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Advocating for Children Exposed to Domestic Violence: A CASA Volunteer’s Perspective

NIcole BatesNicole Bates, Family Violence Department, NCJFCJ and
Volunteer, DC Superior Court “Preparing Youth for Adulthood” Initiative

Summary: By properly identifying and addressing domestic violence, we present a more holistic picture of the child and advocate for their well-being in a way that is responsive to their needs.


Studies show that there is a correlation between a child’s exposure to domestic violence and his behavioral, physical, mental and emotional health. Domestic violence exposure can manifest as aggressive, risky or anti-social behavior, low self-esteem, depression, anger, poor school performance and future violence as an adult.[1] These are relevant issues that we, as CASA volunteers, should be aware of and sensitive to as we investigate what is in the best interest of the child.

In my experience, the effects of family violence can be easily overlooked in dependency cases as the team of social workers, advocates and attorneys prioritize addressing what they consider more immediate issues, such as substance abuse and delinquency. Addressing these issues is important; however, it is equally important to understand that the effects of witnessing domestic violence may be a contributing factor to such behaviors. I have seen children labeled as “troubled” because they were anxious, aggressive or hypersexual. In each case, after further investigation, we were able to establish a history of violence in the home that allowed us to make more appropriate recommendations.

It is our responsibility as the CASA volunteer to investigate fully and ask probing questions so that we may paint a complete picture of each child’s needs. A thorough understanding of domestic violence and the role it can play in child development will increase a volunteer’s ability to make a complete assessment. Although specialized education in domestic violence is not a prerequisite for volunteering, in my experience, many advocates go the extra mile and ensure they are equipped with this knowledge in order to make the best recommendation in the interest of the child. Because children exposed to domestic violence are at significantly greater risk for health problems, poor school performance and behavioral disturbances,[2] training on domestic violence can help CASA volunteers better support both the children and the family.

Because volunteers play a vital role in assisting judges with their evaluation of what is in a child’s best interest in each case, I have found it necessary and beneficial to work collaboratively with the social workers, advocates and attorneys whenever possible. In particular, I’ve encouraged them to be aware of the effects of exposure to domestic violence, and how these effects may present socially, academically and behaviorally. By working collaboratively, we can enhance the efficacy of system responses to at-risk families and press for improvements.

It is my belief as a CASA volunteer that by properly identifying and addressing domestic violence we present a more holistic picture of the child. Through this understanding, we can better advocate for each child’s mental, emotional and physical well-being in a way that is responsive to their needs.

[1] Ending the Cycle of Violence: Community Responses to Children of Battered Women (Einat Peled, Peter Jaffe & Jeffery Edleson eds.,1995).

[2] Division for the Advancement of Women, supra note 1, at 37. See also Clare Dalton, Leslie Drozd & Hon. Frances Q.F. Wong, FVD, NCJFCJ, Navigating Custody and Visitation in Cases with Domestic Violence: A Judges Guide, 18 (2004, revised 2006).

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