By Stephanie Thurrott
When children live in households where domestic violence occurs, they face an increased likelihood of physical harm or even death. According to a 2018 report from The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and Firearms, 30 to 60 percent of children living in these households are victims of direct child abuse themselves. And at least 636 children have been murdered by a parent in a domestic violence situation in the past 10 years in the U.S.
Kathleen Russell is the executive director of the Center for Judicial Excellence, an organization working to strengthen the family court system to help protect vulnerable children and says the murder of children in these homes could be foreseen.
“A large body of research shows that someone likely to abuse their ex- or current spouse is much more likely to abuse children as well,” she says. “So often the media reports on child homicides as if they happen out of the blue—as if they are one-off crises or tragedies—when these are predictable and preventable homicides.”
In cases where a child is killed in a household where an abuser is perpetrating domestic violence, “It’s often an extension of the power and control dynamic found so often in domestic violence relationships,” she adds. She also notes that while mothers sometimes kill their children, their research has found it’s far more often fathers than mothers who commit these “revenge killings.”
Working to Improve Protection
Russell says that the family law system needs to be overhauled with more training for judges and others who work in the system.
“The moment of separation is most deadly for the survivor who is leaving,” she says. She doesn’t think this volatile time is taken seriously enough, with adequate resources in place to protect survivors and their children.
“Sadly, I know domestic violence survivors who tried to leave their abusers, and once they see that the court system is not protecting them, they go back to the abuser to protect their kids,” she says. “The reality is that judges routinely think that children having a relationship with the abuser is better than no relationship at all, yet research shows there’s more danger in ongoing contact than in none.”
Advocates are pushing for better protection for children, and they’re making progress. The House of Representatives passed a resolution encouraging states to consider the risk of domestic violence when making assessments in family court. “It’s not binding law, but it gives direction to states,” Russell explains. Resolutions like these often prompt states to pass their own laws—a similar resolution became law in California last year.
What Survivors Can Do
To best protect themselves and their children, it’s important that survivors understand their risk. “A lot of women are isolated in their experience and their relationship, so they don’t understand the lethality of the person they are with,” she says. “In so many of these child homicides, the victim herself has no idea [her partner] would abuse the children.”
Survivors should also recognize that attempted strangulation is a strong signal that their abuser could kill them. “If there’s been an attempted strangulation, they really need to put security measures in place to ensure that when they do escape there are extra protocols in place to protect them and their kids,” she says.
She recommends that survivors have a safety plan in place for themselves and their kids, and know that the people in the family law system may not understand violence and abuse. Documenting abuse before leaving the abuser and not dropping charges can help survivors support their case in family court.
For mothers who are fighting for custody of their children, know that you are not alone. Read about the Battered Mothers Custody Conference for more information.