Role of Child Protection Services
last updated 9 February 2009

The connections between child and spouse abuse indicate a strong need for coordination between child abuse and domestic abuse agencies and advocates. In particular, because of the correlation between domestic violence and child abuse, it is critical that agencies that work with abused children are trained to recognize signs of domestic violence and to respond appropriately. Susan Schechter's article, Expanding Solutions for Domestic Violence and Poverty: What Battered Women with Abused Children Need from Their Advocates, discusses some of the specific needs of battered women who have abused children. When a batterer is also abusing a child, the best way to protect the child often is to ensure the safety of the mother.


In the United States, the systems that respond to the needs of battered women and the systems that ensure that children are protected from abuse and neglect have sometimes been in tension with one another. As Linda Spears explains:

In the 1970s, state legislatures created systems to help abused children, and by the 1980s many grassroots women's organizations had set up shelters for battered women. These two response systems were designed with very different mandates, funding, and goals. As a result, tensions and problems now emerge as service providers, the courts, and communities try to more effectively help those families in which violence against women and children is overlapping and intertwined.

From Linda Spears, Building Bridges Between Domestic Violence Organizations and Child Protective Services (February 2000).

The laws governing child protection and child custody in the United States have sometimes had unintended and negative consequences for battered women. For example, child abuse laws that determined custody according to the "best interests of the child" sometimes resulted in determinations that a women was an unfit parent because she did not protect her child from abuse. This was the case even though she was also abused and may not have felt that it was safe for her and her child to leave. Martha Matthews notes that removing children based on the mother's failure to protect them may unfairly penalize women when their "attempts to protect their children are ineffective, or if fear for their safety or their children's safety effectively prevents intervention." Further, Matthews maintains that such laws are based on the "underlying assumption that a 'good mother' will always manage to protect her children from harm" and that this assumption

fails to recognize that many battered parents lack resources to escape quickly from violent situations and feed, clothe, and house their children on their own; that attempts to escape a violent home may actually increase the battered parent's, and the children's, risk of being injured or killed; and that battered parents may, to protect their own and their children's lives in the long term, be compelled to endure abuse until they can develop a safe and effective plan to leave the violent situation.

From Martha Matthews, Addressing the Effects of Domestic Violence on Children. Linda Spears notes, as well, that such responses can be counterproductive and "mean that the ultimate cause of the risk, the abuser, is not being addressed." From Linda Spears, Building Bridges Between Domestic Violence Organizations and Child Protective Services (February 2000).

Another problem arose with laws that required certain people, such as teachers or social workers, to report signs of child abuse. Mandatory reporting without consideration of domestic violence issues may force the woman into a lose-lose situation; when confronted with the signs of abuse, she must either reveal the abuser's responsibility and run the risk of retaliation, or refuse to do so and potentially run the risk of losing custody of her children.

Yet another problem arose when child protection workers required battered women to obtain orders for protection (OFPs) against abusers to avoid losing custody of their children. The child protection workers believed that removing the abuser from the home would increase the safety of the children; with the abuser gone, the children would not longer witness abuse, be abused, or be put in danger of injury because of the abuse. Some child protection workers did not, however, understand that obtaining an OFP could actually increase the danger to a woman and her children, or that women may have already created a safety plan for her children, a plan that could be undermined by seeking an OFP. In addition, women were often ordered to "obtain" an OFP; this approach assumed that "she can meet legal requirements, that the order will be issued by the judge, that it really protects, that the process is accessible to all women, etc." Where an OFP is appropriate, a better approach would be to provide that the woman should "seek" an OFP. From Stephanie Avalon, Advocacy and the Battered Women's Movement (October 1999).

A final problem arises from the limited choices available to battered women, particularly women with few financial resources. For a women without resources, leaving her home may mean that she may need to "find shelter in a setting that is not conducive to the health and welfare of her children, thus facing child protective intervention." Remaining in the home, however, may put her in danger of losing her children for failing to protect them. From Martha Matthews, Addressing the Effects of Domestic Violence on Children.

A number of jurisdictions in the United States have taken steps to address some of these issues. As Martha Matthews explains, California now allows courts to "consider ordering the violent parent to leave the home, instead of removing the child." Other states allow orders for protection (OFP) to be issued in child protection cases, instead of requiring the non-abusive parent to pursue an OFP in a separate action. Other states "have begun to create statutory presumptions that certain types of behavior, when caused by domestic violence, should not be taken into account when judging a parent's fitness." Yet other jurisdictions are working to integrate the work of child protection and domestic violence advocates, for example, through cross-training or cross-placement. Three states "include statutory defenses in failure-to-protect cases for parents who can prove that attempts to protect the child would have resulted in additional injury to either themselves or the child." From Martha Matthews, Addressing the Effects of Domestic Violence on Children.

Other strategies for coordinating the response of child abuse and domestic violence agencies and advocates can include joint training, the implementation of protocols that require each agency or group to consult with its counterpart, where appropriate, co-location of staff working on these issues, and establishment of collaborative projects. These and other coordinated efforts are described in In Harm's Way: Domestic Violence and Child Maltreatment. Linda Spears also recommends integrating batterers' intervention programs into the child protection response. From Linda Spears, Building Bridges Between Domestic Violence Organizations and Child Protective Services (February 2000).

Recent child trauma research programs in the United States have adopted a "dual victim treatment" approach. This approach is based on the premises that mother and child witnesses are dual victims of domestic abuse, and that strengthening the mother-child bond in dual victim cases helps minimize the harm experienced by children. Programs that work to develop the mother-child relationship through counseling report that the children's mental and emotional health improved significantly and that only one in forty-five women returned to her abuser. From Joan Zorza, Health Watch, Violence Against Women 22-6 (Joan Zorza ed., 2002).

All aspects of the coordinated response must be assessed for their impact on both battered women and their children. For example, to ensure that the information contained in child protection agency records will not be used against the woman in custody proceedings or to undermine the family's safety plan, child protection agencies and battered women's advocates must work together to develop confidentiality and privacy policies that balance the agency's need for information with the battered mother's safety and privacy concerns. From Linda Spears, Building Bridges Between Domestic Violence Organizations and Child Protective Services (February 2000).

The Greenbook Initiative is a project designed to help child welfare and domestic violence agencies and family courts work together more effectively to aid families experiencing violence. The Greenbook sets forth recommended principles—designed to further the safety, well-being and stability of victims of family violence and hold batterers accountable—that can be used to guide communities in structuring their responses to these situations. The Greenbook also sets forth specific recommendations for implementing these goals. Effective Intervention in Domestic Violence & Child Maltreatment Cases: Guidelines for Policy and Practice, developed by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, also offers guiding principles that can be used to improve responses to dual violence cases. The Minnesota Department of Human Services offers useful guidelines for responding to situations in which spouse and child abuse are present.

The Toolkit offers recommendations and strategies for designing intervention programs for children affected by domestic violence. Detailed discussion of these intervention strategies, as well as further information about the effects of domestic violence on children, is available in both PDF and text formats. Additional resources on children and domestic violence include Making the Link: Promoting the Safety of Battered Women and Children Exposed to Domestic Violence and Battered Women and Their Children. Janet Carter, Domestic Violence, Child Abuse, and Youth Violence: Strategies for Prevention and Early Intervention, provides an in-depth discussion of the relationship between children's welfare and domestic violence.

For links to research and reports on the role of child protection services, click here.  Also, see the recommendation on the role of child custody in protection order proceedings in the 2008 United Nations expert group report entitled “Good practices in legislation on violence against women" (Section 8.H.ii). For the Russian version of the recommendations of "Good practices in legislation on violence against women," click here.