This exploratory study examined the challenges faced by prosecutors when children are exposed to domestic violence, the effect of new State laws that define exposure to domestic violence as a form of child abuse, and what prosecutors can do to help battered women and their children.
Data were obtained from a national telephone survey of prosecutors and field research in five jurisdictions. Surveys were completed by 128 prosecutors who represented 93 jurisdictions in 49 States. The survey focused on current prosecutorial practice and promising practices in cases of domestic violence and child victims or witnesses. The survey found that most jurisdictions lacked a systematic way for prosecutors and investigators to identify co-occurring cases of domestic violence and child maltreatment. Of the 35 responding offices with separate domestic violence and child abuse units, none had protocols that directed prosecutors in these units to inquire about co-occurrence or to communicate with one another when relevant cases arose. Most respondents (78 percent) agreed that the presence of children provided added incentive to prosecute domestic violence cases. A majority of prosecutors' offices (58.5 percent) aggressively pursued enhanced sanctions for domestic violence offenders when incidents involved children as victims or witnesses. Three scenarios that involved decreasing degrees of culpability on the part of mothers for the danger to their children were presented to the prosecutors, accompanied by questions about the prosecutor's likely official response to each scenario. Some prosecutors noted that they would consider the mother's experience of domestic violence before reporting or prosecuting them for child abuse. Issues of importance in any charging decision regarding the mother were the severity of injury to the child, the chronicity of the domestic violence, the degree to which the mother actively participated in the child's abuse, and the history of failure to comply with services or treatment plans. Five jurisdictions were selected for in-depth site visits. Three jurisdictions (Salt Lake County, UT; Houston County, GA; and Multnomah County, OR) were in States with laws that explicitly address the issue of children who witness domestic violence. The other sites visited (Dallas County, TX, and San Diego County, CA) lacked specific laws on the issue, but applied creative strategies for addressing it. The study determined that the laws in Utah and Georgia allow children to access crime victims' compensation funds, enable the courts to issue protective orders on a child's behalf, and signal a need to file a report with the child protection agency. The paper advises that additional research is required to examine the impact of criminal justice and social service interventions for domestic violence offenders, victims, and their children. The findings also indicate that prosecutors can find ways to help battered women and their children even in the absence of specific legislation that addresses the issue of children exposed to domestic violence between partners. Based on study findings, recommendations are offered for researchers and practitioners. 2 exhibits and 10 references
Date Published: January 1, 2004