Protecting Children from Exposure to Domestic Violence: The Use and Abuse of Child Maltreatment Statutes

145 Pages Posted: 7 May 2002


In the past two decades, researchers have amassed an impressive body of empirical data demonstrating the deleterious impact of exposure to interparental violence on children. Policymakers are now confronted with the question of how society can best prevent children's exposure to domestic violence and assist those children already exposed. A range of policy initiatives aimed at promoting the well-being of exposed children has emerged in the last several years. Whereas some statutory trends have been lauded by a broad range of constituencies, others have engendered substantial controversy. There is particularly vociferous debate about statutes that bring children exposed to domestic violence under the dependency jurisdiction of the juvenile court. This Article evaluates the soundness of this approach from theoretical and practical standpoints, and makes recommendations as to the types of statutes that are most likely to achieve their stated goals, while minimizing unintended negative consequences. This Article begins by reviewing the various types of statutes enacted to protect children from exposure to domestic violence. It then examines the history, philosophy, and traditional roles of the child protection system in the United States. It analyzes how childhood exposure to domestic violence meshes with the current mandates of, and goals served by, the juvenile court's dependency jurisdiction. The Article then focuses on the approaches taken by several U.S. states and Canadian provinces to use their child protection systems to address the needs of children exposed to domestic violence. Some states have interpreted existing statutes as reaching this population; others have passed statutes specifically expanding the state's definition of child maltreatment; and still others have made internal shifts in child protective services' handling of domestic violence cases. This Article evaluates the efficacy of these strategies, and articulates a blueprint for legal reform.

Keywords: domestic violence, child protection, child maltreatment, family law, children and families

Suggested Citation

Weithorn, Lois A., Protecting Children from Exposure to Domestic Violence: The Use and Abuse of Child Maltreatment Statutes. Available at SSRN: or

Lois A. Weithorn (Contact Author)

UC Hastings Law ( email )

200 McAllister Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
United States
415-565-4660 (Phone)
415-565-4865 (Fax)

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