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Protecting children from being hit and from the effects of witnessing domestic violence is justified and compelling. Yet, like a battered mother, a childs risks are not limited to physical violence and its effects. The battered mothers risk analysis will provide information about both the childs risks and the mothers risks and decision-making. If the mothers decision-making is faulty and does not adequately address the childrens risks, the advocate may have to take action to protect the children. When significant risks for children are identified, enhanced advocacy is called for. Mothers leaving their relationship will not necessarily remove the risks for the children, and for some children, leaving may even increase their risks.
Although most battered women carefully and accurately analyze the risks to their children, some battered women do not; some womens analyses are incomplete or inaccurate; and some battered women are a threat to their children. Physical abuse of children is common in households where the mother is being beaten. For example, in Bowker et al.s (1988) study, the batterer abused both the mother and the children in 70% of the cases in which there were children in the household. The children were more likely to be abused when the battering was worse (it was more frequent, more severe, and more frequently included rape) and when there were larger numbers of children. Research still cannot tell us definitively which men who batter women are also most likely to abuse their children, however.
Studies have found that battered women sometimes abuse their children as well, although they do so at significantly lower rates than battering men do. For example, Stark and Flitcraft (1988) found that half of the batterers also abused the children, compared to 35% of the battered women. Straus (1983) reports that his first national survey found that batterers were twice as likely as battered women to abuse their children more than two times a year. Battered women were twice as likely as nonbattered women to abuse their children more than two times a year.
Although women often make decisions about safety and the future of their relationship based on their concerns about their children, systematic data on womens perceptions of their childrens risks have not been collected. Studies do suggest that as the abuse women experience becomes more frequent and severe, more of womens energy becomes focused on their own survival. Unfortunately, these are precisely the circumstances when children are more likely to be abused as well. This means that the worse the womans abuse, the more concerns and questions the advocates should have about any children in the household.
Review of risks to children is complex and requires a thorough understanding of the battered mothers risk analysis. In reviewing mothers analyses for their children, the advocate must distinguish among mothers who have little or no options and therefore have taken little action to address their childrens risks; mothers who have tried to take action but have not successfully reduced the risk; and mothers who have not tried to respond at all. The distinction will help determine when advocates must take action unilaterallywithout the mothers involvementto protect the children. Unilateral action typically means making a report to state child protective services. When reports must be made to child protective services, advocates have urged that interventions be planned and coordinated so that women are not inaccurately blamed or their relationships with their children jeopardized, and that womens safety needs are considered as child protection service workers interview family members and plan services. As Peled (1996) notes, Child protective services should support and collaborate with the efforts of battered womens advocates to protect battered women and their children from further abuse. The perpetrator of violence must be held accountable not only for the abuse of his partner but also for the emotional abuse of the witnessing children.
The figure on the next page summarizes several types of battered mothers risk analyses and plans for their children and the suggested advocate responses, including when unilateral action is necessary.
Figure 1: Considerations for Action by Advocates to Respond to Children at Risk
Davies, Jill and Eleanor Lyon, Safety Planning With Battered Women, SAGE Publications:
Reflection Exercise #1