Balancing the Risk and Safety Needs of Domestic Violence Victims

Judge AycockRuby White StarrHon. Steve Aycock (ret.), Assistant Director, Family Violence Department, NCJFCJ
Z. Ruby White Starr, Assistant Director, Family Violence Department, NCJFCJ

Summary: Understanding the reasons why victims stay with an abusive partner, the nature of how both safety and risk influence victims’ decision making, and the needs of children exposed to domestic violence will help judges and other professionals address the unique safety and well-being issues present in cases of co-occuring domestic violence and child abuse. 


Research indicates that child abuse and domestic violence co-occur in 40-70% of dependency cases and documents the harmful effects of domestic violence on children. Consequently, it is not uncommon for judges handling these co-occurrence cases or for service providers, such as CASA volunteers or social workers presenting information to the court in co-occurrence cases, to wonder why victims don’t leave. The individuals may also view a victim’s choices as demonstrating a greater regard for her batterer than her children, or they may conclude that the circumstance of being a victim itself attests to why a victim shouldn’t have custody of her children.

These notions may be rooted in the design and delivery of adult domestic violence intervention efforts that were historically viewed as separate from the goal of protecting maltreated children. Child welfare systems were responsible for protecting children from abuse and neglect, while community agencies, law enforcement and the courts were left to deal with adult victims of domestic violence.

However, understanding the reasons why victims stay with an abusive partner, the nature of how both safety and risk influence victims’ decision making, and the needs of children exposed to domestic violence will help judges and other professionals address the unique safety and well-being issues present in co-occurrence cases.

One of the primary reasons adult victims stay with an abusive partner is fear of the potential consequences of leaving. This is a valid concern since, despite beliefs to the contrary, separation may often increase the risk of violence due to the batterer’s heightened desire to regain power and control. When women are killed, it is most often as a result of their attempts to leave the relationship—not of staying in it. Another reason victims stay is the lack of real options to keep their children safe. A lack of alternative housing or shelter, protection or support creates barriers to leaving. The following may magnify these barriers:

  • Lack of employment and legal assistance
  • Cultural, religious or familial values
  • Immobilization by psychological or physical trauma
  • Hopes or beliefs in the batterer’s promises to change
  • Messages from others that the violence is the victim’s fault and that she could stop the abuse by simply complying with his demands

Ethnicity, language barriers, behavioral health, developmental needs, geographic location and economic status may also play a role. Important to note, however, is that many women do leave, often returning many times to their abuser as a result of not finding better alternatives, before making a final separation.

Understanding these variables provides a greater appreciation for battered women’s decision making. Weighing the risks of leaving against the risks of staying is more complicated than simply choosing between her abuser and her children. In many cases, the choice may be between abuse and homelessness for herself and her children.

According to Megan Valdez, a CASA supervisor in Dallas, TX, “adult and child victims need a tremendous amount of support. First and foremost, they need safety-promoting services such as shelter, transitional housing or a protective order. They may also need various forms of mainstream resources, such as food stamps, WIC, TANF, Medicaid and subsidized daycare. In addition to physical safety, they will need [services] to increase their emotional safety.”

Co-occurrence impacts children differently depending on the number, type and level of both risk and protective factors present in their lives and requires differential responses. However, it is clear from the research that the best way to protect and restore children is to keep the victim parent safe.

According to Lundy Bancroft in The Batterer as Parent: Addressing the Impact of Domestic Violence on Family Dynamics, to recover from domestic violence children need the following:

  • A sense of physical and emotional safety
  • Structure, limits and predictability
  • A strong bond to the non-battering parent and to siblings
  • Not to feel responsible to take care of adults
  • Safe contact with the battering parent, if possible, with strong protections for physical and emotional needs.

Therefore, ensuring children’s best interest is inseparable from creating safety for their mothers and reducing the risk posed by the batterers.

Handling co-occurrence cases effectively requires that judges and others have a deeper understanding of the risk and safety issues that coexist as a result of the complicated nature of domestic violence. This understanding includes consideration of the risk and safety issues presented when victims remain in an abusive relationship as well as those resulting when a victim leaves such a relationship.

Domestic violence training enhance judges’ understanding of how to support victims’ efforts to achieve safety, obtain support and realize autonomy while they hold batterers accountable and offer them opportunities to change battering behavior.

Battered mothers are trying to parent as well as protect their children. They can do both with appropriate resources. It is the court’s role to facilitate access to these needed resources by drafting judicial orders that that promote the safety of the victims and their children; ensuring the provision of adequate financial resources, services and referrals to families; and participating in judicially led coordinated community response teams that promote victim access to services the court cannot provide.

Balancing the risk and safety needs of domestic violence victims requires that judges create the foundation for safe, sound and effective decision making; improve the handling of day-to-day issues appearing in their courtrooms; and gain a stronger sense of their courtroom and community roles to help end and prevent violence.


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