A New Zealand study conducted by the National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges in 1991 suggested that, 90% of women received at the Refuge center had children in their care who were present and witnessed the violence while 50% of the children had also been physically abused.

Family violence is defined in Connolly (2001) as an act that is carried out with the intention of causing physical harm to another person and encompasses physical, sexual, emotional or damage to property. However allowing a child to witness the abuse of another person is also deemed violence towards that child as laid out in the Domestic Violence Act (1995). Further to this Connolly (2001) postulates that the family violence field has shifted in its understanding of the impact of different abuse experiences with more attention being given to the witnessing of abuse and the repercussions thereof.

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According to McMaster in Connolly (2001) “working with violence has become a significant professional issue confronting many practitioners of social work. Further to this the issue of family violence has sprung into the limelight and become recognised as a major social problem in New Zealand and this is explained by a number of significant social changes in New Zealand such as changes to family life, where more women are employed outside the family home, increasing divorce rates, declining birth rates, higher unemployment and significant Maori urbanisation.

Connolly (2001) further urges that the contributing factor has also been a shift in values and beliefs in society that have largely been fuelled by international trends with violence against women and children being recognised as a significant social issue. However Fagan in Connolly (2001) found that the risk of men and women abusing their children is higher if they themselves were abused or witnessed abuse as children and adolescents.

The Unnoticed Victims

The author’s discussion on the effects of family violence and child abuse, prevention as well as intervention is based on the 1994 research study carried out by Gabrielle M. Maxwell Office of the Commissioner for Children; New Zealand titled Children and Family Violence: The Unnoticed Victims. The findings of this research indicated that children who witnesses family violence demonstrate adjustment difficulties in a number of areas including health problems, cognitive deficits, adolescent hostility and aggression and difficulties in adult relationships with the opposite sex. Edleson and Tolman (1992) states that children who witness family violence may experience lower levels of social competency, lower academic achievement and a variety of emotional problems including depression, suicidal behavior and insomnia.

Evidence-based practice

According to Connolly (2001), In New Zealand the Department of Child Youth and Family Services (CYFS) identifies its clients as children and young persons at risk from abuse and neglect. Findings by CYFS on the deaths of children that they have been involved with reflect that between 1994 – 1995 five of the twelve children aged 0-13years died as a result of non accidental injury. They were injured by a male adult in their household and four out of five of these male adults had a history of physical violence towards women and children within their families and three of them had previously injured the children whose deaths they caused. (Connolly, 2001, pg. 320-321).

A report by the NEW Zealand Police (1999) showed that 28 percent of all violence reported to them was family related. Other studies in New Zealand have reported that children form a large part of this abuse cycle and that where children are victims of violence be it perpetrated to them or witnessed, behavioural problems such as hyperactivity, anxiety and aggression are usually indicated that may sometimes be severe enough to fall within the clinical range.

According to Aitken (1998) there are multiple ways in which children experience domestic violence and these multiple factors can influence the effects of violence upon the children. A wide range of researchers agree that the causes of violence are multi-factorial, and these include exposure to the immediate physical injury, or long term emotional or psychological effects. Holden (2003) suggests that the word exposure is more inclusive of different types of experiences and does not assume that the child simply observed the violence. He further looks at the classification of children’s exposure to domestic violence and how they may be affected. These categories include prenatal exposure, child overhears conversations about violence, child witnesses violence, child participates in violence, child directly assaulted, child intervenes in violence, child is told of violence and child experiences the consequences of violence.

According to the research carried out by Maxwell (1994) of the 528 incidents of family violence reported to the police in the Hamilton area between July 1991 and April 1994 15% of the children were directly involved in some of these incidents by trying to intervene and 6% by seeking help. And, in nearly one in five incidents, the children were themselves the targets and the unborn children were attacked as they lay in their mothers womb, babies were punched by mistake or thrown from their mother’s arms, children were belted and punched and threats were made to take them away or to hurt them

Helton (1997) argues that between 40% and 60% of women experiencing domestic violence are abused during pregnancy and the foetus may be affected by the mother’s physiological state or may be a target of direct or indirect assault. From this stage an unborn baby is exposed to domestic violence with either short or long term effects and according to Osofsky (2003) children who are under five years of age are vulnerable to harmful effects of domestic violence because they don’t have a developed capacity to understand or cope with trauma. This is supported by Zeanah (1994) who states that ‘the pace of development in the first three years of life is so rapid, and the interrelationships among domains of development are so complex, that a young child’s experience of violence may reverberate, affecting the child’s ability to handle expectable developmental challenges’.

This suggests that the child’s exposure to violence or trauma, and the resultant persisting fear, with which the young child lives, actually alters the developing brain, which is delicately sensitive to stress. Further to this Ferrick and Silverman (2006) support this view and are of the opinion that how domestic violence affects children depends on their developmental stage and history as well as a number of endogenous and exogenous factors.

Research carried out by Bowlby (Bowlby, 1982) suggests that during the first few years of their lives infants and toddlers are attempting to establish trusting relationships and autonomy, and failure to do so have been associated with insecure attachments and difficulties establishing autonomy. The effects of traumatic events have also been studied concurrent to research on attachment in young children and findings are such that children exposed to domestic violence experience a variety of intellectual, emotional and behavioural problems (Onyskiw in Ferrick and Silverman (2006)) with symptoms such as excessive irritability, immature behaviour, sleep disturbances, emotional distress, fear of being alone and regression in toileting and language being noted.

As noted in the research carried out by Maxwell’s (1994) there are a number of influencing factors on the effects of domestic violence on children. According to Osofsky (1996), factors which may lead to a more severe response to a traumatic event include the intensity or level of violence, the child’s proximity to the event, the child’s familiarity with the victim, perpetrator or both, the developmental status of the child and younger children being more vulnerable.

The research also suggests that domestic violence may indirectly affect children’s adjustment through its negative impact on maternal parenting capacity and motherly psychological functioning. For example, when mothers are being directly abused it is likely they will have a reduced capacity to parent and will have more difficulty being emotionally available, sensitive and responsive to their children’s needs Osofsky & Jackson (1994). Groves (2002) supports this view and also states that the children of abused women are at increased risk of either direct abuse and or witnessing violence

Evidence based Intervention(s)

Significant moves have been initiated since 1980’s in New Zealand to create greater participation between the government and the community in a bid to reduce family violence. Cooperation among the different sectors such as the police, Child Youth and Family Services and other agencies have been greatly encouraged with initiatives such as “breaking the cycle” funded by CYFS to provide alternatives to physical abuse towards children as well as changes in legislation such as “the Domestic Violence Act (1995), which according to Connolly (2001) has made it easier to obtain protection orders and especially recognises the impact on children who witness violence between their caregivers, making it easier for caregivers to gain protection orders on those grounds. O’Hara cited in Sainders (1995) urges that children’s welfare cannot in practice be separated from the question of the safety of their primary carers and this needs to be adequately taken into account when making decisions for child protection and safety. This is one of the interventions that focus on removing abusive men from the family in order to protect women and children.

O’Hara sees good practice as very much based upon using the law to empower women and children to protect themselves. For example, the use of laws relating to occupation of the family home to protect children from violence and emotional abuse associated with violence and the use of private proceedings to protect children from abuse.

Service users and potential users should be informed of restraining orders which are available under the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989 to protect children although they are not readily available on the first occasion an incident of violence involving a child is reported. However the magnitude of the family violence will determine if urgent restraining orders should be issued against the perpetrator.

Health care providers are also in an ideal position to assist victims of family violence before the abuse reaches crisis point. Health providers come into contact with the majority of the population for routine health care, pregnancy, illness, and injury, or by bringing children to health care services. Victims of abuse seek care from health care providers far more often for a range of health problems than do individuals who have not experienced abuse. Health care providers are therefore well placed to engage in early identification, support and referral of victims of abuse, before it escalates to severe or life-threatening levels.

Child care and protection social work is largely influenced by Justice Sir Ronald Davison’s proposal in 1994 that a primary concern in all dealings with situations where family violence has occurred should be – are the children safe? He specifically proposes that a parent who has used violence against a spouse should not be granted custody or unsupervised access until they can show that the child will be safe with them.

It is time, therefore, to ensure that New Zealand takes the necessary steps and continue to maintain provisions of children’s safety in homes where there is family violence. Comprehensive investigation into alleged family violence should be followed with placement, custody and supervised access plans to protect the safety of children and their abused caregivers.

Osofsky (1995) suggests 3 main resilience factors when it comes to dealing with the effects of violence. These include having a supportive person in the environment, having a protected place in the neighbourhood that provides a safe haven from violence exposure and having individual resources (adaptable temperament or intelligence) to find alternative ways of coping with violence.

Child abuse prevention programme All about Me – Toku Ahuatanga Whanui, has been operating in Primary Schools since the 1980s to make parents and caregivers more aware of abuse and how they can protect their children. A new module has been developed by a group of early childhood teachers, police and other experts in the early childhood education area to assist the centres to:

* Prepare to protect children from child abuse

* lessen anti-social behaviour

* help children reach their full potential

Research suggests a consistent set of guidelines for those at the forefront of dealing with the results of family violence, abuse and neglect including teachers, police, medical personnel, midwives, nurses, social workers and others. It is believed that this will help to enable a coherent response to incidents and symptoms of family violence, abuse and neglect.

Connolly (2001) believes that the models used by social workers to understand the issues in family violence will inform their intervention. Perspectives such as Psychopathological, social conditions and social learning have over the years been explored as regards their ability to inform the reasons behind family violence.

Social workers in New Zealand working in this area need to be skilled in working with clients (children and caregivers) that have been subjected to significant trauma as a result of family violence. This may be provided through individual counselling using therapy models such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), groups as well as other supports. The safety of children is paramount when working with family violence so the social worker needs to work to ensure this safety. The CYFS Social workers within Care and Protection Services have a role to play as regards this and work to physically and emotionally achieve safety for children as well as helping them to heal.

It must be noted that a number of other factors may also affect how a child copes with family violence. Jaffe, Baker and Cunningham (2004) refer to resilience factors such as assets within the child’s environment as having the effect of increasing their ability to cope and thus reducing the harmful effects of the violence. Such assets would be referred to as protective factors such as perhaps a positive and supportive relationship with grandparents, family friends, older siblings, teachers at school and even friends.

A significant breakthrough by CYFS was the publication in 2001 of “let’s stop child abuse together”, which was developed as an interagency guide to breaking the cycle of abuse. This advocates for a collaborative approach in stopping child abuse and pulls together multiple agencies to achieve a more coordinated intervention. While the publication acknowledges the central role played by social workers and police in relation to child protection, a multidisciplinary approach is seen as the best way to manage child abuse cases. Such an approach has been found to not only protect children from abuse in the short and long term, assist in the prosecution of offenders but also assists the child and caregivers to resolve their emotional responses to the abuse and neglect for example through mental health services if they are of clinical significance.


The research suggests that, children’s responses to witnessing and/or experiencing domestic violence between parents vary considerably. No typical reactions emerge, although there is ample evidence that exposure to domestic violence can and often does influence children’s behaviour detrimentally. However, at various stages of their development, children are differentially able to understand and cope with what is happening between their parents.

It is only by developing a broader definitional and research base for child abuse and domestic violence issues, and placing them within the framework of family violence generally, that we can hope to direct government policy, with corresponding adequate resources, in a way which will ensure a better future for children who live with inter- parental conflict. Social work agencies should at least disseminate relevant information to users and potential users so as to inform the community on options when and where domestic violence occurs.

It is also important to expand the existing partnerships among service providers in key areas such as early childhood education/development, health, child welfare, family support, substance abuse prevention, domestic violence/crisis intervention, law enforcement, courts, and legal services. There is need to create a comprehensive service delivery system that will meet the needs of children and their families. I do acknowledge the organizations already involved in this service and it is important to support and co-ordinate the efforts of those agencies and services working to help people affected by family violence, abuse and neglect within the family. Domestic violence where children are involved requires everyone in the community and at government level to intervene at multiple levels in order to be effective in reducing the effects of family violence and child abuse.

References: Books

Bowlby, J. (1982).Attachment and loss Vol 1: Attachment. New York: Basic Books

Connolly, M. (2001) New Zealand Social Work: Contexts and Practice. UK. Oxford University Press

Edleson, J.L and Tolman R.M. (1992) Intervention for Men Who Batter: An Ecological Approach. SAGE, Califonia, USA

Ferrick, M.M, ; Silverman, G.B. (2006) Children Exposed to Violence. London. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co

Groves, B.M. (2002). Children who see too much: Lessons from the child witness to violence project. Boston: Beacon Press.

Helton, A. (1987). Battered and Pregnant: A prevalence study. Public Health.

Jaffe, P.G., Baker, L.L., Cunningham, A.J. (2004). Protecting Children from Domestic Violence: Strategies for Community Intervention. New York: The Guildford Press.

Saunders, A. (1995). It hurts me too. Children’s experiences of domestic violence and refuge life. London, UK

Journal and Research articles

Aitken, R. (2001). Domestic violence and the impacts on children: results of a survey into the knowledge and experiences of educational personnel within two European countries. London: Refuge.

Holden, G.W. (2003). Children exposed to domestic violence and child abuse: terminology and taxonomy. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 6 (3), 151-159.

Maxwell, G.M. (1994) Children and Family Violence: The Unnoticed Victims, Office of the Commissioner for Children, New Zealand

Osofsky, J.D. (2003). Prevalence of children’s exposure to domestic violence and child maltreatment: implications for prevention and intervention. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 6 (3), 161-170.

Zeanah, C.H. (1994). The assessment and treatment of infants and toddlers exposed to violence. In J. Osofsky ; E. Fenichel. (Eds). Caring for infants and toddlers in violent environments: Hurt, healing and hope. Arlington, VA: Zero to Three/National Centre for Clinical Infant Programs.

Zeanah, C.H. ; Scheeringa, M.S. (1996). Evaluation of posttraumatic symptomatology in infants and young children exposed to violence. In J.D Osofsky ; E. Fenichel. (Eds). (1996) Islands of Safety: Assessing and treating Young Victims of Violence. Washington, DC: Zero to Three Publications.


Child Youth and Family Services (2001). Lets Stop Child Abuse Together: An Interagency Guide to Breaking the Cycle


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