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Witnessing domestic violence negatively affects the mental health of children

Children who witness domestic violence suffer from anxiety and fear while the perpetrators rarely get jail time, says a new study by the American Psychological Association. The nationwide research was published online in the APA journal “Psychology of Violence” on April 7, 2014.

Researchers studied children who had witnessed domestic violence. More than a third of the cases resulted in parents or caregivers being physically injured, yet only a small percentage of the offenders went to jail.

Although victim cooperation is not required in all 50 states for a perpetrator to be arrested, convictions are hard to get when victims refuse to testify. Many victims fear repercussions such as more violence.

"One of the most shocking findings is that less than 2 percent of the cases resulted in jail time for the perpetrator," said lead researcher Sherry Hamby, PhD, a psychology research professor at Sewanee, The University of the South.

Researchers conducted confidential telephone surveys in 2011 of parents and caregivers of children of children under the age of 19 years, while children ages 10 to 17 were interviewed directly.

Study findings:

  • Children were physically injured in one out of 75 cases, but experienced much more fear and anxiety
  • More than half of the children said they were afraid that someone would be badly hurt
  • Nearly two in five children said that the violence was the scariest experience they ever had
  • Children who witnessed domestic violence are more likely to experience problems with school work, anxiety, nightmares, depression, and teen dating violence
  • The trauma child witnesses experience can be similar to that of children who are abused
  • Only one in four domestic violence incidents were reported to the police
  • Nearly three out of four perpetrators were male
  • Domestic violence occurs in families of various ethnicities with: 20 percent African American, 53 percent white, 18 percent Latino and 11 percent of other races
  • 15 percent of cases led to contact with domestic violence advocates, but victims reported obstacles, such as a lack of transportation, concerns about losing child custody, and too much paperwork.

Domestic violence crosses economic lines with:

  • 28 percent in household with annual incomes under $20,000
  • 30 percent with incomes ranging from $20,000 to $50,000
  • 18 percent with incomes ranging from $50,000 to $75,000
  • 24 percent with incomes of more than $75,000

Only one in four domestic violence incidents were reported to the police. Many domestic violence victims reported that they are dissatisfied with the police response. In cases where no one was arrested, nearly one third of the adults said that the perpetrator should have been arrested and 13 percent said that police did not follow through with an investigation. Less than half of the police responding to domestic violence followed best practices such as informing the victim about protective orders, shelters and safety plans to prevent future violence.

The study recommended that victims are given information about safety plans and other assistance through social media, websites and other forms of assistance such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7223).