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  • October 15, 2019

    Ending the Cycle: A Push for Early Childhood Intervention for Intimate Partner Violence Exposure

    Exposure to domestic violence can have serious health effects for children, according to recent scientific studies. Tiffany Highstrom gives a broad overview of these studies on the link between early childhood exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV) and children’s physical and health risks.

    Tiffany L. Highstrom

    Scared child

    On Oct. 22, 2019 the Wisconsin Supreme Court will hold a public hearing on a petition to change the continuing legal education credits (CLE) for guardians ad litem (GALs). The proposal requires GALs to complete 3.0 CLE hours annually on the dynamics and impacts of family violence. At least one of those hours must be devoted specifically to domestic violence related education.

    The petition should initiate conversation about domestic violence and the impact on family law.1

    Recent studies show recognizable health risks to children, as young as preschool age, being exposed to intimate partner violence (IPV). Such exposure is increasingly recognized as child maltreatment, showing comparable levels of negative health and mental risks as other physical forms of child maltreatment.2

    The Impacts of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)

    Exposure to IPV refers to children witnessing abuse or its aftermath, as well as injuries that arise from abuse between other persons in the home, even though the child may not be physically assaulted during these episodes of violence.

    Tiffany Highstrom Tiffany Highstrom, Marquette 2004, is a partner with Stafford Rosenbaum in Madison, where she practices in all aspects of family law.

    Studies show that exposure to this behavior can have serious health effects for children and is something that should be considered when determining custody and placement of children.3

    The physical and mental impacts of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are the most prevalent forms of health deterioration in children exposed to IPV. Although some studies have found connections between PTSD and more physical symptoms that children experience, the most recognizable and lasting effects of PTSD from IPV exposure involve mental health and developmental problems in children.4

    PTSD, in general, has been linked to lasting effects on children’s externalizing and internalizing behaviors. The effects are worsened with the onset of IPV exposure.

    A 2012 study found that children exposed to IPV have a 1.5 times higher likelihood of externalizing and acting out, and the likelihood of internalizing the issues is twice as high in these children, leading to further anxiety, depression, and even substance abuse in their future.5

    Competency and IPV

    Part of this behavior deviation has to do with a child’s level of overall competency.6 Studies have found that children with higher competency tend to have more difficulty dealing with IPV, while those with lower competency, who are less able to understand the severity and intentionality of the acts, tend to normalize and justify what they have seen.

    Those with higher competency tend to be more sensitive to the issues and can recognize such behavior. This competency factor also incorporates children’s resilience to the actual exposure, as well as implications of children understanding that they can and should talk about it.7

    Effects Over Time

    Many reported behaviors are not clinically severe at the onset, but as conditions continue throughout a child’s life, they can increase in severity and lead to developmental issues. This extended exposure can cause the resulting health concerns to worsen overtime and have more severe long-term effects.

    Though not as severe as other outcomes of child maltreatment, this behavior has significant detrimental effects. While there is no absolute causal connection between a child’s competence level and physical health, doctors have hypothesized and called for more research to determine the link between the psychological effects of exposure to IPV and physical manifestation, in hopes of developing successful intervention programs for children.8

    In addition to exposure to IPV, the chances of a child developing health issues increases when the child experiences more traumatic events outside of the exposure to IPV. Studies show that children who have been exposed to at least one other traumatic event are more likely to advance developmental issues.

    Exposure to Animal Cruelty

    A separate category of these events is the presence of animal cruelty. In families where there has been animal cruelty, children exposed to IPV are at higher risk for negative health effects. Due to the connection to a family pet, children who experience threats of harm or harm against their animal can be further affected by the threat to their animal, viewing the animal as a best friend and holding them as the most important relationship in their lives.

    Thus, children are more likely to step in to prevent someone from hurting their animal, inserting themselves into violent situations and heightening their risk of externalized behavioral problems as a result of this enhanced exposure to violence.

    So, though interpreted differently, exposure to animal cruelty can be a significant factor in determining a child’s development, and some researchers have hypothesized and found that exposure to animal cruelty is a determinative factor that can be used in detecting a need for early intervention programs.9

    Early Intervention is Important

    In all of these studies, professionals have been trying to determine if finding these connections can have some effect on developing intervention programs.

    The focus groups of these studies involved young children, especially of pre-school age. They suggest that, if there can be a clear break in the pattern and the families can get into counseling or therapy early on, the child’s development becomes healthier.

    Additionally, intervention counseling should involve the child and their abused parent in order to be effective. The majority of the case studies have found that the child-mother exposure and connection is the most prevalent. In many of these cases, the health and state of the mother was a major concern for the child, who essentially feeds off the mother’s position in the partnership. Thus, intervention that helps the mother also benefits the child.

    Exposure to IPV leaves no actual bruises and, therefore, it is harder to detect. Nonetheless, it has real effects, and research suggests that intervention can be effective in mitigating those effects.

    Practical Considerations

    As legal professionals, especially those who practice as guardians ad litem, we should learn to recognize these issues, to help prevent declines in children’s health and development.

    IPV can and should be considered when deciding appropriate custody and placement. Even in situations where a parent is not hitting a child, partner-partner abusive behavior or the threat of abusive behavior that the child witnesses can have damaging effects on the child.

    Additionally, as the aforementioned studies suggest, intervention at the earliest possible point is crucial. We need to be able to recognize patterns even when the child is not forthright about IPV exposure. Education about and intervention against all forms of domestic violence must be, and has always been, the duty of all attorneys, regardless of a statutory rule.

    The more lawyers can learn to recognize these behaviors and educate themselves on the effects that can come from exposure to IPV, the better equipped our courts and practitioners will be to intervene early and mitigate consequences for children.

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Family Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Family Law Section web pages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.


    1 Recent scientific literature now identifies domestic violence as Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). Domestic violence is a broader category of abuse, intimate partner violence is a narrower category of abuse that takes place between intimate partners, such as a child’s parents or a parent and their significant other.

    2 S.E. McDonald, S. Shin, R. Corona, A, Maternick F.R. Ascione, S.A. Graham-Bermann, J. Herbert Williams, Children Exposed to Intimate Partner Violence: Identifying Differential Effects of Family Environment on Children’s Trauma an Psychopathology Symptoms Through Regression Mixture Models, Child Abuse and Neglect, June 7, 2016.

    3 C.N. Wathen, H.L. MacMillan, Children’s Exposure to Intimate Partner Violence: Impacts and Interventions, Paediatrics & Child Health. 2013 Oct; 18(8): 419-422.

    4 S.A. Graham-Bermann and J. Seng, Violence Exposure and Traumatic Stress Symptoms as Additional Predictors of Health Problems in High Risk Children, The Journal of Pediatrics, March 2005.

    5 S.A. Graham-Bermann, L. Castor, L.E. Miller, and K.H. Howell, The Impact of Intimate Partner Violence and Additional Traumatic Events of Trauma Symptoms and PTSD in Preschool-Aged Children.

    6 “Competency” in this regard refers not just to intellectual competency, but social and other activity competence, i.e., the number of friends a child has, their interaction with other people, interaction with other activities outside of school such as sports, etc.

    7 S.E. McDonald, R. Corona, A, Maternick F.R. Ascione, J. Herbert Williams, S.A. Graham-Bermann, Children’s Exposure to Intimate Partner Violence and Their Social, School, and Activities Competence: Latent Profiles and Correlates, Journal of Family Violence, Aug. 30, 2016.

    8 S.A. Graham-Bermann, S. Lynch, V. Banyard, E.R. DeVoe, H. Halabu, Community-based Intervention for Children Exposed to Intimate Partner Violence: efficacy Trial, Journal of consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2007, Vol 75 No. 2, 199-209.

    9 S.E. McDonald, S.A. Graham-Bermann A, Maternick F.R. Ascione, J. Herbert Williams, Patterns of Adjustment among Children Exposed to Intimate Partner Violence: a Person-centered approach, Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, Jan. 25 2016.

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    Family Law Blog is published by the Family Law Section and the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Donna Ginzl and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Family Law Section or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

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