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Children and Domestic Violence

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Is domestic violence a public health issue? How does it affect children? Jayne O’Donnell and Mabinty Quarshie, in USA TODAY, tackled this unsettling issue recently. They cited new research that offers long-term insight into the effects of domestic abuse on the children who live in homes torn by domestic strife. Their conclusion? “Witnessing abuse,” they write, “carries the same risk of harm to children’s mental health and learning as being abused directly.”

“Studies show that when babies born to mothers who were subjected to violence during pregnancy become adults, they have three times as much inflammation in their bodies as those whose mothers weren’t,” the authors write. “Inflammation causes a much higher risk of poor health, and a far greater likelihood of depression. And research also shows that these children are as likely to have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as soldiers returning from war.”

The problem is as pervasive as it is unsettling. “Researchers estimate that between 4.5 million and 15 million children are exposed to physical violence in the home,” the authors explain. “Verbal and emotional abuse in the home is more difficult to track. Social workers, health care providers and academics have long tracked the effects of trauma suffered by children growing up in urban neighborhoods with frequent gunfire and other violence. But outside of medical journals, there has been little reporting on the effect of the more common domestic violence on the millions of children who grow up on the residential battlefields where it occurs.”

This is painful but incredible news. It underscores just how bad domestic violence and abuse are, not just for the direct victims, but for those witnessing it. The research also underscores a parallel problem: There are chronic shortages in the United States of pediatric mental healthcare providers. Right now, finding such a provider can entail long waits, high costs, and frustrating scheduling limitations. While innovations like telemental health are starting to improve the situation, it will be a long time before these shortages of have been resolved. What we’ve now learned just makes the need for pediatric mental healthcare that much more important in cases of domestic abuse and violence in the home.

How do you deal with domestic violence in the home, particularly when it is indirect? Have you dealt with cases of children who witnessed, but were not themselves the victims of, domestic violence? How would you choose to approach this issue if it were up to you? We welcome your thoughts and considered opinions on this difficult matter.

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