Child Parent Contact Following Domestic Violence
Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
Abstract & Summary
What follows concerns itself with some recent research into domestic
violence. The author of this article has written a number of articles
on this subject, including the effect of domestic violence on children.
Included in this article is a current piece of research dealing
with domestic violence and contact by the child with a parent following
separation. Also considered, is the prevention and dealing with
the effects of domestic violence, leading to the assessment and
treatment of the child's view on having contact with the parent
who has committed domestic violence. Assessing individuals before
contact with children is considered and the types and sequence of
contact arrangements with a parent involved in domestic violence.
Finally, a question and answer is presented on the subject: "Can
those who commit domestic violence be trusted with contact and possible
care of their child/children?"
Child Parent Contact Following Domestic Violence
The relationship and domestic violence and parental alienation
or parental alienation syndrome has long been noted and yet given
scarce attention when considering contact arrangements once the
parents have parted. There is relatively little research dealing
with the precise aspect of contact between parents who have been
involved in domestic violence issues. This is despite the fact that
the family courts appear to be aware of judging whether there should
be contact or not between children and a parent who has been found
to have been involved in domestic violence, either when it has been
committed by one or both parties.
My own research into domestic violence (Lowenstein, 2005 a,b,c)
indicates that males are still predominantly responsible for domestic
violence but the gap between the genders is narrowing. A study of
child contact issues when there has been domestic violence by one
or both parents, indicates that fathers are responsible for approximately
35% of such incidents and mothers for about 15% (Lowenstein 2009).
In many cases violence occurs by both parents towards one another
The victim tends to be mainly the mother but also sometimes children
when they are involved, or involve themselves, in the altercations
of their parents. Children when old enough frequently come to the
defence of the parent victim. They are clearly anxious and upset
when they note animosity and especially physical or verbal aggression
between their parents.
Many victims of violence accept what occurs or keep quiet about
the "battering" received whether this be from the male or female
parent. Both parents, and especially mothers in the past, have feared
abandonment with economic consequences to themselves. Hence many
of the incidents remain unreported and unresolved. This sometimes
has tragic consequences for the victim and also the perpetrator
and the emotional security of children. One study surprisingly found
that there were a greater number of "mutual" domestic violence cases
rather than it being carried out by one party alone inflicting the
damage on the other (McCarroll et al., 2005).
By 2002 there were approximately twice as many mutual cases of
domestic violence as non mutual cases. The severity of the abuse
tended to be higher towards mothers than fathers. In recent times,
however, as already stated there has been an increase in female
violence towards the male (Henning & Feder, 2004).
Domestic violence is not always in the form of physical aggression
by one or both parties in the relationship. Abuse can be emotional,
economic, financial or sexual abuse, including forcing sex on an
unwilling partner (Honig, 2004). Sometimes there is abuse which
is verbal, spiritual such as criticising the religion of the other,
destruction of property etc.
An abusive relationship comes in three sequences: 1) tension builds
up with the frustration leading to abuse; 2) the abuse itself by
one or other parties or mutual abuse follows; 3) feelings and expressions
of remorse and a desire to make a relationship work once again with
step 1 following this.
The effect of domestic violence on children
As already mentioned, children have great difficulty in coping
with abusive parents. Sometimes the children themselves are injured
in a hostile, physical affray between the partners. This can and
does lead to anxieties for the children involved and a tendency
towards, especially in the young child, being followed by bed wetting,
nail biting, thumb sucking, self mutilation, anxiety, headaches,
tummy aches, low self esteem, insecurity, delayed emotional development,
lack of bonding with one or both parents, as well as depression
and feelings of guilt. Older children may leave home and drift into
asocial and antisocial behaviour patterns.
Problem - The assessment of non custodial and custodial parents
who have committed domestic violence against a partner or been the
victim of domestic violence. Also of concern is contact with the
children following separation of the partners.
Subject - The subjects consisted of 24 consecutive referrals in
relation to one parent seeking contact with a child/children.
Persons committing domestic violence
violent to mothers
violent to fathers
Parents seeking contact with their child/children
Absent fathers seeking contact
mothers seeking contact
|Contact opposed by mother
opposed by father
Success of contact with absent parent
Number of children having successful unsupervised
contact with absent parent
of children failing to have successful contact with absent
of children who have suffered from contact with separated
Preventing and dealing with the effect of domestic violence
on children and possible consequences of domestic violence
There are but two ways in which the previous mentioned symptoms
of domestic violence can be prevented or dealt with:
Parents to accept the need to seek help and treatment while
still together or living physically separated.
Separating the parents who then receive treatment, or separating
the parents on a permanent basis if their treatment proves
unsuccessful. This leaves one parent, usually the mother,
to care for the children on a day to day basis, while father
(sometimes mother) resides elsewhere.
The child/children of families where domestic violence occurs require
to undergo treatment due to their unfortunate experiences while
living with conflict. Following this the possibility of contact
with the absent parent needs to be explored. The way this is carried
out will be discussed later. Of primary importance is to ascertain
whether the child is safe with the absent parent who has committed
domestic violence, or who has been a part of mutual domestic violence
Most parents separated from the home seek contact with their children
(see Table 2), while most parents who have custody of children after
domestic violence tend to resist allowing contact between the children
and the now absent parent (see Table 2). Most alleged domestic violence
perpetrators are males or the domestic violence has been of a mutual
nature (see Table 1).
Virtually all children in a sample studied who have had contact
with an absent parent, have benefited from such contact when it
occurred (see Table 3). It is however, important to ascertain how
the perpetrator of domestic violence will behave towards the child/children
and the child's attitude towards that parent. We will consider this
following which we will concern ourselves with the parent who has
committed domestic violence before contact with children is considered.
The custodial parent should ideally actively encourage the child/children
to participate in the contact with the now absent parent by neither
directly or subtly undermining such contact taking place.
Assessing and treating the child's view on having contact with
the parent who has committed domestic violence
Children who have suffered from domestic violence issues between
parents have frequently been damaged by the experience. They have,
in the process, lost one of the parents and they are undoubtedly
anxious about losing the other one. The child/children have also
been left with fear towards the now absent parent. Additionally,
the attitude of the parent left to care for the child/children is
likely to be hostile toward the now absent parent.
This will have been communicated to the child. The child/children
identify on the whole with the parent who was the victim of the
domestic violence. This frequently leads to the child/children rejecting
the now absent parent. Hence, children are likely to reject. at
least in initially, such absent parents and wishing no contact with
them. This opposition to contact will almost certainly be supported
by the parent who has custody of the child. In the long term however,
it is harmful for children to fail to have contact with a good parent
who is not abusive and has never been abusive towards them.
Hence for two reasons at least, the child/children will resist
contact unless the following occurs: the child's fear of, and animosity
towards the absent parent is treated urgently. The basic tenet of
such treatment is to make the child/children aware of the fact that
while their parents no longer wish to, or can be together, this
does not indicate a lack of love by both parents towards the child/children.
The Court and Social Services including CAFCASS need to be deal
with this being aware of the negative experiences the child has
had and how to overcome these negative experiences. The Court and
Social Services need also to be made aware of the harmful effect
of the process of alienation which is likely to have occurred, and
continues to occur, as practiced by the custodial parent due to
the implacable hostility between the parents. This often leads to
turning the child/children against the now absent parent. This alienation
aims to destroy any positive feelings the child has developed over
time towards the now absent parent with whom the child/children
may have had a close, happy, as well as loving relationship in the
Assessing the absent parent before contact with child/children
The procedure for assessing participants (fathers or mothers) who
are now absent from the family with a view to having contact with
their child/children requires the following steps:
One or more in-depth interviews to ascertain whether the
individual is likely to have a positive or negative effect
on the child.
An assessment of the individual's personality and likely
behaviour during contact using objective and projective personality
Any signs of habitual aggressive behaviour in their personality
towards the child, or habitual misuse of alcohol and/or drugs should
rule out contact (Galvani, 2004). This is at least for the time
being, unless the parent is willing to undergo treatment for the
addiction, following which there may be a re-consideration. The
influence of parents seeking contact with the child/children needs
to be positive and of emotional value to the child. Contact between
a parent and a child/children requires to be immediately curtailed
if a parent shows hostility towards the child/ children whatever
the child's conduct may be.
Children who have been alienated by a parent will frequently not
wish to see the absent parent or will display hostile behaviour
towards the alienated parent for the reasons given in the previous
section. Parents seeking contact must be prepared for this possibility
such as being rejected by the child/children or the child/children
being abusive towards that parent. Despite such behaviour such a
parent should show understanding and love towards the child/children
and not react in a hostile manner.
Those arranging contact need to use a step by step procedure, based
on the individual case in question. Children who have experienced
domestic violence between parents urgently need treatment to counteract
these harmful experiences. Once it has been established that the
individual parent is prepared to face the frequently angry and fearful
child/childrne there is a need for close supervision and observation
in a neutral contact centre. This will be discussed next.
Types of sequence of contact arrangement with a parent involved
in domestic violence
Once the individual seeking contact with a child has been ascertained
as appropriate and the child has equally been assessed, then a sequence
of step by step contact strategies can be implemented. Each case
must be determined on an individual basis. What follows should therefore
be regarded as an illustration of a general rather than an individual
programme, and merely act as guidelines.
Sequence or order of contact:
The initial contact between a child and the absent parent
needs to be supervised in a contact centre. It is essential
to use an intermediary to hand a child over to the contact
centre where the non custodial parent awaits the arrival of
the child. The parents should at no time meet each other or
see each other at the contact centre unless this has been
agreed between both parties. There needs to be close monitoring
of the contact between the child and the parent so that the
child feels comfortable and secure with the interaction with
that parent. The contact may need to be curtailed or interrupted
when there are signs that either the child or parent finds
it painful or difficult to continue. The length of each contact
should be pre-determined as well as the frequency of it. It
all depends on how matters develop during contact. Following
the constant supervision of contact and providing such contact
goes well over a number of sessions, the next step is in order.
The next step is allowing short periods of non supervised
contact between the parent and the child while in the contact
centre, providing the child is happy with this. This could
mean interacting and playing with the child depending on the
child's age within the contact centre and eventually allowing
the parent to take the child out unsupervised for a defined
period to a playground or to have a meal together etc.
Eventually, if all goes well, such unsupervised contact interludes
could be extended to have more contact time, without or with
very limited supervision.
The next step, if all goes well, the parent should be with
the child for one half a day or a full day and extending this
as appropriate etc.
This could be followed by an overnight stay with the absent
parent and later an weekend stay with that parent.
With a mediator, the frequency and time spent with the non
custodial parent can be discussed in advance and decisions
made accordingly. This is best done by establishing the views
of the parents separately. In some cases it may be possible
in some instances to see the previously estranged parents
together providing both agree with this and such meetings
are harmonious. It would obviously to be of value to the child
to see the parents discuss their role of parenting together
and in harmony. This step is only possible when both parents
have conquered their hostility toward on another.
Can those who commit domestic violence be trusted with contact
and possible care of children?
Following an acrimonious separation or divorce, the above question
is frequently asked by the courts. Expert witnesses such as Psychologists
of Psychiatrists are frequently involved in attempting to advise
on a solution. Of primary importance is the safety of the child
while in the presence of the perpetrator(s) of domestic violence
are given secondary consideration. Children suffer significantly
from acts of domestic violence. Therefore there is a need for the
separation of the parents physically and legally. This is because
it is imperative to keep the warring factions with their hostility
apart until some form of harmony has been established via mediation.
This is not always possible and in that case the separation must
continue totally between the parents. An intermediary is needed
in contact cases where children are passed from one parent to another.
Such contact arrangements need to be individualised and carefully
planned in advance with intermediaries involved. Such contacts may
be increased or decreased depending on the circumstances and the
child's "independent" views and needs.
One needs to be aware of certain aspects in such cases:
The alleged or real victim of domestic violence is likely
unjustifiably to oppose contact between a child and the alleged
perpetrator of domestic violence. This is even the case if
the alleged perpetrator has in the past never been aggressive
towards the child. The basis of such opposition to contact
is the implacable hostility the custodial parent feels towards
the how absent parent.
There may in many instances have been domestic violence by
both parties towards one another but the parent who has the
custody of the child is in a much more powerful position to
dictate the terms of contact.
Once the alleged perpetrator(s) and victim of domestic violence
(the child) have been assessed by an expert (Psychologist
or Psychiatrist) decisions can be made as to which type of
contact is in the best interest of the child. This has to
be examined carefully with the parents taking a secondary
role in such contact since it is to the benefit of the child
that is of primary consideration. The motive of the parent
wishing contact with the child needs to be assessed carefully.
The same must be said of the parent who seeks to prevent the
contact of the child with the now absent parent. The decision
on contact and the type of contact must rest with the judiciary
and not either parent.
It should be stated categorically that it would be unfair
and unjust to conclude that because one or both adults have
demonstrated aggression or abuse towards the other that this
automatically means they are likely to display such aggression
or abusive behaviour towards their children. This view is
not always accepted by those who make decisions regarding
a child's contact with a parent.
One must be aware of the fact that the alleged victim of
domestic violence can at times seek to alienate the child
against the now absent parent so that the child is unjustifiably
brainwashed and hence unwilling to seek contact with the now
absent parent. Children are in fact frequently brainwashed
against the non custodial parent by informing children that
their father or mother is likely to be aggressive towards
them. This can only be overcome by frequent good contacts
between the child and the now absent parent from the family.
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