Risk Factors for Children in Situations of Family Violence in the Context of Separation and Divorce
A detailed description of protective factors
Child developmental level
Although generally only considered in terms of risk, the developmental stage of a child can be a protective factor when considering the ability of the child to access external social supports, manage their internal affective states during times of family stress, and develop effective coping strategies. In addition, resilience literature suggests that having a higher IQ may be helpful to some children but it is not yet clear how that manifests itself – whether the child is more cognitively able to make sense of his/her surroundings, or whether it is the success in academics that creates an avenue for self-esteem and social support.
Safe parents, safe children
The greater protection a mother who is the victim of family violence experiences, the greater the protection her children may experience. Many victims who experience family violence go to extreme lengths to ensure the safety of their children (Haight et al., 2007). Women who experience abuse from their partners have been found to “mobilize their resources to respond to the violence on behalf of their children” (Levendosky, Lynch, & Graham-Bermann, 2000, p. 266), in particular by being sensitive and responsive to the needs of their children (Levendosky et al., 2000). Common immediate strategies include physically separating the children from the perpetrator, calling a relative or friend for assistance, using developed signals to warn children in times of danger, and using calming techniques or attempting to physically restrain the perpetrator (Haight et al., 2007). In some cases mothers realize the risk of harm their children are subjected to and will employ long-term strategies, such as sending their children to live with relatives or contacting the legal system for assistance (Haight et al., 2007). In other circumstances, some women feel that staying with an abusive partner allows them to be more protective, rather than engender further risk to the child that could come from unsupervised access that may be granted during separation (Walker, 1992 as cited in Strega, 2006; Varcoe & Irwin, 2004). Focusing solely on what is perceived as protective behaviours of mothers, however, when women do not in fact have control over abusive partners, is misdirected, as research indicates that in these cases the protective behaviour of mothers does not actually predict recurrence of child maltreatment (Coohey, 2006) .
It is recognized that it may be difficult for a woman to leave an abusive relationship. Therefore, a number of support agencies work from a harm reduction model, such that they provide the victim with strategies and support to increase their safety (Hoyle, 2008). The most common strategy taught is the creation of a safety plan. A safety plan is a pre-determined arrangement of how to escape or hide from an abusive partner or parent when in a situation of imminent danger (Hoyle, 2008; Kress et al., 2012). The plans typically include creation of an escape route, having an alternate place of safe refuge, and creating and maintaining social supports. It is essential to create these plans in order to reduce panic in the moment, while enhancing one’s own safety, as well as that of the children. Safety plans can also include precautionary measures to be taken to reduce risk of harm, which are most commonly used by mothers who have successfully left their abusive partner, such as changing locks, installing security system, changing routine, changing children’s school, and avoiding places frequently visited by the perpetrator (Hoyle, 2008; Kress et al., 2012). Although these plans can reduce victimization, they also have the potential to increase alternative risks for the victim such as poverty (Hoyle, 2008). In order to remain safe and independent it is essential for a victim to become financially independent. However, in many cases this is extremely difficult or impossible, as the abuser may have taken over the finances or is the only source of income for the family. It is also critical to consider safety on a continuum and as a dynamic concept that frequently changes and is often not within the victim’s control. An important study that focused on safety planning determined that situational context was critical as there were no universally effective strategies for managing safety; cautioning that what may reduce the risk for one woman may increase the risk for another (Goodkind et al, 2004). Not surprisingly, women who engaged in the most safety planning continued to remain at highest risk because of characteristics of their abusers. Even more concerning, however, are findings that women’s emotional well-being is often linked to their appraisals of their own vulnerability and powerlessness. In particular, the more a woman has to restrict her personal autonomy to stay safe, the more likely she is to experience depression (Goodkind et al., 2004; Nurius et al., 2003).
Family and social supports
- For the Child
Depending on the age of the child, it may be difficult for them to seek out social supports on their own. Therefore, children experiencing maltreatment may seek support from their siblings (Lucas, 2002). Siblings who are exposed to domestic violence provide companionship and comfort to each other in many ways, such as through protecting one another from psychological and physical damage, acting as caregivers for each other, and being a source of emotional, verbal and tactile support. They may also ally together against the family violence in an effort to prevent violent incidents, protect their mother, or attempt to cope with the trauma by avoiding involvement and using one another as a source of distraction from the trauma they experience. Resiliency is key in reducing the risk of harm from exposure to violence (Afifi & MacMillan, 2011; Lucas, 2002). Additional factors influencing resiliency include the presence of a good relationship with one parent, the child's proximity to the events, as well as their relationship with the perpetrator. Support systems available within their family have been shown to encourage and reinforce coping efforts of the child (Afifi & MacMillan, 2011; Allen & Johnson, 2012; Lucas, 2002). A child characterized as being resilient has typically had an opportunity to establish a close relationship with at least one emotionally stable and competent family member who is supportive of their needs.
- For the Child Victim in Adulthood
Children who experience family violence are at an increased risk for experiencing psychological distress in adulthood (Fijiwata, Okuyama, & Izumi, 2011; Hetzel-Riggin & Meads, 2011). However, adults who develop a sense of community, through accessing social supports or seeking assistance from loved ones, are less likely to experience psychological distress regardless of their experiences with violence (Greenfield & Marks, 2010). Moreover, women who have experienced abuse in the past, and have since developed strong social supports, are less likely to be abused by another partner in the future, ultimately further protecting their children (Plazaola-Castaño, Ruiz-Pérez, & Montero-Piñnar, 2008).
- For the Perpetrator
Despite the harmful actions and behaviours perpetrators engage in, they are no exception to the positive impact of social relationships (Pandya & Gingerich, 2002; Sheehan, Thakor, & Stewart, 2012; Silvergleid & Mankowski, 2006). Perpetrators report the development of social relationships, as well as the fear of losing their family, as turning points for their behaviour change (Pandya & Gingerich, 2002; Silvergleid & Mankowski, 2006). In some cases, perpetrators are reluctant to seek help from informal and formal supports. The lack of help seeking behaviours can be influenced by gender stereotypes, such as appearing weak or fragile, uncertainty of where to seek help, difficulties trusting and confiding in others, as well as having few individuals to talk to who have an understanding or training in domestic violence (Campbell et al., 2010). However, some perpetrators may decide to seek assistance on their own when they realize the impact of their behavior on their partner and their children. Other perpetrators may be ordered into treatment by the court as a term of probation if their conduct has resulted in a criminal conviction. There is some evidence to support the notion that a coordinated approach to family violence may be most effective if a batterer intervention program is combined with ongoing monitoring and review by the court (Gondolf, 2002).
There are also emerging programs that target the perpetrator's role as a father. One example is the Caring Dads program. Caring Dads is an intervention program designed for fathers who have maltreated their child(ren) and/or exposed them to the abuse of their mother. The program is targeted at changing the father's unhealthy behaviour and beliefs about parenting, their abusive parenting strategies, as well as their understanding of the impact of abuse on children (Scott & Crooks, 2007). An evaluation of the program indicated that fathers who attended and completed Caring Dads had considerable changes in their over-reactivity to children's misbehavior and their respect for the commitment and judgment of their children's mothers (Scott & Lishak, 2012).
Family violence is recognized as an issue impacting society as a whole. Parents and children affected by family violence have an increased need for access to community supports, in order to obtain and maintain their safety. A major concern for women and children is having access to community supports when making their decision to leave an abusive partner (Clarke & Wydall, 2013; Reeve, Casey & Goudie, 2006; Netto, Pawson, & Sharp, 2009). In order for women to leave an abusive partner they must have the ability to obtain suitable and affordable accommodations. Unfortunately, these housing issues are a primary reason why women either decide not to leave their abusive partner, or return to their partner after attempting to leave (Bossy & Coleman, 2000; Clarke & Wydall, 2013). Housing opportunities for women and children are available Canada-wide, providing temporary support and shelter for the victims of family violence. Unfortunately, the living conditions are often not ideal and this can increase the victims’ levels of stress, as well as potentially relocate them further from existing social and family supports (Abrahams, 2007).
Building relationships within the community can decrease one’s likelihood of re-victimization (Clarke & Wydall, 2013; Dutton et al., 2006). A key factor may include building positive relationships with advocacy supports, as well as obtaining stable employment, which ultimately enhances one’s sense of independence and extended community support. Developing a sense of community is equally important for child victims of maltreatment, as it provides them with supports to aid in coping with traumatic events. Children are able to develop this sense of community through building positive relationships with supportive individuals including: teachers, school counsellors, mental health workers, and neighbours (Afifi & MacMillan, 2011; Allen & Johnson, 2012; Lucas, 2002).
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