Defining Child Exposure to Domestic Violence: Lessons from a Historical Review of the Literature

Stephenie Howard


Child witnesses of domestic violence policies and practices have been fraught with conceptual challenges that limit their implementation. Such limitations are evident in the case of Minnesota, which amended their definition of child neglect to include a child’s exposure to family violence, only to later repeal this amendment in response to pressure from child welfare administrators and domestic violence advocates (Edleson, Gassman-Pines, & Hill, 2006; Kantor & Little, 2003). The conceptual flaws are also evident in disparities across state statutes for definitions of child witnesses of domestic violence and the legal penalties it carries (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2021).

To enhance the integrity of child witnesses of domestic violence policies and practices, critical attention is needed to clarify and refine the central construct. Pursuant to this goal, this conceptual paper analyzes and synthesizes the history of child welfare. It demonstrates how child witnesses of domestic violence became a social and legal problem. The author traces the evolution of child welfare as a concept and provides new insights. The author also sheds light on the driving forces of child welfare policies and practices. The paper begins in the colonial ages, which gave roots to the contemporary child welfare system. The author describes the early development of child welfare leading to contemporary practice. The paper ends by making evidence-based recommendations for constructing child welfare policies that enhance the safety of children exposed to domestic violence using least restrictive interventions.


Child Witnesse of Domestic Violence; Family Violence; Intimate Partner Violence; Child Maltreatment; Child Welfare

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