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Breaking the Cycle of Family Violence

As empirical research and law enforcement ideology about family violence is changing, the system continues to evolve and become more comprehensive, collaborative and conducive to victims. These victims do not only include the abused but the children who witness and are exposed to family violence. Too many children witness violence within their homes and too many are growing up exhibiting signs of their trauma, including increased substance abuse, school failure,  gang association, anxiety, depression, aggression and many, emulating the behavior, become abusers themselves. Law enforcement professions play an important role in the collaborative effort to help break the cycle of violence.


Although many things are being done in both prevention and intervention of family violence, many things can still be done. Everyone in the chain-of-command, from patrol officers to the chief of police can help decrease the impact of domestic violence in their community. With the right training, initial and continual, all members of the department gain knowledge of the problem and practical, empirically-based, collaborative efforts for breaking the cycle.




Before looking at how law enforcement can help, here are some statistics:

  • Nearly one in four women in the U.S. report experiencing violence by a current or former spouse or boyfriend in their lifetime (Family Violence Prevention Fund)
  • 15.5 million children in the U.S. live in homes in which partner violence occurred at least once in the last year, and seven million children live in families in which severe partner violence occurred (Family Violence Prevention Fund)
  • In a single day in 2008, 16,458 children were living in a domestic violence shelter or transitional housing facility. Another 6,430 children sought services at a non-residential program (Family Violence Prevention Fund)
  • Sixty percent of American children were exposed to violence, crime, or abuse in their homes, schools and communities (USDOJ)
  • Almost 1 in 10 American children saw one family member assault another family member, and more than 25 percent had been exposed to family violence during their life (USDOJ)
  • Child witnesses of family violence are at a higher risk for substance abuse, failure in school, aggressive behavior and depression. These behaviors can later contribute to violence against future partners and others in their families and communities (IACP)


IACP Summit


In 1997, the International Association of Chiefs of Police met for a summit entitled “Family Violence in America: Breaking the Cycle for Children who Witness.” Participants of the summit which included criminal justice, social, community, education and health professionals, established work groups to develop recommendations for improvements or changes to help “break the intergenerational cycle of family violence.” Although the summit was over fourteen years ago, the principles and guidelines remain valid today. Included in these guidelines were several prevention and intervention principles that must guide all policy development:


  • Both prevention initiatives and intervention services are essential for reducing family violence and its traumatic impact on child witnesses
  • To be optimally effective-prevention efforts should be community-based, coordinated across agencies and settings, and sustained over time
  • To be effective, interventions should be:
    • Introduced as early as possible in the family violence cycle
    • Made available in a timely fashion
    • Readily accessible in a variety of community and agency settings
    • Based on comprehensive assessments of victims, witnesses and family dynamics
    • The least intrusive capable of achieving desired outcomes
    • Build on strengths and resiliencies of families and individuals
    • Culturally sensitive and appropriate
    • Inclusive of follow-up support of families and individuals
    • Based on objective “what works” research findings
  • Law enforcement  responses to family violence and child witnesses should:
    • Prioritize protecting children exposed to violence in their homes
    • Fast-track domestic and family violence cases that involve child witnesses
    • Facilitate immediate supportive, therapeutic, and/or medical intervention on behalf of victims and witnesses, even when arrests are not made, through mandatory referral to health agencies
    • Be based on consistent policies and protocols collaboratively developed by all justice system and service provider agencies


Law Enforcement Recommendations


Recommendations from the Summit recognize the need for training, referral processes and ways for law enforcement to collect data which in turn assists in improving methods. These recommendations include:


  • Prioritize the issue of children who witness family violence at the top of the community policing agenda by convening local summit meetings
  • Ensure that first responders receive comprehensive training to identify, assess and refer children who witness family violence
  • Ensure that first responders receive training in empathy, child development issues and interpersonal and support skills
  • Ensure rapid response to children who witness family violence and support from responding officers
  • Foster interagency, multi-disciplinary training
  • Continually update pre-service, in-service, and continuing education curricula
  • Ensure law enforcement professionals maximize opportunities to speak out about the impacts of family violence on children
  • Collaborate in the development of comprehensive and coordinated assessment and referral protocols to be used by all first responders to family violence incidents
  • Develop consistent incident reporting and recordkeeping systems that facilitate sharing information about victims and witnesses of family violence with all decision makers and service providers
  • Participate in compiling baseline information on the rates of children who witness family violence
  • Help to advocate for resources for a full continuum of effective family violence prevention initiatives and intervention services.


Law enforcement officers, especially first responders are truly on the front line in the battle to break the cycle of family violence. Most officers attempt to make a difference in their communities and with a supportive department that also has understanding and works with other professionals, these officers can assist in negating the trauma children receive as witnesses to family violence. In turn, these officers decrease the chance of that child becoming enmeshed in the criminal justice system as they mature. This benefits the criminal justice system by decreasing the potential for future crimes committed by adults who were once children who witnessed family violence. By recognizing the children of the past are now adults, agencies can also provide resources to assist in dealing with their trauma and preventing a new generation of victims. Due to recognition of the benefits of interagency and multi-disciplinary collaboration, many funding opportunities exist when professionals work together on the common goal of breaking the cycle of family violence. Decreasing crime, increasing physical and mental wellbeing of children as they grow into healthy adults and creating violence-free communities is at the heart of a new initiative by the Attorney General, “Defending Childhood: Protect, Heal, Thrive.” In collaboration, law enforcement agencies and officers across the U.S. can help create healthy, strong communities.


About the Author:

Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. Her credits include Law Enforcement Technology, Police, Law and Order, Police Times, Beyond the Badge, Michigan State Trooper, Michigan Snowmobiler Magazine and Chief of Police. She writes two columns a month for Michelle worked for the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for almost eight years. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. Currently, Michelle works as the Administrative Coordinator at Jasper Mountain a residential psychiatric facility for children. In her spare time, she enjoys being the fundraising coordinator for the Lane Area Ferret Shelter & Rescue, playing her bass, working on her young adult novel Desert Ice and raising her two sons in a small town in Oregon.