Policy Issues: Children’s Exposure To Domestic Violence

Policy Issues: Children’s Exposure To Domestic Violence


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This essay shall discuss the subject of children’s exposure to domestic violence in the context of the chosen video. Issues raised in the video will be considered in light of existing literature on the subject, particularly pertaining to the question of policymaking. 

Introduction: Description Of The Video

The video clip (from an ABC news programme) chosen as the subject of this discussion depicts the issue of children being exposed to instances of violence in the home. ABC News, 1999) It includes a number of case studies of American families across a range of ethnicities, providing a balanced picture of a wide cross-section of contemporary American society. Children of both genders are included and those interviewed range from 4-year-olds to individuals in early teenage. This allows the viewer to appreciate the immediate and long-term effects of exposure to domestic violence on the psyche and development of children of different ages and genders. While this sample size is too small and random to support any definite conclusions, it is still wide enough to offer a range of perspectives and depict the many facets of the problem.


It is important to note at the very outset that the video deals not with child abuse but with children’s exposure to instances of abuse. In other words, the children are not direct victims of crime although they are indirectly impacted by them. This distinction is important to make because although the actual act of violence of one partner against the other does constitute a personal crime and may also involve elements of property crime, the question of the impact that the crime has on an observer or third party technically falls within the ambit of policy issues.

One of the most striking points that comes to the surface while watching this video is that the way that a young child perceives a situation may be quite distinct from the way that an older child or a parent perceives it. Hence, if the mother has constantly been at the receiving end of physical and emotional abuse that the young child may have overheard, the child may not actually know what was going on. The mother may clearly resent her partner but the child may develop no such animosity towards the offending partner. In one instance, the child clearly stated that they loved both parents. Another was not quite sure what had taken place but knew that whatever the father was doing was ‘bad’ and that it always made the mother ‘sick.’ In such instances, separating the parents, while beneficial to the direct victim, may actually have a detrimental impact on the child. Thus, policymakers must take into account the fact that there can be a wide range of experiences and the intensity of the impact on children can differ substantially in a qualitative sense.

At this juncture, it is worth mentioning that a 2002 report from a workshop on children’s exposure to violence conducted by the National Institute Of Child Health And Human Development had the following observations to make. It began by noting that there are inconsistencies in the literature as to the definition of the crucial terms ‘violence’ and ‘exposure’. (NICHD, 2002) Attaining consensus on what these terms mean is surely the first step towards actually attempting to formulate policies on these issues and this was where practitioners and researchers concurred that lacunae existed. The discursive and legal definitions recognise several different forms of violence such as psychological, emotional and physical violence. The term ‘domestic violence’ is often used interchangeably with ‘partner violence’ or ‘marital violence’ and it is important to recognise that the legal implications can be quite different in each case.
Then there is the all-important question of what exactly constitutes ‘exposure’. As the video made clear, there are many kinds and degrees of exposure. (Finkelhor, 2009) Some children are too young to process what is happening if they merely overhear raised voices. Others are old enough to grasp the full implications of such conflicts in the home. Some are eyewitnesses while others may only note that the father always seems to make the mother sick. One might argue that a child who is consistently an eye witness to one parent physically assaulting the other is also a direct victim of emotional abuse. Hence, it is clear that the question of framing policies on this subject will need great sensitivity to the varied shapes and forms in which children suffer exposure to domestic violence.

The video also addresses the very pertinent concern of the clash between what the state sees fit as a remedy to the problem and what the children themselves are comfortable with. This was evident in the instance of the young girl who wished never to have to see her father again but was forced to meet him at regular intervals as per the ruling of the concerned court. One is then compelled to wonder whether such well-intentioned rulings actually end up compounding the child’s trauma. Debates regarding policymaking in this area have had to take into account the question of striking a balance between public benefit and private interests. The state has certain opinions on how children should be brought up while parents may have ideas of their own in this regard and a healthy balance must be struck in order to retain personal autonomy within the broader ambit of the law. However, as minors, children themselves do not have the right to make decisions pertaining to their own upbringing. While the child’s voice will be heard and their opinion noted, decisions related to the upbringing of children are the prerogative of parents or legal guardians and are ultimately subject to the law of the state.

Mechanisms for rehabilitation are already in place and some of the children interviewed in the video had the benefit of receiving counselling and therapy. The mothers, too, had been able to avail of support. However, as the presenters mentioned at the conclusion of the video, not all children necessarily had access to such support and healthy outlets for expression. There is also the question of repeat offenses by the violent partner. Some were bold enough to defy restraining orders even after having already served jail time for violence. This brings up the related issue of what needs to be done to rehabilitate and reform the offenders themselves. It is also important to consider measures that can help to actually prevent such crimes and behaviours. In this context, the presenters raised the question of the detrimental impact of domestic violence on the psyche of the children. A child could grow up to emulate the destructive behaviours of his/her violent father for lack of a better role model during his/her formative years. In fact, reports reveal that over 50% of those who witness partner violence also tend to suffer child maltreatment and this is a further risk factor for destructive behaviours later in life. (Hamby et al, 2010) As the video pointed out, the children themselves are often diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder which can have a lifelong impact on their socialisation and abilities to form and maintain relationships.

Hence, one of the major areas the policy will have to focus on is the actual prevention of such crimes before they occur and of creating a societal environment that discourages such unhealthy behaviours. This is where theories related to crime and criminology come into prominence. Having an adequate societal conceptualisation of what crime is and why it occurs is essential towards addressing it in a productive manner. Existing theories on domestic violence posit a variety of causative factors for violent behaviours. Some pin the blame on patriarchal structures and the shift towards nuclear family groups with more ambiguous individual roles that transcend traditional gender roles. Others recognise a mix of economic, cultural, psychological and social factors.


The video concluded with a meditation on the lasting impact of such experiences on children during their formative years and how this was likely to manifest in adulthood. There is no denying that this is an example of a ‘wicked problem’ and policymakers will have to gain a deep understanding not only through familiarity with research and literature on the subject but also through active engagement in the field. (Rittel et al, 1973) This can ensure that the resulting policies are balanced, well-rounded and flexible enough to cover the many hard-to-define aspects of the problem.



Domestic violence and children [Video file]. (1999).

Finkelhor, D. (2009). Children’s exposure to violence: A comprehensive national survey. DIANE Publishing.

Hamby, S., Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., & Ormrod, R. (2010). The overlap of witnessing partner violence with child maltreatment and other victimizations in a nationally representative survey of youth. Child abuse & neglect, 34(10), 734-741.

NICHD. (2002). Children Exposed to Violence: Current Status, Gaps, and Research Priorities (pp. 2-5). US Department of Education.

Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences, 4(2), 155-169.

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