The Impact of Domestic and Family Violence on Children and Custody

Posted by Chris Smith on August 3, 2020

Domestic abuse is real and its impact on families is not limited to those who find themselves in family law courts. Family law courts deal with the issue on a regular basis though, whether legitimate or contrived as a strategy. Violence between parents poses a considerable psychological and physical risk to the well-being and development of children, however, the development of each child is unique based on the child’s experiences before and after the witnessed abuse as well as the environment in which they find themselves.

Impact of Witnessing Domestic Abuse on Children

By the early 21st century, more than one hundred studies have documented associations between exposure to domestic violence and short- and long-term harmful consequences. The same research that contends that witnessing violence in the home takes a substantial toll on children also underscores that all outcomes of child witnesses to family violence are not the same and may not experience a significant level of impact on their psychology at any one time. (Hughes, Graham-Bermann, & Gruber, 2001). In fact, the research is mixed and unclear on the long-term impact of domestic violence on children. Most professionals share in the belief that witnessing domestic violence between parents is a stressful event that undermines the child’s functioning. In fact, some have ranked witnessing domestic violence on par with experiencing maltreatment, life-threatening illness, and permanent injuries, and include it in a larger constellation of parental interactions with the child that are destructive for the child.

“Watching, hearing, or later learning of a parent being harmed threatens the sense of stability and security typically provided by family.” Linda Baker, Peter G. Jaffe, Steven J. Berkowitz, & Miriam Bergman, Children Exposed to Violence: A Handbook for Police Trainers to Increase Understanding and Improve Community Response, p. 16 (2002). “Children can be traumatized by overhearing beatings as well as by viewing them.” Sandra A. Graham-Bergman, Child Abuse in the Context of Domestic Violence. In John E.B. Myers, Lucy Berliner, John Briere, C. Terry Hendrix, Carole Jenny, & Theresa A. Reid (Eds.) The APSAC Handbook on Child Maltreatment, pp. 119-129, at 124 (2d ed. 2002) (Thousand Oaks, Cal.: Sage). “Watching repeated violent attacks on one’s mother, or between one’s parents, is intrinsically damaging. Children exposed to such violence fear for their mother and for themselves. Living in constant apprehension of the next outburst of violence takes a toll. Abusive men often isolate their wife or girlfriend, and the isolation imposed on the woman is visited on the children, cutting off young children from sources of positive feedback and constructive adult role models. See National resources Center on Domestic Violence, Children Exposed to Intimate Partner Violence. (2002) (Harrisburg, Pa.: Author). Myers on Evidence in Child, Domestic and Elder Abuse Cases in a Successor Edition to Evidence in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases, Third Edition by John E.B. Myers.

Even the more common “nonviolent” forms of interparental conflict “have a unique, insidious impact on children’s adaptation,” according to Patrick T. Davies and Melissa L. Surge-Apple. Conflict behaviors such as verbal threats may also predict a wide variety of children’s immediate distress and coping responses to conflict and the child’s long-term psychological well-being. Studies also suggest that children’s ability to cope with interparental discord may depend on the topic or substance of the conflict, for example disagreements about child-rearing and marital issues may have a greater impact on children than disagreements over social or work issues.

“Between 1992 and 1996, only about half of female victims of domestic violence reported their victimization of law enforcement.” Lucy Salcido Carter, Lois A Weithorn, & Richard E. Behrman, Domestic Violence and Children: Analysis and Recommendations, 9 The Future of Children 4-20, at 10 (1999). However, the reporting of domestic violence perpetrated upon men is likely underreported at a great extent.  Women are also violent toward their husbands, however, the danger to a woman of such behavior is that it sets the stage for the husband to assault her. The fact that the wife slaps the husband sets a precedent and justification for him to hit her when she is being obstinate, or “bitchy” or “not listening to reason” as he may see it. Obstacles remain in identifying how the gender of the domestic violence perpetrator impacts the long-term development of the child due to the predominant emphasis of research on male violence in samples of battered women and limited research analyzing male and female domestic violence. It is hypothesized that the gender of the perpetrator may impact child problems, however, domestic violence is a significant risk factor for the child regardless of the gender of the abuser.

Children model the behavior of their parents and the observation of interparental conflict raises the risk of learned behaviors on the part of the child the mirrors the parents behavior, but age is acknowledged as a potential moderator in some models of impact of domestic violence on children. Some evidence exists to support the argument that preschool age children may be more vulnerable to the impact of witnessing domestic violence in the home than older children. The most conclusive studies have documented consistent associate between domestic violence and child maladjustment across preschool, middle school, and adolescent age groups though.

Domestic violence is a public health problem and the treatment of children who have witnessed domestic abuse is a mental health issue that must be addressed within the process of family law cases involving the issue. Research on how to best develop those therapeutic tools continues to evolve and develop as more information is known to professionals, but parents who find themselves in a home with family violence must take action to protect their children from exposure to such or risk witnessing the adverse effects in their children long-term.

Impact of Domestic Abuse on Family Law Cases

Oklahoma and Texas have both implemented laws which create a presumption that a parent who has been found to have perpetrated family violence should not have custody of their children. In Oklahoma, a proceeding where custody is an issue and the court determines that domestic violence, stalking , or harassment has occurred raises a rebuttable presumption that sole custody, joint legal or physical custody, or any shared parenting plan with the perpetrator of domestic violence, harassing, or stalking behavior is detrimental and not in the best interest of the child, and it is in the best interest of the child to reside with the parent who is not a perpetrator of domestic violence, harassing or stalking behavior. 43 O.S. Section 109.

Oklahoma defines “domestic violence” as the threat of the infliction of physical injury, any act of physical harm or the creation of a reasonable fear thereof, or the intentional infliction of emotional distress by a parent or a present or former member of the household of the child, against the child or another member of the household, including coercive control by a parent involving physical, sexual, psychological, emotional, economic or financial abuse. Also, if a parent relocates as a result of an act of domestic violence by the other parent, the absence or relocation shall not be a factor that weighs against the parent in determining custody or visitation.

Victims of domestic violence will be protected by courts when a visitation schedule and parenting plan is implemented, but domestic violence does not prevent the party from having a relationship with their child. Oklahoma law provides that if the children and victim can be kept safe, visitation may be ordered with considerations being put in place.  43 O.S. Section 111.1 Further, in Oklahoma, domestic violence may impact whether a case can be mediated or not if it is determined the alleged victim can’t negotiate with the other party.

Texas defines “family violence” as an act by a member of a family or household against another member of the family or household that is intended to result in physical harm, bodily injury, assault, or sexual assault or that is a threat that reasonably places the member in fear of imminent physical harm, bodily injury, assault, or sexual assault, but does not include defensive measures to protect oneself. Tex. Fam. Code Section 71.004.

If family violence is established in Texas, the perpetrator could be excluded from the family residence and such a finding opens the door for the victim to receive support alimony that may not otherwise be available to them. Texas maintains a rebuttable presumption that both parents be appointed as joint managing conservators (or joint custodial parents), unless there is a finding’s got family violence. Tex. Fam. Code Section 153.131. Furthermore, the court may not appoint joint managing conservators if credible evidence is presented of a history or pattern of past or present child neglect, or physical or sexual abuse by one parent directed against the other parent, a spouse, or a child, including a sexual assault. Tex. Fam. Code Section 153.004. 


Domestic violence in the home has a negative impact on children who witness it. A family environment that involves regular marital strife can have a long-term developmental impact on the children in the home. Additionally, courts are going to take into account evidence of family violence and domestic abuse in making a determination of custody and visitation orders and may go so far as to prohibit unsupervised visitation between the perpetrator and the children. In any case, the safety and well-being of the children are paramount.

If you are the victim of domestic violence or if you believe a child is being abused or neglected, immediately call 1-800-522-3511 in Oklahoma, or 1-800-252-5400 in Texas.



Tags: Family Law, Child Custody, Abuse Allegations