for women who must depend on their abuser to get them out of bed in the morning, dress them, and feed them. There are only a handful of programs across the country that specifically address the needs of abused women with disabilities, making controlled intervention studies very difficult.

Much more work must be done to increase the awareness of providers of disability-related services so that they can recognize abuse among their clients and make appropriate referrals to battered women's programs. Correspondingly, much more work must be done to increase the capacity of battered women's programs to serve women with all types of disabilities.

Battered Women’s Protective Strategies

When exploring battered women's protective strategies, the first question to ask is, “Protection from what?” Protection from further violence is a natural and obvious answer to this question, but it is not the only answer. Many other domains of a woman's life are also threatened by battering: her financial stability, the well-being and safety of her children, her social status and the degree to which she is subjected to a stigmatized identity, her psychological health and sense of self-worth, and her hopes and dreams for the course of her life. These are just a few of the areas that are routinely threatened by a woman's abusive partner. Indeed, the threats to these domains may in some cases be greater than the threats of injury or physical pain.

Victims are never responsible for the battering perpetrated against them, but, just as people cope and respond to other negative events, victims must also cope and respond to battering. Few people recognize that women are often attempting to cope with numerous threats posed by battering, not just the threat of bodily harm. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to protect oneself from all of these harms simultaneously, or even to spread the risks more or less equally across these domains. Rather, acts that protect against one form of harm often exacerbate other harms. In particular, the unintended consequences of leaving for battered women and their children, especially leaving abruptly in an emergency context, are under-acknowledged by many scholars and advocates (Davies, 2009). It is perhaps natural to assume that escaping violence as quickly as possible is an obvious choice for any victim. The reality, however, can be much bleaker. Some women are so destitute, both financially and socially, that leaving, especially in a short time frame, may be worse than staying. According to Hamby and Gray-Little (2007):

The dangers of staying with a violent partner may be less than the dangers of living on the streets. The pain of an occasional beating may be less than the pain of losing custody of one's children to a violent parent (p. 28-5).

Many in the general public, and even advocates and scholars with extensive experience in the field of partner violence, may find it difficult to accept that conditions of poverty and social isolation exist for so many women. Nonetheless, assumptions that leaving is always better or safer than staying have meant that people do not always recognize the wide array of protective strategies that victims use. There are many strategies in addition to leaving the abuser or staying in a shelter. One goal of this review is to broaden the definitions of both what women are trying to protect and how they are trying to protect it. Although many of these protective strategies are already known to advocates and have been previously documented in the research, there is still a disconnect between women's lived realities in comparison with both the public stereotypes about battered women and the types of services offered to support them. It is hoped that this document will be a step towards expanding both perceptions and services.

A Holistic Approach

“…battered women are the strongest women. And nobody will ever change my mind with that. We've had to learn to how to survive” (Melinda, quoted in Davis, 2002, p. 1254).

To fully understand battered women's experiences, a holistic perspective is required. This perspective expands the meaning of “protective strategies,” and raises awareness of the many obstacles that victims confront. Although it is true that there are many more services and legal protections available to victims today than there were 30 or 40 years ago, it is still equally true that most women face substantial constraints in accessing services or using other protective strategies (Davies, Lyon, & Monti-Catania, 1998; Justice & Courage Oversight Panel, 2008). Hamby (2008) organized these constraints into five categories: batterer's behavior, financial obstacles, institutional obstacles, social obstacles, and personal values that complicate women's choices. Batterer's attempts to maintain power and control over their victims manifest themselves in many ways, such as threats to kill the victim if she leaves or attempts to make other changes in their relationship (Pence & Paymar, 1993). Contrary to the widespread assumption that leaving is the best way to increase safety, there is ample evidence that much violence is initiated or worsens after separation as the batterer redoubles efforts to maintain control (Mahoney, 1991; Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998, 2000).

Not all constraints are due to the batterer, however (Davies et al., 1998; Hamby, 2008). There are financial obstacles, such as insufficient funds to rent an apartment or home, lack of health care for oneself or one's children, or the ability to take time off work to address the effects of the abuse. Financial constraints can limit other coping efforts such as seeking counseling. There are also institutional obstacles, such as limited shelter stays that do not allow sufficient time to set up a new home and job, requirements of multiple court appearances for women who do not have access to childcare or transportation, and the dearth of civil attorneys for low-income women. Many services are primarily organized around helping women leave, and if they do not wish to leave they may find few relevant institutional services (Davies, 2008). There are also social obstacles, such as objections by the victim's or perpetrator's families to divorce or terminate the relationship. Members of some cultural groups or communities may experience pressure not to disclose the violence at all. Further, institutional and social obstacles are often exacerbated for certain groups, including immigrant women, elders, youth, pregnant women, lesbian and bisexual women, gay men, transgender people, people of color, women with disabilities, and other groups who may have special needs, complicated legal issues, or other considerations that are not always addressed by standard services.

Finally, personal values, such as beliefs that divorce is wrong, can complicate women's choices as they simultaneously try to remain true to their ideals and protect themselves and their children (Hamby, 2008). The costs of giving up these values can be substantial, both psychologically and socially. For example, if their church or other organization rejects them for breaching its values, a victim might lose considerable social support and even a source of financial and in-kind assistance. Women face dozens of constraints as they strategize about what to do.

Protective Strategies: Understanding What We Know and Don't Know

To the extent that any data on pro-active, protective behaviors are offered at all, the existing research literature has the most to say on strategies women use to protect themselves and their children against physical violence. The lack of research on other strategies battered women use by no means implies they are less frequent or less important —just less studied.

It is important to note, too, that in some cases I have interpreted published data differently than the original authors. Specifically, sometimes behaviors that are interpreted as dysfunctional or passive by the original researchers are considered here to be protective of other goals or needs. For example, choosing not to disclose abuse is often interpreted as denial or some other cognitive distortion. Concealing abuse, or other strategies to dis-identify with victimization, however, can just as easily be seen as impression management strategies that are efforts to minimize the social stigma of being publicly identified as a victim or to minimize the shame that would come to the family for revealing a family secret. Such impression management strategies, or efforts to control others' perceptions of oneself, are common among those with potentially concealable stigmatizing conditions (Goffman, 1963; Herek & Capitanio, 1996).

Oftentimes, researchers describe the strategies most clearly connected to leaving and terminating a relationship as the most protective or best coping strategies. Yet, they typically give little consideration to whether the use of these strategies may actually increase physical risk via separation violence rather than protect women against physical harm (Mahoney, 1991). For example, in the National Violence Against Women Survey (NVAWS), 22% of women victimized by a former spouse reported that the violence occurred after the relationship ended. In fact, in 4% of cases the violence only began after the relationship ended. The pattern for stalking was even more dramatic: 43% of stalking victims were stalked only after terminating a relationship (Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998). Leaving is almost always held up as the gold standard of good coping despite considerable evidence that terminating a relationship is not always a successful strategy for ending abuse.

Finally, the other major limitation of the research on coping and protective strategies is that it usually focuses only on battered women who go to battered women's shelters. In many cases, these are the women with the fewest resources or who are in the worst circumstances. Many women leave abusive, maltreating partners without ever visiting a shelter, speaking with an anti-domestic violence advocate, or disclosing the violence to a civil or criminal court. We know very little about them or their protective strategies. Nonetheless, and despite the limitations of the research, there is substantial evidence that women engage in all kinds of protective strategies and seek many types of help as they attempt to improve their situations, whether they remain in or leave their relationships. The evidence for several specific strategies is presented below.

Specific Protective Strategies

Immediate Situational Strategies

Although much of the literature focuses on long-term protective strategies, a few studies have looked at protective responses in the immediate context of a physical or sexual assault. The first coping responses often occur during or just after an assault. Leaving the house or escaping the scene of the assault was reported by 19% of women in one study (Magen, Conroy, Hess, Panciera, & Simon, 2001). In a randomly drawn community sample, Hamby and Gray-Little (1997) found that immediate self-protective strategies, such as leaving the situation, getting someone's help, or calling the police, were reported by 20% of women. One nationally representative sample found that 16% ran to another room, 8% left the house, and 6% called someone other than the police (Kaufman Kantor & Straus, 1990). Women also try to avoid potentially violent situations: 63% in a study by Yoshihama (2002). Although some authors consider avoidance a passive, poor coping strategy, women's own ratings showed that avoiding violent situations was often an effective protective strategy.

Hitting back is another immediate situational strategy. Although virtually any response can lead to an escalation of the batterer's violence, hitting back may be riskier than most. It may also create legal problems for women, including leading to assault charges against them or damaging their positions in a custody contest. However, some women do choose this strategy: 12% in one nationally representative sample (Kaufman Kantor & Straus, 1990). Although the severity of the violence perpetrated against them and the physical environment can constrain victims' ability to flee or engage in other immediate responses, it is clear that many women respond protectively in the moment that violence occurs.

Protecting Children, Family, Friends, and Pets

Oftentimes, the welfare of others is foremost on a victim's mind. Victims' specific concerns about others are better documented than the specific strategies used to address these concerns. Sometimes protecting others manifests as immediate situational strategies. For example, in one small study of 17 battered women with children, 65% described removing the children from the scene of the violence by moving away from them or putting them in their bedrooms (Haight, Shim, Linn, & Swinford, 2007). Other steps are longer term. Haight et al. (2007) found that almost half of the sample (47%) spoke of reassuring their children and emphasizing to them that the fighting was not the children's fault. Some mothers, ranging from 16% to 24% in two studies, try to teach their children to make nonviolent choices in their own relationships (Haight et al., 2007; Levendosky, Lynch, & Graham-Bermann, 2000).  

The desire to protect others sometimes limits the choice of coping strategies. Across several studies of threats to pets, 26% of women reported that they delayed terminating their relationship because of batterers' threats to kill or harm their companion animals if they left (Hamby, 2008). This is a good example of a situation where no single protective strategy can minimize all risks simultaneously. Although the data available focus on children and pets, it is likely that victims try to protect all loved ones who are threatened.

Using “Classic” Legal and Anti-Domestic Violence Services

Calling the police. Substantial numbers of women call the police in order to obtain protection from their batterer, especially women who are victims of the most severe battering. As with any single strategy, calling the police may have limited effectiveness in preventing future violence and may create other problems. When victims call the police they may expose the batterer to violence from the police, as well as face retaliatory violence from the batterer or the possibility that they themselves may be arrested (Hirschel & Buzawa, 2002; Martin, 1997; Ritchie, 2006). Law enforcement involvement can also be risky for women who may be worried about involvement from child protective services or immigration enforcement.

Studies of women who have had contact with shelters or social services indicate that between 32% and 78% have also called the police (Bui, 2003; Magen et al., 2001; Rounsaville, 1978; Rusbult & Martz, 1995). In the National Crime Victimization Survey, 53% of women reported their intimate partner victimizations to police between 1993 and 1998 (Rennison & Welchans, 2000). In other nationally representative community surveys rates of reporting to the police are lower, most likely because the typical violence reported in such surveys is minor and infrequent. NVAWS found that 21% of female victims contacted the police (Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998). Furthermore, 27% of all victimizations were reported, but not always by the victim (Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998). Although the rates of reporting are lower in community surveys, more severe forms of violence are more likely to be reported to the police. In one survey, Kaufman Kantor and Straus (1990) found that women who sustained severe violence were four times more likely to call the police than women who sustained minor violence (14% vs. 3%). However, not all groups are equally likely to turn to police. For example, using data from Houston, Texas, Bui (2003) estimates that Vietnamese immigrants are five times less likely to call the police than other ethnic groups in Houston. Fears of problems with immigration authorities (whether victims are documented or not) and fears of racial or ethnic discrimination by law enforcement may prevent some victims from contacting police or other authorities (Bui, 2003).

Obtaining a restraining order/order of protection. NVAWS found that 17% of victimized women attained a temporary restraining order. Obtaining a protection order is often more common among women who have engaged in other forms of help-seeking (Dutton, Ammar, Orloff, & Terrell, 2007; Strube & Barbour, 1984). However, numerous problems exist regarding restraining orders that may affect their use by victims. In the NVAWS, for example, 51% of the women who obtained orders said their partner violated their restraining order (Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998). In a sample of immigrant women, 37% felt an order of protection would increase their danger (Dutton et al., 2007). Other problems include lack of legal representation in civil protection order hearings for low-income women and limited enforcement of protection orders in some jurisdictions. Further, despite the full faith and credit provisions of the Violence Against Women Act, which should ensure that orders issued by all states and tribal jurisdictions are respected throughout the country, enforcement of protection orders across jurisdictional lines can be problematic.

Going to a domestic violence shelter . Access to shelters is not as universal as sometimes thought. Fewer than half of U.S. counties have shelters, and those shelters that exist are often full. A national survey on shelter services found that, in a single day, there were more than 4,000 unmet requests for shelter or transitional housing (National Network to End Domestic Violence, 2008). In addition to issues regarding access, some shelters have policies that exclude boys over age 13 (or younger) or exclude women who are actively using drugs or alcohol to cope with the effects of the abuse. Other shelter policies may require residents to participate in interventions, such as parent training. Although such policies are generally meant to protect and assist shelter residents, they effectively exclude many victims in need of shelter. Often operating with very limited resources, shelters may struggle to offer culturally relevant services, particularly to battered women who are the most marginalized, such as immigrants, women of color, women with disabilities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender survivors of domestic violence, and battered women charged with crimes.

In one nationally representative community survey, 4% of women who left their partner went to a safe house or homeless shelter (author's analysis of archived data from Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). Another study found that 10% of domestic violence victims sought help from a shelter (Cattaneo & DeLoveh, 2008). A recent study of 3,410 shelter residents in eight states found that, after time in shelter, 92% felt more hopeful about the future, 91% knew more about their options and ways to plan for their safety, and 85% knew more about community resources – outcomes associated with longer-term safety and well-being (Lyon, Lane, & Menard, 2008). Although not used by all victims, emergency shelters serve as an important protective strategy, especially for the most severely abused women and those with the fewest financial and social resources.

Utilizing other domestic violence program services. Although shelter is the service most closely identified with anti-domestic violence programs, most programs offer a variety of services, usually at no cost. Existing data suggests that the most commonly utilized domestic violence-related services include providing information about domestic violence and referrals to other organizations (North Carolina Council for Women, 2007). Indeed, these services are provided more than 10 times as often as shelter. Transportation, court accompaniment, and counseling are also provided more frequently than shelter.

Some racial groups utilize program services more often than others. In North Carolina, which keeps one of the largest databases on domestic violence services, three racial groups comprised larger portions of clients served than they do of the total North Carolina population: African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians. Two groups were somewhat underrepresented in comparison to their numbers in the population: Whites and Asian Americans. It is possible that racial and ethnic differences in service utilization are due to lower income individuals being overrepresented in some U.S. minority groups. Research demonstrates that lower income women are more likely to use shelters than women with higher income (Cattaneo & DeLoveh, 2008), and may also be more likely to seek help with transportation and other services.

Data suggests that a variety of program services are used by large numbers of victims. However, interpreting service data is complex because some of these services are provided to women while they are in shelter. Shelter “service” can comprise as much as a 90-day stay, while other services take place over much briefer periods of time. Further, not every anti-domestic violence program has the resources to offer shelter, and shelter might be used more if it were more widely available. Finally, as these data come from programs, not victims, one cannot determine what percentage of victims use these various services as part of their coping strategies.

Reaching Out for Social Support

Most women seek social support by disclosing their experiences of abuse to family members, friends, neighbors, and/or co-workers. Social support may provide women with needed validation, another perspective on the situation, support around safety planning, assistance with holding the abusive partner accountable, and a counterbalance to the batterer's minimization, denial, and blame. Social support may also result in tangible offers of help, including places to stay, financial assistance, or places to store belongings in case of emergency. Like most protective strategies, though, seeking social support does entail risks, as women might instead encounter fear, rejection, and stigma.

Despite these risks, most battered women do seek social support. Three studies found the rate of confiding in a friend or family member to be over 90% (Goodkind, Gillum, Bybee, & Sullivan, 2003; Levendosky et al., 2004; Rounsaville, 1978). Another study found that 74% sought help from at least one friend and 47% sought help from family (Yoshihama, 2002). In another study, approximately two-thirds sought support from their own family, while over 40% sought help from friends (Strube & Barbour, 1984). In a sample of Vietnamese immigrants, 62% talked with relatives, friends, or religious leaders (Bui, 2003). Although the total number of people confided in is not often measured, Goodkind et al. (2003) reported that more than half of their sample (56%) talked to both family and friends. Social support can be emotional support and also more direct support. According to one nationally representative survey, 68% of women who leave their partners go stay with family members or friends (author's analysis of archived data from Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000).

Turning to Spiritual and Religious Resources

One of the great disservices to many victims of domestic violence is the frequent categorization of prayer and other spiritual strategies as “passive” or “avoidant” coping. Prayer, and other spiritual ceremonies and resources, may be a great source of strength for women from many cultural and ethnic backgrounds (Hamby & Gray-Little, 2007). Hage (2006) found that faith in God was important to the coping of 90% of the battered women in her sample. Similarly, El-Khoury et al. (2004) found that 88% used prayer to find strength and guidance, and 27% talked to a member of the clergy about their abuse. Spiritual practices are often reported more frequently by women of color, including African American women (El-Khoury et al., 2004) and Muslim women (Hassouneh-Phillips, 2001, 2003). Culturally specific spiritual practices may play an important role in the process of healing and protection, as exemplified by the statement of this American Indian woman from the Seattle area:

…That helped me a lot, … smudging [ritual purifying with the smoke of sacred herbs such as sage] and just doing a lot of different things about being strong and protecting myself, you know. The Native person can teach me how to protect myself in a Native way, like smudging, and not cutting my hair, and just leaving it on the ground so someone can stomp on it! And you know, just things like that, little things. And the music, powwow music was a big healing for my heart and made my heart strong again (Senturia, Sullivan, Cixke, & Shiu-Thorton, 2000, pp. 114-115).

Some women, however, report that their partners use scripture to enhance power and control over them, or that the rules of some organized religions hamper their efforts to protect themselves (Hage, 2006; Hassouneh-Phillips, 2001, 2003). More needs to be done to craft ways of simultaneously supporting women's spirituality and right to safety.

Use of Traditional Health, Mental Health, and Social Services

Fairly large numbers of women seek help from psychologists, social workers, physicians, drug and alcohol abuse treatment providers, community health centers, and other health and social service providers. Some significant impediments to the use of these services exist, including financial costs, concerns about confidentiality, and access to providers with training in domestic violence. Still, they are used fairly frequently. Several studies found the percentage of battered women who sought counseling to be from 9-30% (El-Khoury et al., 2004; Magen et al., 2001; Saunders, 1994). Saunders (1994) also found that 21% of battered women participated in a 12-step program. Another study found that 35% sought the help of a physician or nurse (Magen et al., 2001). Conjoint couples counseling is also sought by some women. Although considered controversial by some, there is emerging evidence that conjoint couples counseling can be safely pursued when minor, noninjurious forms of domestic violence have been perpetrated (O'Leary, Heyman, & Neidig, 1999; Stith, Rosen, McCollum, & Thomsen, 2004). There may be ethnic or cultural differences in the use of these services. For example, one study found European American women were more likely to seek mental health counseling than African American women (El-Khoury et al., 2004). When culturally appropriate, these providers can offer another forum for talking about multiple risks and working out solutions, and can also help address the emotional after-effects of trauma.

Terminating the Relationship

Ending the relationship, by attempting to break up, move out, or divorce, is almost always designed to be a protective strategy. Relationship termination is measured in a number of different ways. Flynn (1990) reported that 37% of her sample ended their relationship in one-month or less following the first episode of violence. Magen et al. (2001) reported that 32% ended the relationship “immediately.” Jacobson, Gottman, Gortner, Berns, and Shortt (1996) followed 45 batterers and their spouses over a two-year period and found that 38% divorced or separated during that time. Griffing et al. (2005) found that 66% separated but later returned to the batterer at least once, demonstrating both how many would like to leave and also the extent of the obstacles many confront in ending the relationship. However, as discussed, it is important to recognize that leaving can entail significant risks, especially to women with the most aggressive or emotionally unstable partners. These risks may include homicide, separation violence, and loss of custody of children.

Invisible Strategies

The following list of invisible strategies may seem like a pretty long list of protective strategies, and in some respects it is—more than a dozen specific strategies have been studied. Yet what is also striking about the research on protective strategies is what is missing, particularly from quantitative research on victims of domestic violence. For example, there is virtually no quantitative research on a wide range of strategies, including how many women:

open bank accounts and start saving money, which is probably one of the most important strategies for increasing the number of viable options a victim can pursue, ranging from filing for divorce to contesting custody to securing living arrangements.

  • return to school to increase their job skills and gain all of the other benefits of an education.
  • file for custody of their children, or seek supervised visits for their children when they visit their father.
  • relocate to get away from a stalker.
  • coach their children on how to escape during a violent episode or take steps to minimize their children's time with the batterer.
  • successfully work with their partners, with or without the assistance of advocates or therapists, to make their relationship safe.
  • examine all of their constraints and options and make a calculated decision that staying is the safest thing to do at that moment.

Advocates and others who work regularly with battered women know that women take all of these actions. Indeed, advocates help women with many of them. However, while there are some references to these actions in qualitative interviews of victims, we know very little about how common they are.

Another feature of victim's coping that is often invisible is the shear number of different strategies that victims try. Hamby and Gray-Little (1997) found in their community sample that the average number of protective strategies increased as the level of violence progressed from minor to more severe. We need to learn much more about how many different ways victims typically try to address the problem of violence and other forms of abuse.

Different Approaches to Protection

The above examples illustrate the wide array of choices available to victims trying to protect themselves and their loved ones. Hamby and Gray-Little (2007) have proposed a model for understanding different ways of coping with the problems created by battering. It represents a continuum of approaches that victims might adopt, and how these approaches can involve multiple strategies, not just leaving the relationship. It is based on a model from the world of finance. One of the key advantages offered by this financial model is that the full range of coping strategies are de-stigmatized—no one strategy is automatically deemed superior for every person. This provides a concrete analogy for how we might reframe our perceptions of victim's coping strategies.

The Conservative Strategy

In finance, a conservative strategy is one that emphasizes low-risk investments, often promising guaranteed returns, such as savings accounts or certificates of deposit. The conservative strategy minimizes or even virtually eliminates the risk of loss. In exchange for this low risk, however, investors accept a relatively low rate of return on their investments.

The conservative strategy is a better descriptor for strategies used by many women who might otherwise be labeled passive. People who take a conservative approach to coping tend to focus on minimizing the risk of further losses in many areas. Examples of such risks are the loss of financial well-being, housing, or custody of their children. They also may be trying to reduce the risk of separation violence, stalking, or harm to animals if they try more active coping strategies. Thus, conservative “copers” may be more likely to choose ways of addressing the violence, such as discussing it with their partners or seeking counseling, which do not involve leaving the relationship or making other large changes in their situation.

Conservative copers may also try to minimize the risk of stigma by using information management. Although this may appear to be minimization or denial, there is an enormous difference between a conscious effort to avoid stigma and a cognitive distortion. Terms like “minimization” and “denial” suggest that the woman herself does not fully recognize her own victimization, which Hamby and Gray-Little (1997) have found to be rare.

In the financial world, personal characteristics, such as low net worth, are associated with a greater tendency to use a conservative strategy (Embrey & Fox, 1997). Such findings provide another parallel to the situation of battered women, who may be seen as passive copers but only when others fail to consider their context, such as a lack of financial resources. Leaving takes considerable economic and social resources. Thousands of dollars are required, for example, to secure and furnish a new home and file for divorce. Likewise, it is difficult to make major life changes without social support. Women without these resources may adopt a conservative strategy because they don't have the resources to choose other strategies, or because they stand to lose the few resources they do possess if their strategies do not work as planned.

The Venture Strategy

At the other end of the continuum is the “venture” strategy. In the investing world, this strategy is frequently referred to as an “aggressive” strategy, but we have avoided this term because we do not want to imply that women's use of violence is the only, or even a necessary, element of this approach. The term “venture” is designed to capture the higher element of risk that is the central component of this strategy. Confronting the perpetrator and leaving, especially in the midst of a crisis, are examples of what are, statistically, high-risk strategies (Davies, 2009). Some of these risks pertain directly to increased risks of further violence and stalking following separation, both of which are well documented (e.g., Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998). Leaving is also associated with threats by the batterer to harm children, pets, and victims' family members (Hamby, 2008). Some victims face other significant and even life-threatening risks, such as the risk of deportation for some immigrants (Hamby, 2008). Because many battered women face a daunting array of such risks, an over-emphasis on venture strategies may be dangerous, but this depends on individual circumstances.

The Balanced Strategy

Many financial advisors recommend a strategy between these two extremes—a balanced strategy. In finance, a balanced strategy refers to the creation of a diversified portfolio of investments that represent varying degrees of risk. The recommended balance of low- and high-risk investments varies with an individual's personal situation. A young person, or someone with a lot of money, can afford to take greater risks than people approaching retirement age with modest assets. The balanced strategy probably characterizes most women who have been battered. The few studies that assess many types of responses to violence (Hamby & Gray-Little, 1997; Yoshihama, 2002) indicate that many women—perhaps two-thirds—are trying numerous responses to violence, including some that are typically labeled “active” and “passive.” Instead of trying to characterize victim's coping as either active or passive, it would be better to recognize that a smart overall strategy might include elements of both. That is likely to be the best way to simultaneously minimize harms and maximize the potential for gains.


A lot of people look at the efforts of battered women and see a glass half empty—too few efforts, executed too late after the violence begins. The data, however, better support the view that most women are making many efforts to protect themselves and their children, and improve their situation, whether they remain in or leave their relationships. Not surprisingly, seeking social support is far and away the most common strategy and reported by the vast majority of respondents who are given the chance to describe active strategies. It makes sense that talking over the problem with someone else would be the first step towards deciding what other actions to take.

It likewise makes sense that battered women may vary in their approach to protective strategies. For example, a woman with good financial resources is probably more likely to move directly into another home or apartment, rather than staying in a shelter. The typical battered woman is constantly assessing her risk of danger and trying different protective strategies in response. As they see how different strategies work under varying conditions, they continue to strategize and adapt. We need to know much more than we do about when and why women choose particular strategies, and much more about all of the various strategies that women do use. A balanced overall strategy that operates on several fronts—not just focusing on safety but also acknowledging all of the risks that women face—is almost certainly what most women do. In order to best help battered women maximize gains and minimize losses across all the domains of their lives, advocates, providers, and scholars all need to work harder to step back and see the full world in which the victim lives.

Emerging Responses to Children Exposed to Domestic Violence

Definitions of Domestic Violence and Exposure

Jouriles, McDonald, Norwood, and Ezell (2001) suggest that a number of issues affect how we define exposure to adult domestic violence. First, the types of domestic violence to which children are exposed may be defined narrowly as only physically violent incidents or more broadly as including additional forms of abuse such as verbal and emotional. Second, even within the narrower band of physical violence, there is controversy about whether we should define adult domestic violence as only severe acts of violence such as beatings, a broader group of behaviors such as slaps and shoves and psychological maltreatment, or a pattern of physically abusive acts (see Osthoff, 2002). Finally, despite documented differences in the nature of male-to-female and female-to-male domestic violence, should one and not the other be included in a definition when considering children’s exposure to such events?

Settling on the definition of domestic violence does not settle still other definitional questions that arise. For example, how is exposure itself defined? Is it only direct visual observation of the incident? Should our definitions also include hearing the incident, experiencing the events prior to and after the event or other aspects of exposure?

Throughout this paper the phrase “exposure to adult domestic violence” will be used to describe the multiple experiences of children living in homes where an adult is using physically violent behavior in a pattern of coercion against an intimate partner. Domestic violence may be committed by same-sex partners as well as by women against men. However, the available research on child exposure almost exclusively focuses on homes where a man is committing domestic violence against an adult woman, who is most often the child’s mother. Thus, unless otherwise identified, the studies reviewed here focus on heterosexual relationships in which the male is the perpetrator of violence.

The Impact of Exposure on Children

Carlson (2000) has conservatively estimated that from 10% to 20% of American children are exposed to adult domestic violence every year. Her estimate is based on a review of surveys of adults recalling their exposures as children and of teens reporting current exposures. Whatever the true number of exposed children, it is likely to be in the many millions each year. National surveys in this country and others also indicate that it is highly likely that the severity, frequency, and chronicity of violence each child experiences vary greatly.

Recent meta-analyses -- statistical analyses that synthesize and average effects across studies -- have shown that children exposed to domestic violence exhibit significantly more problems than children not so exposed (Kitzmann, Gaylord, Holt & Kenny, 2003; Wolfe, Crooks, Lee, McIntyre-Smith & Jaffe, 2003). We have the most information on behavioral and emotional functioning of children exposed to domestic violence. Generally, studies using the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL; Achenbach & Edelbrock, 1983) and similar measures have found children exposed to domestic violence, when compared to non-exposed children, exhibit more aggressive and antisocial (often called “externalized” behaviors) as well as fearful and inhibited behaviors (“internalized” behaviors), show lower social competence and have poorer academic performance. Kitzmann et al. (2003) also found that exposed children scored similarly on emotional health measures to children who were physically abused or who were both physically abused and exposed to adult domestic violence.

Another all too likely effect is a child’s own increased use of violence. Social learning theory would suggest that children who are exposed to violence may also learn to use it. Several researchers have examined this link between exposure to violence and subsequent use of violence. For example, Singer et al. (1998) studied 2,245 children and teenagers and found that recent exposure to violence in the home was significantly associated with a child’s violent behavior in the community. Jaffe, Wilson, and Wolfe (1986) have also suggested that children’s exposure to adult domestic violence may generate attitudes justifying their own use of violence. Spaccarelli, Coatsworth, and Bowden’s (1995) findings support this association by showing that adolescent boys incarcerated for violent crimes who had been exposed to family violence believed more than others that “acting aggressively enhances one’s reputation or self-image” (p. 173). Believing that aggression would enhance one’s self-image significantly predicted violent offending.

A few studies have examined longer-term problems reported retrospectively by adults or indicated in archival records. For example, Silvern et al.’s (1995) study of 550 undergraduate students found that exposure to domestic violence as a child was associated with adult reports of depression, trauma-related symptoms, and low self-esteem among women and trauma-related symptoms alone among men. They found that after accounting for the effects of being abused as a child, adult reports of their childhood exposure to domestic violence still accounted for a significant degree of their problems as adults. Exposure to domestic violence also appeared to be independent of the impacts of parental alcohol abuse and divorce. In the same vein, Henning et al. (1996) found that 123 adult women who had been exposed to domestic violence as a children showed greater distress and lower social adjustment when compared to 494 non-exposed adult women. These findings remained even after accounting for the effects of witnessing parental verbal conflict, being abused as a child, and varying degrees of parental caring.

Children’s Involvement in Violent Incidents

Studies have found that children respond in a variety of ways to violent conflict between their parents. Children’s involvement in violent situations has been shown to vary from their becoming actively involved in the conflict, to distracting themselves and their parents, or to distancing themselves by leaving the room (Garcia O’Hearn, Margolin, & John, 1997; Peled, 1998). Children in homes in which violence has occurred were nine times more likely to verbally or physically intervene in parental conflicts than comparison children from homes in which no violence occurred (Adamson & Thompson, 1998). Edleson et al. (2003) found that 40 of 111 battered mothers (36%) reported their children frequently or very frequently yelled to stop violent conflicts; 13 (11.7%) of the mothers reported that their children frequently or very frequently called someone for help during a violent event; and 12 (10.8%) reported their children frequently or very frequently physically intervened to stop the violence.

More often young children appear to be present during domestic violence incidents than older children. Examining data on police and victim reports of domestic assault incidents, Fantuzzo and colleagues (Fantuzzo, et al., 1997) found that in all five cities studied, children ages 0 to 5 years were significantly more likely to be present during single and recurring domestic violence incidents. Children’s responses to violent events appear to also vary with age (Cummings, Pellegrini, Notarius, & Cummings, 1989). In one early study, even children ages one to two and a half years responded to angry conflict that included physical attacks with negative emotions and efforts to become actively involved in the conflicts (Cummings, Zahn-Waxler, & Radke-Yarrow, 1981).

These findings have led many to conclude that every child exposed to domestic violence is significantly harmed by the experience. Yet, as the section below will show, many children appear to survive such exposure and show no greater problems than non-exposed children.

Protective Factors in Children’s Lives

Most would be convinced by the afore mentioned studies that children exposed to adult domestic violence would all show evidence of greater problems than non-exposed children. In fact, the picture is not so clear. There is a growing research literature on children’s resilience in the face of traumatic events (see, for example, Garmezy, 1974; Werner & Smith, 1992; Garmezy & Masten, 1994). The surprise in these research findings is that many children exposed to traumatic events show no greater problems than non-exposed peers, leading Masten (2001) to label such widespread resilience as “ordinary magic”.

The studies of exposed children reviewed earlier compared groups of children who were either exposed or not exposed to adult domestic violence. The results reported were based on group trends and may or may not indicate an individual child’s experience. Graham-Bermann (2001) points out that, consistent with the general trauma literature, many children exposed to domestic violence show no greater problems than children not so exposed. Several studies support this claim. For example, a study of 58 children living in a shelter and recently exposed to domestic violence found great variability in problem symptoms (Hughes & Luke, 1998). Over half the children in the study were classified as either “doing well” (n=15) or “hanging in there” (n=21). Children “hanging in there” were found to exhibit average levels of problems and self-esteem and some mild anxiety symptoms. The remaining children in the study did show more severe problems: nine showed “high behavior problems”, another nine “high general distress” and four were labeled “depressed kids”. In another study, Grych et al. (2000) found that of 228 shelter resident children studied, 71 exhibited no problems, another 41 showed only mild distress symptoms, 47 exhibited externalized problems, and 70 were classified as multi-problem.

How does one explain these great variations among exposed children? Both of the above studies were based on children living in battered women’s shelters. On the one hand, these children may have been exposed to more severe violence than a community-resident sample of exposed children. On the other hand, shelter-resident children may also have greater protective social supports available to them when studied. There are also likely a number of protective assets and risk factors that affect the degree to which each child is influenced by violence exposures.

The resilience literature suggests that as assets in a child’s environment increase, the problems he or she experiences may actually decrease (Masten & Reed, 2002). Protective adults, including the child’s mother, relatives, neighbors and teachers, older siblings, and friends may all play protective roles in a child’s life. The child’s larger social environment may also play a protective role if extended family members or members of church, sports or social clubs with which the child is affiliated act to support or aid the child during stressful periods. Harm that children experience may also be moderated by how a child interprets or copes with the violence (see Hughes, Graham-Bermann & Gruber, 2001). Sternberg et al. (1993) suggest that “perhaps the experience of observing spouse abuse affects children by a less direct route than physical abuse, with cognitive mechanisms playing a greater role in shaping the effects of observing violence” (p. 50).

Children also experience differing levels of other risk factors, as the following section will reveal.

Risk Factors in Children’s Lives

One risk factor that leads to variation in children’s experiences is the great variation in severity, frequency, and chronicity of violence. Research has clearly documented the great variation of violence across families (see Straus & Gelles, 1990). It is likely that every child will be exposed to different levels of violence over time. Even siblings in the same household may be exposed to differing degrees of violence depending on how much time they spend at home. Increases in violence exposure may pose greater risks for children while decreases may lessen these risks.

A number of additional factors seem to play a role in children’s exposure and interact with each other creating unique outcomes for different children. For example, many children exposed to domestic violence are also exposed to other adverse experiences. In a study of 17,421 patients within a large health maintenance organization, Felitti, Anda and their colleagues (Dube, Anda, Felitti, Edwards, & Williamson, 2002) found that increasing exposure to adult domestic violence in a child’s life was associated with increasing levels of other “adverse childhood experiences” such as exposure to substance abuse, mental illness, incarcerated family members and other forms of abuse or neglect. This finding points to the complexity of exposed children’s lives. For example, many exposed children are also direct victims of child abuse (Appel & Holden, 1998; Edleson, 1999; Hughes, Parkinson, & Vargo, 1989; McClosky, Figueredo, & Koss, 1995). Again, in a study of adverse childhood experiences, Felitti, Anda and their colleagues (Whitfield, Anda, Dube, & Felitti, 2003) found that among the 8,629 HMO patients studied, men exposed to physical abuse, sexual abuse, and adult domestic violence as children were 3.8 times more likely than other men to have perpetrated domestic violence as adults.

Problems associated with exposure have been found to vary based on the gender and age of a child but not based on his or her race or ethnicity (Carlson, 1991; Hughes, 1988; O’Keefe, 1994; Spaccarelli et al., 1994; Stagg, Wills, & Howell, 1989). The longer the period of time since exposure to a violent event also appears to be associated with lessening problems (Wolfe, Zak, Wilson, & Jaffe; 1986).

Finally, parenting has also been identified as a key factor affecting how a child experiences exposure. More data are available on battered mothers and their caregiving than on perpetrators and theirs. Unfortunately, at times the over reliance on data collected from and about battered mothers may lead to partial or inaccurate conclusions. For example, it may be that the perpetrator’s behavior is the key to predicting the emotional health of a child. By not collecting data about the perpetrators, we may incorrectly conclude it is the mothers’ problems and not the perpetrators’ violent behavior that is creating negative outcomes for the children.

Given this imbalance in the research, the available studies reveal that battered mothers appear to experience significantly greater levels of stress than nonbattered mothers (Holden & Ritchie, 1991; Holden et al., 1998; Levendosky & Graham-Bermann, 1998) but this stress does not always translate into diminished parenting. For example, Levendosky et al. (2003) found that among the 103 battered mothers they studied many were “compensating for the violence by becoming more effective parents” (p. 275).

What little research there is on violent men shows that they have a direct impact on the parenting of mothers. For example, Holden et al. (1998) found that battered mothers, when compared to other mothers, more often altered their parenting practices in the presence of the abusive male. Mothers reported that this change in parenting was made to minimize the men’s irritability. A survey of 95 battered mothers living in the community (Levendosky, Lynch, & Graham-Bermann, 2000) indicated that their abusive partners undermined the mothers’ authority with their children, making effective parenting more difficult. In an earlier qualitative study of one child support and education group program, Peled and Edleson (1995) found that fathers often pressured their children not to attend counseling when mothers were seeking help for their children. Finally, the relationship between the child and the adult perpetrator appears to influence how the child is affected by exposure. A recent study of 80 mothers residing in shelters, and 80 of their children revealed that an abusive male’s relationship to a child directly affects the child’s well-being, without being mediated by the mother’s level of mental health (Sullivan et al., 2000). Violence perpetrated by a biological father or stepfather was found to have a greater impact on a child than the violence of nonfather figures, such as partners or ex-partners of the mother who played a minimal role in the child’s life.

Public Policy Responses

Laws relating to child exposure to domestic violence have changed considerably in the last decade. These laws focus most often on criminal prosecution of violent assaults, custody and visitation decision-making, and the child welfare system’s response (Lemon, 1999; Mathews, 1999; Weithorn, 2001).

Criminal prosecution of violent assaults
There are several examples of recent legislative changes in criminal statutes that directly respond to concerns about the presence of children during domestic violence assaults (see Dunford-Jackson, 2004; Weithorn, 2001). In a number of states, laws have been changed to permit misdemeanor level domestic assaults to be raised to a felony level charge. In Oregon, a domestic violence assailant can now be charged with a felony assault if a minor was present during the assault. “Presence” is defined in Oregon as in the immediate presence of or witnessed by the child. Another example of changes in criminal prosecution is legislation in at least 18 states that allows more severe sanctions to be imposed on a convicted domestic violence assailant when minors are present during the attack. Assaults committed in the presence of a minor are considered as only one factor that may influence the sanctions imposed in most of the states. Finally, Utah and at least two other states have taken a different approach by defining the presence of a minor during a domestic violence assault as cause for a separate misdemeanor charge.

On the one hand these new laws are likely to increase the attention of the police, prosecutors, and courts when children are present during domestic violence incidents. Greater sanctions are likely to be imposed when it is perceived that there is more than one victim of the adult domestic assault, namely the children. On the other hand there is concern about these changes on a number of levels (Dunford-Jackson, 2004). First, given the increasingly scarce resources of police agencies and prosecutors’ offices, there is concern that attention will focus primarily on cases where children are present because of the likelihood that this factor will increase convictions or guilty pleas. One resulting fear is that children will be brought into court more often to testify in such cases. Another fear is that battered women without children will receive less attention to their cases because police and prosecutors will see them as weaker cases. Finally, many argue that if current criminal statutes were enforced more consistently there would not be a need for these additional laws focused on children. Finally, a particular concern about Utah’s legislation is that it may be used against battered mothers for “failing to protect” their children from an assailant.

There is little research on the impact of these criminal statute changes. In one of the few studies of these laws, Whitcomb (2000) surveyed 128 prosecutors in 93 jurisdictions across the U.S. by telephone regarding their work with children exposed to violence and the impact of new laws regarding them. She also conducted face-to-face interviews in five jurisdictions to shed more light on the telephone surveys. She found that: (1) none of the jurisdictions had protocols governing the prosecution of domestic violence and child maltreatment in the same families; (2) prosecutors in jurisdictions in which laws were in place regarding children’s exposure to domestic violence were more likely to report domestic violence cases to child protection agencies, but no more likely to prosecute mothers for “failure to protect;” (3) prosecutors were seeking enhanced penalties in domestic violence cases when children were also present, even in jurisdictions where no new laws regarding children exposed to domestic violence were in place; and (4) 75% of the prosecutors interviewed said they would not report or prosecute a mother for failing to protect her children from exposure to her own victimization, and the remaining prosecutors said they would only do so when there were additional factors indicating extreme danger to the child. Whitcomb’s research is clearly a starting point, but a great deal more research is needed on these law changes and both their intended and unintended consequences for battered mothers and their children.

Custody and visitation disputes
Most states now include the “presence of domestic violence” as a criterion that judges may use to determine custody and visitation arrangements when disputed. In most jurisdictions, here and in other Western countries, there has been an assumption that both parents have the right and ability to share custody and visitation of their children (Eriksson & Hester, 2001). In approximately about two dozen states, however, this presumption has been reversed in what are commonly referred to as “rebuttable presumption” statutes. Rebuttable presumption statutes generally state that when domestic violence is present it is against the best interests of the child for the documented perpetrator to be awarded custody until his or her safety with the child is assured. California Family Code is an example of a rebuttable presumption statute. Under § 3044 “there is a rebuttable presumption that an award of sole or joint physical or legal custody of a child to a person who has perpetrated domestic violence is detrimental to the best interest of the child.” California’s code outlines six factors to consider in assessing whether a perpetrator of domestic violence has overcome this presumption, including no new violence or violations of existing orders and successful completion of assigned services such as batterer intervention and substance abuse programs.

One difficulty in applying rebuttable presumption statutes is defining what evidence of domestic violence will be admitted as part of the custody and visitation decision-making process. Is it a past or present arrest or restraining order? Should it be a prior conviction or guilty plea? In a rebuttable presumption statute passed by the State of Wisconsin’s Legislature and signed into law in February of 2004, guardians ad litem are given the responsibility for investigating all accusations of domestic violence and reporting their conclusions to the judge. The new law instructs judges to make domestic violence their top priority by stating that “if the courts find…that a parent has engaged in a pattern or serious incident of interspousal battery [as described in statutes], or domestic abuse, the safety and well-being of the child and the safety of the parent who was the victim of the battery or abuse shall be the paramount concerns in determining legal custody and periods of physical placement” (Wisconsin Act 130, §25, 767.24(5)). The new law also requires training of all guardians ad litem and custody mediators in assessing domestic violence and its impact on adult victims and children and lays out new procedures for safe mediation.

While legislative developments such as rebuttable presumption laws appear to be positive, there is little or no evaluation of their impact on children’s and non-abusive parents’ safety. There also are a number of other critical issues that remain mostly unattended in custody and visitation decisions that involve domestic violence. Part of the problem is that many battered mothers are self-represented in disputed custody cases. This raises concerns about both safety for the adult victims and the degree to which they are well represented in court proceedings.

Poor representation for adult victims, or even raising the issue of domestic violence in court proceedings, may compound in a number of ways with other outcomes that can disadvantage her, for example: (1) the abuser or his legal counsel accusing the mother of purposefully alienating her children from him using empirically questionable concepts such as Parental Alienation Syndrome (Faller, 1998); (2) using “friendly parent” provisions of custody statutes to accuse a mother concerned about her and her children’s safety of being uncooperative; (3) minimizing the impact of adult domestic violence exposure on children’s safety and well-being; (4) inappropriately using standardized psychological tests that have not been developed to assess domestic violence to question the veracity of battered women’s testimony or her parenting abilities; and (5) appointing custody evaluators or mediators, guardians ad litem, and court appointed special advocates (CASAs) who have little training on issues of domestic violence to assess families and advise the court on custody and visitation arrangements. These issues may further disadvantage battered mothers who are not represented by an attorney and in cases where the abuser persistently uses court actions to extend his control or harassment of her.

Again, as with changes in criminal statutes, there is little research on these law changes in the domain of custody and visitation. Kernic et al. (2005) studied 324 divorcing couples with a documented history of domestic violence to 532 divorcing couples with no such history. They found that even if domestic violence is a criterion for deciding on custody and visitation, it does not seem to change court outcomes. Court records failed to identify documented domestic violence in almost half of the cases, and in approximately another quarter allegations were noted but not documented despite available evidence. Battered mothers were no more likely than others to be awarded custody of their children and violent fathers were seldom denied visitation. In another recent study, Morrill et al. (2005) reviewed 393 custody and visitation orders involving domestic violence across six states and surveyed 60 judges. They found that in most jurisdictions when a rebuttable presumption was in place, that battered mothers more often received custody and violent fathers were more often given scheduled and restricted visitation with their children. This was true except in jurisdictions where “friendly parent” and/or presumptions of joint custody were also in place creating a contradictory legal environment.

Child welfare regulations
Finally, some states have approached child exposure by expanding the definitions of child maltreatment to include children who have been exposed to domestic violence. For example, in 1999, the Minnesota State Legislature expanded the definition of child neglect in the Maltreatment of Minors Reporting Act to include exposure to adult domestic violence as a specific type of neglect (Minn. State Ann. §626.556, see Minnesota Department of Human Services, 1999; see Edleson, Gassman-Pines, & Hill, 2006). The change in Minnesota acknowledged what had long been believed to be the practice in many child protection agencies across the country - accepting certain reports of children’s exposure to adult domestic violence as child neglect.

This change in Minnesota’s definition of child neglect to include children exposed to domestic violence meant that the state was suddenly mandating that a range of professionals report every child they suspected had witnessed adult domestic violence. A survey of 52 Minnesota counties estimated that the language change would generate 9,101 new domestic violence exposure reports to be screened by child protection agencies each year (Minnesota Association of County Social Service Administrators, 2000), a greater than 50% increase over current levels. While exact figures are not available, the change in definition resulted in rapidly rising child maltreatment reports across Minnesota. This relatively simple change resulted in dramatically increasing workloads in most Minnesota county child protection agencies. Though legislators thought the language change would merely clarify existing practices, many county agencies suddenly faced huge numbers of newly defined neglected children being reported to them.

The increase in child maltreatment reports created significant problems for many county agencies. There were two parts to this change that raised particular concerns among county social service administrators. First, current Minnesota law required an immediate response to all child maltreatment reports. Second, there was no specific funding appropriated to implement this change. Social service administrators argued that the change represented an “unfunded mandate” by the Legislature. Child protection workers already felt their agencies were inadequately supported and the large increase of reports threatened to stretch some counties beyond their capacity to respond. As current and former child protection workers explained, there was a wide range of children that were swept up by the legislation, some of whom were very much in need of child protective services, and others who needed services but not those of child protection.

The expanded reporting requirements also raised concerns among advocates for battered women who feared that as a result of the new definition child protective services would utilize methods that would blame more mothers for their male partners’ violent behavior toward her by finding her case as substantiated for “failure to protect” (see Magen, 1999). This very issue was the focus of a recent class action lawsuit against the City of New York’s child protection agency. The court found that the City had unconstitutionally removed children from the custody of their non-abusive battered mothers after substantiating mothers for engaging in domestic violence. Engaging in domestic violence often simply meant being a victim at the hands of an adult male perpetrator (Nicholson v. Williams).

Minnesota’s story really had two endings, both of which were frustrating and raise questions about an appropriate response to these families. In the first ending, the community responded to the expanded definition of neglect by reporting many thousands of newly identified Minnesota children exposed to domestic violence. Unfortunately, the capacity of child protective services to respond was greatly strained, resulting in more identification and screening but probably fewer services to those most in need. In the second ending, almost all Minnesota counties decided to drop the requirement for reporting exposed children to child protective services after the Legislature repealed the change. The sad outcome of this result is that many thousands of children who were earlier identified were no longer visible in the systems and also not likely to receive needed services (see Edleson, Gassman-Pines, & Hill, 2006, for a more completed discussion of Minnesota’s experience).

Many communities around the country have attempted to change the way they respond to battered women and their children as a reaction to experiences similar to those outlined throughout this section. Below, some of the more noteworthy responses are reviewed.

Implications for Practice Responses

The implications of these research findings and some of the states’ experiences with legislation suggest several key points:

  • Children’s social environments and experiences vary greatly;
  • The impact of exposure also varies greatly, even within the same families;
  • Children have a variety of protective and risk factors present in their lives; and
  • This varied group of children deserves a varied response from our communities

It is clear from the available research that children exposed to adult domestic violence are not a monolithic group. The frequency, severity, and chronicity of violence in their families, their own level of exposure to this violence, children’s own ability to cope with stressful situations, and the multiple protective factors present (e.g. a protective battered mother) as well as the multiple risks present (e.g. substance abuse or mental illness among caregivers) create a group of children who are as varied as their numbers. These many factors combine in unique ways for each child, likely creating unique impacts as a result of exposure.

Child exposure should not be automatically considered child maltreatment under the law and our current responses may not match the needs of families precisely because there are such varied impacts among children. Certainly many children will be referred to child protection agencies because of direct attacks on them. Given the limited resources of most public child welfare agencies, families and their children who show minimum evidence of harm resulting from such exposure and who have other protective factors present in their lives may benefit more from voluntary services in the non-profit sector.

Many of these children will enter our child protection systems because they are abused children and in disproportionate numbers based on race and class. Child protection systems must re-examine their responses to families in which both children and adults are being abused. Every effort must be made to keep children with their non-abusing caregivers, provide safety resources for both adult and child victims in a family, and develop new methods for intervening with men who both batter their adult partners and the children in their homes. Federal and privately funded efforts are underway to test new ways of collaborative work between child protection systems, the courts, and domestic violence organizations (see Alternative or differential response initiatives within child protection systems may, in part, provide an additional avenue for providing more voluntary services to the lower risk cases (Sawyer & Lohrbach, 2005).

Perhaps the greater challenge is to develop voluntary systems of care for children who are exposed to domestic violence but not themselves direct victims of physical abuse. These systems of care often operate outside of child protection agencies and allow communities to rely on more than one type of response, thereby avoiding overwhelming the child protection system. Such responses include expanded programming within domestic violence organizations, partnerships with community-based organizations, and new types of “child witness to violence” projects around the country (see Drotar et al., 2003). Many of these programs stress the importance of mothers in their children’s healing and encourage mother-child dyadic interventions (see Groves, Roberts, & Weinreb, 2000; Lieberman, Van Horn, & Ippen, 2005). These systems of care need to be developed as part of the fabric of communities from which the women and children come if they are to be sustained and culturally proficient.

Beyond treatment, there is a dire need to begin efforts that engage community members in taking part in community wide prevention. Developing the capacity of formal and informal systems to understand the social roots of domestic violence, to promote batterer accountability, and to better respond to cultural differences are all important benefits that may be derived from community engagement. Greater community engagement and system coordination also offer the possibility of overcoming institutional barriers that commonly stand in the way of creating safety for battered mothers and their children.

Communities across North America are significantly revising the way they think about children exposed to domestic violence. At local, county and state levels, communities are engaged in a variety of policy and programmatic actions to respond to these children and their families. The recently reauthorized federal Violence Against Women Act of 2005 for the first time addresses the needs of these children. We need to continue to develop multiple pathways into services and multiple responses by social institutions if we are to adequately address the needs of these children and help them to grow into emotionally and physically healthy adults.



Substance Abuse and Intimate Partner Violence

Substance abuse (SA) and intimate partner violence (IPV) are closely associated in the public mind. Many people believe that men's abuse of drugs or alcohol is a primary reason for their battering. Others think that SA may increase the risk for IPV, but is not a direct cause of IPV. Still others believe SA and IPV are separate issues, which only appear to be related due to other factors. In fact, both SA and IPV have many causes and many effects, and their apparent correlation applies to only a sub-group of batterers and victims (Testa, 2004). For some men who batter, SA may increase the frequency or severity of their violence. For other men, SA and IPV are separate issues whose apparently high rate of co-occurrence may stem from shared pre-conditions such as antisocial personality (Fals-Stewart, Leonard & Birchler, 2005) or from a belief that when they get drunk or high, they are going to be violent (Field, Caetano, & Nelson, 2004). Finally, for some men, both substance abuse and IPV may be manifestations of an underlying need for power and control related to gender-based distortions and insecurities (Gondolf, 1995).

Regardless of the explanation for it, the co-occurrence of IPV and SA is substantial across a series of studies:

  • Half of the men in batterer intervention programs appear to have SA issues (Gondolf, 1999) and are eight times as likely to batter on a day in which they have been drinking (Fals-Stewart, 2003).
  • Approximately half of partnered men entering substance abuse treatment have battered in the past year (Chermack, Fuller & Blow, 2000; Fals-Stewart & Kennedy, 2005) and are 11 times as likely to batter on a day in which they have been drinking (Fals-Stewart, 2003).
  • Between a quarter and half of the women receiving victim services for IPV have SA problems (Bennett & Lawson, 1994; Downs, 2001; Ogle & Baer, 2003).
  • Between 55 and 99 percent of women who have SA issues have been victimized at some point in their life (Moses, et al., 2003) and between 67 and 80 percent of women in SA treatment are IPV victims (Cohen, et al., 2003; Downs, 2001).

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