Research Watch

Exposure to domestic violence as abuse and neglect: Constructions of child maltreatment in daily practice

Year of Publication
Reviewed By
Tareq Hardan

Henry, C. (2018). Exposure to domestic violence as abuse and neglect: Constructions of child maltreatment in daily practice. Child Abuse & Neglect, 86, 79-88.


An explicit definition of Child Exposure to Domestic Violence (CEDV) as a type of child maltreatment is lacking in the United States. Administrative data showed that CEDV allegations are likely to nest within child maltreatment typologies (e.g., physical abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect). This lack of explicit definition of CEDV could obscure CEDV prevalence rate among child welfare involved families and the child welfare response to this phenomenon. It also could conflate CEDV allegations with other maltreatment types leading to inaccurate co-occurrence estimation.

This study examines how workers construct specific parental acts and omissions related to CEDV as a type of child maltreatment, by looking at the labels workers apply (i.e. allegation types), the judgments they make (i.e. dispositions), and the actions they take (i.e. interventions). Findings suggest that CEDV prompted initial investigations, and workers often categorized alleged CEDV as an emotional abuse compared to other types of child maltreatment. Also, workers documented similar types of CEDV in different ways in administrative data systems, pointing that they misunderstood and/or chose to disregard assessment guidelines and/or failed to fully document the persistence, severity, effect, or potential effects of alleged CEDV in the case record. Moreover, despite substantial evidence indicating CEDV met the agency’s safety threat criteria, workers did not consistently document CEDV as a threat to child safety in their assessment tool.

Implications of this study include 1) Safety assessment data alone should not be used to estimate the prevalence of known CEDV among referred and investigated households. 2) While most CEDV referred households to the agency were linked with domestic violence services. However, little is known about the efficacy of these services in addressing the underlying risk and safety concerns. 3) Workers’ inconsistent construction of CEDV may occur due to agency workers’ role duality (helper and investigator). This study recommends more training to help workers assess and consistently document the adverse effects of CEDV, also, agency should prioritize collaborations between different state and community based systems to ensure that all family members receive needed support.

Methodological Notes

This descriptive study highlights the needs for new policy and practice guidelines about how child welfare and other service systems can better document and respond to CEDV. Three-stage mixed method case study analysis was conducted. Quantitative and qualitative data were extracted to create a retrospective database of case records. These records were obtained from California Child Services/ Case management systems (CWS/CMS) and child welfare risk and safety assessment in the structured decision making tool (WebSDM). A random sample of 295 households was reviewed out of 2051 selected records. These case records were referred to and investigated by California public Welfare agency between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012.

Further research is suggested to better understand how agency and worker-level factors affect maltreatment construction and documentation practices. Also, how domestic violence services address CEDV-related harm and work to protect children from future maltreatment.