NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

April 4th, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

One small niche in the generally anti-father discipline known as social work has been developing over the years.  It’s a subset of the larger and much more prominent area of domestic violence studies in which the preference has been


to describe all domestic abuse as perpetrated by men whose victims are invariably women.  As I’ve reported before, it’s that very concept that researchers Margaret Brinig and Douglas Allen have found to be the primary factor in thwarting the State of Oregon’s efforts to achieve greater shared parenting post divorce. Briefly, back in 1997 the State of Oregon passed an amendment to its custody laws that legislators hoped would bring down the level of sole custody awarded by family courts.  Of course the new law included an exception to the rule of shared custody in cases of domestic violence or child abuse.  The law went into effect in 1998 and, five years later, Brinig and Allen studied the results.  They weren’t good.  Far from moving children into post-divorce arrangements in which they had significant contact with both parents, the number of sole custody rulings in the state actually increased.

Why?  Brinig and Allen were clear.  It was precisely the domestic violence “out” that thwarted the legislature’s intentions.  After the law’s enactment, claims of DV in family courts shot up.  More interesting still, the researchers found that judges proved far less willing to substantiate claims of domestic violence when they were made by fathers than when mothers brought the charges.  It seems they imposed higher evidentiary burdens on fathers than on mothers.  That of course is a direct reflection of the disgracefully biased coverage of family violence issues by the mainstream media.  We’ve known the truth about domestic violence for decades, but office holders, the DV industry and the press are dogged in their refusal to admit it and alter public policy accordingly.

So it should come as no surprise that, for example, the Violence Against Women Act has, over almost 20 years of trying, entirely failed to reduce levels of intimate partner violence.  That’s the conclusion drawn by researchers at the Bureau of Justice Statistics and by any impartial reading of the data.  After all, when you refuse to admit that half of domestic violence even exists, what are your chances of decreasing its incidence?

The Brinig and Allen study plus the anecdotal evidence of countless fathers who’ve seen their children snatched away based solely on unsubstantiated allegations of domestic violence make it clear that a cry of DV is a tried and true method of denying children the love and protection of their dads.

In the mean time, the domestic violence industry has been hard about the project of going a step further.  That next step has in fact been taken in Australia and those who never heard of an abused man or a woman who abuses are hoping for the same to happen here and elsewhere.  That step is the acceptance into law and public policy of the notion that if a child witnesses domestic violence, the child is traumatized.  And of course no child who’s been traumatized can be permitted a relationship with the adult who did the foul deed.  Or so, at any rate, goes the theory of those who never cease their search for new and more inventive ways to marginalize fathers in the lives of their children.

Therefore, if Dad shouts at Mom in little Andy or Jenny’s presence he stands to lose custody.  Never mind that, like it or not, parents sometimes shout at each other; they sometimes push or shove each other; they sometimes slap each other.  This is not ideal behavior to be sure, but it happens, and sometimes in Andy or Jenny’s presence.  Does such behavior damage the child?  The anti-dad crowd claims it does and, as I mentioned, convinced the Australian Parliament to require judges to consider same in their decisions regarding custody.  Exactly what those judges are to do in cases in which both Mom and Dad have shouted at each other in junior’s presence remains an open question.  But whatever the outcome of such a case, Australia already gives sole or primary custody to mothers over 90% of the time, so it’s doubtful that fathers there will be able to avail themselves of the new law to the extent mothers will.

Of course the main issue is (or should be) whether the trauma to the child of witnessing domestic violence is greater than the trauma to him/her of losing a parent to the dicates of family court.  Strangely, that’s not a question the anti-dad crowd ever gets around to answering even though it’s the only one that’s really important.

But what is the reality behind the claim, on which the Australian legal provision is based?  Few will be surprised to learn that the science on the subject is sketchy at best.  In fact, a new study has recently been published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence that, to say the least, calls into question the entire claim that a child’s witnessing domestic violence is itself damaging to the child.

Dr. Laura Hickman and colleagues studied over 700 children whose average age was a little over five.  These were overwhelmingly the children of single mothers, few of whom were employed.  Hickman, et al asked the mothers to give information on the lifetime experiences of the children regarding a range of exposures that might be traumatic for them.  Those were things like physical or sexual abuse, witnessing domestic violence between adults, having their homes broken into, etc.  On average, the children were exposed to almost 15 such incidents in their short lifetimes.  And, as the authors noted, because the mothers may have forgotten other incidents or hesitated to admit/report them, there were probably more.

In any case, the strong finding of the study was that, with one exception, no single category of abuse correlated with a decline in child well-being.  That exception was for sexual abuse that was correlated with symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Otherwise, what was required to show a detrimental impact to the child was “polyvictimization,” i.e. multiple incidents of victimization in more than one category.  Indeed, when it came to child well-being, even high exposure to a single category of abuse was insufficient to produce negative outcomes.  Therefore, even many exposures to domestic violence between Mom and Dad produced no detrimental effects on the children.  The same was true for all other categories except that of sexual abuse.

No single category of violence exposure independently influenced child behavior problems or parenting stress.  Polyvictimization alone emerged as the significant predictor of these symptoms….

Taken together, these finding suggest that total lifetime exposure is not particularly important to negative symptoms, nor is any particular category of exposure after controlling for polyvictimization, with the single exception of sexual abuse and PTSD symptoms.  Instead it is the mix of exposure experiences that predict negative impacts on children.  These results are counter to the growing chorus of concerns about children witnessing violence in particular.  At least among the young children recruited to participate in an intervention due to their identified violence exposure, witnessing violence alone did not influence symptoms.  Children were negatively impacted when they had multiple exposures of any sort.  The amount and category of exposure was largely unimportant except in the case of trauma symptoms and experiences of sexual abuse.

It’s true that legislatures and courts have nearly non-existant records of heeding the abundant social science on child well-being.  For reasons best known to them, they seem to believe they already know what’s best for kids and the fact that they clearly don’t is just so much chaff in the wind.  So I don’t expect Hickman’s study to slow the anti-father train a bit.  Still, it’s worth keeping up with the science.  Who knows, some day someone may decide children’s welfare is worth a little reading.

Thanks to Laura Hickman for graciously providing me with her study.

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