How Domestic Violence Intersects With Child Abuse
States have a duty to properly define both, in order to protect victims.
So elusive is the connection between domestic violence and child abuse, that I myself struggled to understand why I cared about it enough to write this story. My parents never fought physically, and never in front of us, but we heard them. Searching my memory for what I heard in their fights, I was stunned — of course.
Domestic violence starts in the eyes of a child witness. Unchecked, it self-perpetuates, creating a multi-generational Mobius Strip.
For years I heard my psychiatrist father express exaggerated contempt for my mother, listened to him belittle her. Little electric threats ran between them like pulses of dangerous current — there, startling, then gone. Drifting behind them, five small sets of eyes, confused and alert to intangible danger.
He often laughed cruelly at her in unfunny conversational pauses. One night in my bed I heard his dark, psychotic laughter, coming from their bedroom. I heard nothing from her. Listening, I felt as though I vibrated so hard I might vomit. I woke several times that night, strained to listen… still he laughed. Years passed, then one day she shared: that night she told him she was leaving. In response he looked at her, got a chair from the dining room, put it beside the mattress on the floor where she lay, sat and laughed over her — for hours.
When he was home, there were labyrinthine games between them. In his absence she beat us, sweating with effort. When he returned, he scrubbed blood from the tip of the belt that hung in his closet and wrote doctor’s excuses to keep at bay our P.E. classes, which would have meant uniform shorts exposing colorfully striped little legs. And so it went.
Here’s what I know, looking back upon those years: the long-term damage my mother inflicted through verbal cruelty and neglect was actually greater than the wounds from her flailing arm. The residues of my parents’ treatment of each other reached into my first marriage. Doomed from the start, it was filled with mutual control games and poison.
Emotional, psychological bruises and scars aren’t apparent in even careful examination of the body. They have “tells”, if you tune in: small shoulders chronically and protectively pulled ‘round the heart, eyes watchful, wary, even empty.
But the mind holds a bruise much longer than skin. The mind, that elusive wizard charged with subconsciously creating protective spells, is powerful. It’s also paradoxically delicate, as easily marred as a butterfly’s wing. Though the brain’s power lies in its ability to adapt under pressure, the very adaptations it creates to survive often wreak havoc more long-lasting than the memories of what created them.
As a former victim, I wonder:
How equipped are state and local victim assistance systems to identify and respond to child psychological/emotional abuse and its intersection with domestic violence?
To answer this question to my own satisfaction, I dug into state and national dot govs dedicated to child abuse. The U.S. Government’s own description of emotional abuse and its impact is comprehensive. Specifically, a link in a fact sheet dedicated to the topic, lists “exposure to domestic violence between parents” as a defined characteristic of child psychological abuse. Another fact sheet notes that child witnesses often become perpetrators of same, within adult relationships. This is an important acknowledgment of intersectionality. But in a searing example of divided perspectives even within government, Donald Trump’s Justice Department in 2018 changed the federal definition of Domestic Violence to one in which psychological abuse is notably absent.
Beyond the sometimes convoluted platforms offered by federal guidelines, each state is tasked with creating its own statutes to define and respond to abuse. Here’s where established victim support systems can run into difficulty.
Twenty-one states include meaningful attention to this topic within their definitions and policies on abuse. Idaho started 2020 by acknowledging this issue through legislation adding psychological and emotional markers to their definition of domestic violence. Montana includes undue influence from a caregiver resulting in false allegations (a clear nod to Parental Alienation), and causing a child to witness acts of domestic violence.
Some states have deeply problematic statutes: New Jersey, for example, requires that a child first be “institutionalized” before guidelines define circumstances as abusive. How does waiting to help kids until they need inpatient psych care leave any clear path to identification of psychological or emotional causes? By then isn’t it a bit too late for young minds? These are institution-oriented, rather than child rescue-oriented, statutes.
We have to offer police, social workers, and mandated reporters of all kinds a solid foothold from which to identify and address a child in need of intervention for psychological trauma. Daily, children present with juddering pain in their psyche that would be visible and actionable if only state child advocates were given training breadcrumbs and legislative permission. As our structure stands, social workers often have little choice but to rubber-stamp and return humanity’s smallest treasures to violent homes.
I am a living example of this practice. Despite neon signs pointing to extreme issues, my family was rubber-stamped back into action by two different states’ “child protective” services. The feeling I experienced nearly 50 years ago, that no one could see or help me, is one I wish no child to have. We all know more now. Can’t we consolidate and better use this knowledge?
Not all psychological abuse is intentionally or punitively aimed at the child. Parental Alienation, for example, is a kind of psychological abuse. Parents with unconscious attachment wounds blindly act out past dramas on the stage which now holds their children as imprisoned familial actors. When my parents divorced, and later in my own divorce and remarriage, I experienced firsthand how utterly devastating this phenomenon is and how few actionable resources exist to address it. I’d like to see legislation on the national level to help parents and children targeted by this practice — like Jess and Kim, in the story below.
In 2012, after 8 years of dating and 2 years of marriage, Kim* and her then wife Bobbie* had a daughter, Jess, through a clinical fertilization method. As often seems to be the case, the arrival of their daughter marked the beginning of the end. Bobbie had acted with escalating violence toward Kim: knocking her head into a side window while she drove, punching walls beside her head, and breaking into the bathroom to confront her after she locked herself within during a dispute.
There were also confessions from Bobbie, recanted and never properly documented, that she had abused their child when she was a baby. Kim more than once watched baby Jess cringe away from Bobbie. She fought within herself to deny conscious admission of what that might mean had already happened to little Jess in her absence.
When in 2014 they separated, state laws under the soon-to-be-repealed Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) did not recognize Kim as Jess’s parent. This legal loophole paved the way for Bobbie to pack Jess into her car and move from the southeast across the country to Washington state, into the house where her new boyfriend lived with a second girlfriend.
Immediately after she moved, Bobbie took advantage of loopholes in a system she had once navigated tenuously as a gay wife and mom. She unapologetically sought to strip Kim’s parentage away from her. Bobbie’s legal narrative pandered directly to the kind of entrenched legal bigotry rampant in the Southern state she’d just left behind. Thankfully, her new state disagreed. They immediately affirmed Kim’s status as “natural parent”, paving the way for her to stay as involved in the next few years as she had always been in the first.
Across the next four years Kim fought in court to keep access to and regain custody of her child. She and Jess saw each other as frequently as Bobbie would allow, and set up online visitation. Often Kim would fly to see Jess, only to be told she could not. Meanwhile, Bobbie continued to be abusive toward Kim, this time in subtler ways for which there is little recourse. She lived for years under domestic violence through litigation — sometimes called “stalking by way of the courts” and was subjected to extreme Parental Alienation (AB-PA),** sometimes also referred to as Hostile-Aggressive Parenting.
Unrelentingly constructing one of the most devastating circumstances a parent can ever endure, Bobbie did everything she could to discredit Kim to little Jess and even to erase Kim’s very existence. Bobbie held her new boyfriend out to schools, doctors, and Jess herself as Jess’s biological dad. She blocked Kim’s ability to access or participate in Jess’s medical care. She maligned Kim to teachers and other children’s parents as a deadbeat mom, planting questions with sideways glances and fake carrot-yanks of gossip never fully given flesh. Bobbie knit a narrative within both Jess and Kim: Kim had no legal rights to Jess, because she wasn’t a “flesh and blood parent” and Bobbie was the “biological birth mother”. (Similar arguments have been used for decades to malign and neutralize fathers, with varying degrees of success.)
Children are sponges: Jess soaked up these destructive sentiments, telling Kim she wasn’t her real mom because Jess didn’t come out of Kim’s tummy. Eventually, as so many alienated children understandably do, she told Kim she hated her, didn’t want to be with her anymore. The circumstances Jess was exposed to as a result of Bobbie’s nearly successful campaign against Kim created a schism in Jess’s psyche that became more and more visible to those with shrewd and caring eyes.
One day while Kim was on Skype with now four year-old Jess, Bobbie so frightened Jess that she wet her pants. Passing by the room, Bobbie saw Jess standing on the edge of her bed, something Jess was apparently forbidden to do. Suddenly, Bobbie stopped in her tracks and angrily screamed at Jess, at what sounded like the top of her lungs. The computer mic picked up raw distortion as the feed was overwhelmed. “I’m sorry Mama, I’m sorry, I’m sorry Mama I’m sorry!!” Jess, instantly crying and frightened, dove under the covers and cringed. Bobbie lunged on camera and then quickly reversed out of view, still raging.
Once she was gone, Jess, sobbing, pulled off her wet panties and looked around the room for a place to hide them. Kim cried, watching Jess withdraw into herself with disturbing signals of mental anguish. She moved about her room, clearly trying to pull herself together, growling broken-record style through gritted teeth: “I’ve been a bad girl and I deserve to be punished. I’ve been a bad girl and I deserve…”
Kim watched from across the country with growing fear as these stories accumulated. Jess had been proudly potty trained for years, but one day the boyfriend Bobbie told Jess and school officials was her biological father dragged her crying down the hallway at the beginning of school, under the stares of children and teachers alike. “Look at the baby!” He was a big man, his voice and grip both strong: “The baby’s wearing diapers! See what happens to babies? Look at her! She’s wearing diapers!” Learning of this from the school, Kim called the Department of Child Services and alleged psychological abuse. Jess’s school also called DCS, theoretically adding the heft of a complaint by a mandated reporter. In response, Bobbie removed Kim’s access to the school. She could no longer talk to them, no longer see anything but the barest of school records.
To DCS, Kim reported that Bobbie, her live-in boyfriend, and his second live-in girlfriend were all dominating four year-old Jess. She had documentation of their own admissions on social media: they ganged up on Jess in screaming sessions; isolated her for hours; regularly stripped her room of all her toys and clothes; put her to bed hungry; “spanked” her if she cried or asked for hugs; made her sit still on the porch for four hours or more; made her sleep in the bathtub as punishment when she wet the bed.
But the state system was unequipped to regard these reports as actionable examples of abusive circumstances. “I’m sorry Ma’am”, one agent said, “if her skin isn’t broken and there are no visible bruises, there’s nothing I can do.” All in all, four such cases were opened with DCS — one by Kim, three others by Jess’s school. One report included actual bruises and an admission by Bobbie that she’d caused them. DCS labeled the results of their apparently perfunctory investigation “resolved” and closed the case. In so doing, they left open a door for Jess to endure years more of the same.
Oh, and the school, who acted so responsibly on Jess’ behalf? Ultimately they joined the ranks of thousands of others in situations like this one. Faced with threats of litigation by Jess’s abusive parents, unable to handle the complexity and weight of the situation, they finally took advantage of an absence. While Bobbie and the boyfriend kept Jess out of school and debated suing them for “falsely” calling DCS, the school wrote to ask that Jess not return. Jess, devastated, was told her school had closed.
As we look to the states to find ways to address situations like these, we find some hope. Thank you, Idaho, for broadening your definition of domestic violence to include psychological and emotional criteria. But what about the kids who live in those impacted homes? Your own Child Welfare office’s definition of child abuse, like the definitions offered by many other states, leaves unacknowledged both the damaged mind and the impact of witnessing domestic violence:
“Abuse is action or inaction by a parent/caregiver which results in skin bruising, bleeding, malnutrition, burns, fracture of any bone, subdural hematoma, soft tissue swelling, failure to thrive or death.”
Death? Must we wait for death?
We know better, Idaho. We know by the time death enters, hundreds of threads were left untended in that child’s life. Threads the state could be positioned to pick up in time.
Responsible attention to family violence asks us to look not just at the stories that tug, but at the cold ground of statute upon which those stories are allowed to fertilize. Looking at the laws, I see the definition of domestic violence on the same state web page acknowledges:
“…psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone.”
What about the kids who watch it happen?
Rachel Louise Snyder, in her 2019 book No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence, gives a distillation of the lifetime consequences for a child who witnesses domestic violence. In the case she highlights, domestic abuse in the home culminated in the death of a parent:
“…however haunting those brittle final seconds, the loss will come to be defined by the buildup of years to come.”
…years to come, over which state-funded services and programs have potential life-changing influence. Can we please hand them the tools to change that potential into reality? Let’s put into place nimbly outfitted oases of national resource, empowered by legislation. Let’s reinforce our social workers with well-defined warning and identification standards. Let’s give their tireless efforts support, through implementation of training to spot symptoms and track instances of psychological and emotional child abuse.
As I write, Kim and Jess are in their eighth year of ongoing hell. Happily, they are at least together. Kim finally gave up trying to reunite Jess with the family she’d had to leave behind, and moved instead to Washington to be with her. Through dogged documentation, she was able to get a keen-eyed Washington court system to see through Bobbie’s self-centered actions, enough to get equally shared custody. Weekly, she loves on her little Jess, then sends her back to her other home. There, Kim is still derided, condemned and called a liar while Jess is fed little pieces of poison, subjected to thousands of tiny paper-cut interactions aimed at eroding their relationship.
Now that Jess is old enough to speak for herself, the maneuvers in the other house are more carefully orchestrated and underhand. The gas-lighting is more skilled and covert. The criticisms they “share” with Kim are blades sheathed in false, strategic “concern”. They offer fabricated allegations more subtle and complex, interwoven with enough neutral truth to make them challenging to combat. Like the physical abuser who learns to punch the gut, where bruises are less visible, they have shifted tactics. Though Jess is fragmented, at least she’s on the radar of several protective systems which are savvy to patterned psychological abuse.
I really wish I could end my story with a dramatic flourish that gives the reader some satisfying resolution. But this is a complex, ongoing issue. Without attention to some of the legislative points I’ve raised, it continues to lack resolution. Domestic violence rages on. Its small victims grow, often perpetuating the cycle of abuse. The best I can offer the reader is this: I came through a terrible, years-long experience and am, though I stumble, a pretty whole person. That’s thanks to the intervention of some amazing professionals when I was a teenager, who undoubtedly saved my life.
Here’s what I ask: let’s inform, arm, and empower more of those.
*names and identifying details have been changed to protect those involved; story details are at times composite but otherwise real.
**AB-PA, or Attachment-Based Parental Alienation, is noted here in contrast to the Gardnerian model of so-called PAS, or Parental Alienation Syndrome. The author feels AB-PA offers a more comprehensive model of Parental Alienation.