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For 20 years, Lonna Davis has been at the forefront of linking child abuse and domestic violence policy and practice. To learn more about the Family Violence Prevention Fund—with offices in San Francisco, Washington, DC, and Boston—visit endabuse.org or endabuse.org/section/programs/children_families.

Partner Perspective

We All Have a Stake in Family Violence

Lonna Davis
Director, Children’s Program
Family Violence Prevention Fund

The facts were fairly straightforward. It was the reasons that seemed to elude everyone.

Nobody would have said that Kathleen was a good mother. Her children were often disheveled and hungry. They didn’t come to school reliably, and they exhibited behavioral and social problems when they did attend. They missed many developmental milestones that are the gauge of good physical and emotional health.

Yet Kathleen kept having more babies—even though it was clear to just about everyone that she couldn’t care for the children she already had. She had 12 children in all. It was easy to conclude that Kathleen was irresponsible, careless, hopeless. And many did—not just judgmental neighbors but also some professionals who arguably should have known better. But in the 10 years that she was involved in the child welfare system, nobody explored the reasons Kathleen’s life had become a living nightmare, so her family’s suffering continued.

The truth was evident, if you knew what to look for. Kathleen spent 15 years trapped in a marriage with a brutally violent husband. The trauma in that household was unspeakable. She was beaten and sexually assaulted regularly. Her husband withheld her birth control. He isolated her and forced their children to spy on her. The children made a choice each evening. They could tell their father what he wanted to hear, that their mother was cheating on him—and then watch her suffer a vicious beating. Or they could tell their father the truth, that their mother spent her days alone in a deep depression—and then be beaten themselves because their father thought they were lying.

Child welfare agency officials thought they knew this family well. But caseworker after caseworker misdiagnosed the core problem. It wasn’t until a domestic violence expert, based at child protective services, heard about Kathleen that things began to turn around. After that, progress came quickly. Just 18 months after she was identified as a domestic violence victim, Kathleen had her own apartment and was raising four of her children, all of whom were succeeding in school and enjoying firsts like swimming at the beach and watching airplanes take off.

This dramatic improvement would have happened much sooner if somebody had recognized that depression is often associated with domestic violence and that cases lingering in the child welfare system are often misdiagnosed. While extreme, Kathleen’s case is not an aberration. In fact, it is more common than it should be, in large part because child protection and court systems often function on separate tracks from domestic violence agencies.

But there are solutions, and there is hope.

Some solutions are institutional. Every child protection agency should hire a domestic violence expert or collaborate closely with a domestic violence agency or state coalition. Every court appointed special advocate needs training to understand the link between a child’s safety and a mother’s safety.

Some solutions require money. We need research to better understand the link between domestic violence and child maltreatment as well as to evaluate the most promising interventions that can keep more women and children safe and together.

Some solutions come from the legal system. The courts need better information to make good decisions that protect all victims of violence in a family. With crowded courtrooms often come harried judges who rely on CASA volunteers and others more now than in the past. Volunteer advocates can play a key role in improving the outcomes for children by:

  • Asking more questions about domestic violence and helping courts get the information they need
  • Ensuring that criminal and probation records are checked to determine whether other courts are involved
  • Advocating that survivors of violence and their children have access to safety planning and trauma services, when needed
  • Reminding children that the problems at home are not their fault
  • Working creatively to keep mothers and children safe and together

Some solutions come from improving policy. Congress can strengthen the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) by amending it to:

  • Increase the availability of good data on the overlap of domestic violence and child maltreatment.
  • Encourage policies, procedures and services that help children and their non-abusing parents.
  • Help child protection systems and workers successfully and safely help families experiencing domestic
  • Fund cross-training and collaboration for domestic violence and child welfare systems.
  • Make CAPTA funding available to support services for mothers and their children together, when that is appropriate.
  • Increase professional skills pertinent to addressing the roles fathers who have committed domestic violence can safely play in their children’s lives.

In this work, we need to be careful not to demonize all men who use violence. Courts must protect victims from men who are not willing to stop using violence, but we need to make help available to those men who are.

I was the caseworker who helped Kathleen and her children several years ago, and I know there are women like her today in every community, desperate for help that doesn’t come fast enough. These women are in the child protection system and in the courts. They are waiting for someone to explore the reasons their lives are the way they are.

No one person and no one system can do this alone. We need juvenile and dependency courts to work hand-in-hand with criminal courts. We need child welfare and domestic violence agencies to collaborate. We need more and better training across systems as well as funding for more research and to replicate programs that work. More than anything, we need the will to help women like Kathleen and her children as soon as the violence begins.


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