Serious Health Consequences to Children Witnessing Domestic Violence
~By Barry Goldstein
“Starting with the ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study in 1998 medical researchers have established the enormous and long term harm to children from being exposed to traumatic events such as witnessing domestic violence and direct physical or sexual abuse. The research establishes that there is a cumulative adversity so that the more exposure a child suffers the greater the chance of serious medical consequences and the more serious those consequences are likely to be. There is now a substantial body of medical research that establishes not only the enormous harm to children, but the many mechanisms that result in increased illnesses and injuries during their childhood and for the rest of their lives. When court or other professionals fail to take sensible actions to safeguard children, or give more consideration to less important factors they are literally reducing the life expectancy of these children.
When domestic violence first became a public issue in the mid to late 1970s, custody courts had to develop practices to respond. For many years when a protective mother went to court seeking a protective order and for any visitation with the father to be supervised judges would routinely ask some version of “Did he also assault the child?” If the answer was no, the court treated the father as if he was just as qualified as the mother for custody and visitation. These risky practices continued until the eighties and nineties when research established that children witnessing domestic violence were more likely to engage in a wide range of harmful behaviors when older including substance abuse, self-mutilation, teen pregnancy, dropping out of school, prostitution, crime and for boys to assault future partners and girls to be assaulted by future partners. These findings led to legislation in every state either to require courts to consider domestic violence in any decision about custody or visitation or to create a presumption against custody for abusers under some limited circumstances.
Every state has adopted the best interests of the child standard to determine custody and visitation and has developed a list of factors either legislatively or through case law that must be considered in making these decisions. Unfortunately the states have not required that children’s safety be treated as the first priority so courts are free to use very subjective standards when deciding where the children will live. In many cases political or personal beliefs and factors far less important than the safety of children are determinative in custody decisions. This often poisons the process because abusers can distract attention from safety issues by raising less important issues. Judges sometimes believe that fairness requires the court to treat the issues raised by the mother and father equally even though one of those issues is more fundamental to the well-being of children. This is an example of false equivalency that is common in custody courts. In many cases, courts weigh allegations of domestic violence and alienation as if they are equally important to the well-being of children. At worst, alienation might temporarily interfere with the relationship between the child and a parent while domestic violence leads to serious and life impacting health problems throughout the child’s life and often reduces how long they live. I have never heard an evaluator or a judge weigh the relative importance of these issues based on scientific research. This is particularly problematic because claims of alienation are a common abuser tactic but courts seem to be more open to these allegations than domestic violence which mothers rarely falsify.
There is now a substantial body of medical research that establishes the enormous risk to children of exposing them to domestic violence. The research demonstrates that these children have significant, increased risk of illnesses and injuries as children and need more medical care. Significantly, these medical problems do not end when children reach their majority but continue for the rest of their lives. They will have far more medical needs as adults and their life expectancy is reduced. I believe that custody courts cannot continue to tolerate practices that result in children losing precious years from their lives. This research requires fundamental reforms or else the courts cannot be acting in the best interests of children.
The Medical Harm to Children Witnessing Domestic Violence One of the leading experts about the medical consequences of childhood trauma is Kathleen Kendall-Tackett. The second edition of her book, Treating the Lifetime Health Effects of Childhood Victimization, was recently published. This is a book by and for medical professionals that is designed to help them treat a variety of conditions in adult patients that were caused or exacerbated by traumas suffered as children. The research and the writing were not designed to respond to custody court issues, but the information should be required for any court that wishes to act in the best interests of children. The long-term harm of exposure to domestic violence or direct physical or sexual abuse can and does develop in a myriad of ways. A child could develop immediate and obvious symptoms or the harm can go unnoticed for many years. The author encourages doctors to ask about childhood trauma because so many different ailments can have their genesis with childhood trauma. This is especially problematic because patients are rarely thinking about events from decades earlier as the cause of their health problems. There are many ways in which childhood trauma can seriously impact health now and in the future. The trauma can cause increased inflammation that can trigger numerous diseases now and in the future. Accordingly, Dr. Kendall-Tackett recommends an anti-inflammatory for children exposed to abuse. Quite naturally, exposure to domestic violence often interferes with the child’s ability to enjoy the quality and quantity of sleep needed. This and several other common responses to abuse can lead to obesity with increased risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other medical problems. The author suggested that programs and campaigns designed to prevent obesity ought to include efforts to make sure children get their needed sleep and avoid exposure to domestic violence and child abuse. Indeed these experiences often lead to eating disorders…..”
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