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Journal Issue: Domestic Violence and Children Volume 9 Number 3 Winter 1999

The Legal System's Response to Children Exposed to Domestic Violence
Nancy K.D. Lemon

Summary

Historically, the legal system has not responded adequately, if at all, to cases involving domestic violence. In the past two decades, U.S. courts and law enforcement agencies have increasingly acknowledged the seriousness of domestic violence and have developed responses to it. Unfortunately, the legal system has been slower to recognize the impact of domestic violence on children. This article highlights four key areas of case law in which the courts have begun, in varying degrees, to examine the effects of domestic violence on children: child custody and visitation, restraining orders, failure to protect a child from harm, and termination of parental rights. A survey of appellate cases since 1990, though not representative of all cases, shows an ongoing need for mandatory judicial training on domestic violence and its effects on children, greater clarity about how to interpret relevant laws, changes in the laws to better serve children, and the renewal of national funding for legal aid programs. Courts and law enforcement agencies in some locales have implemented innovative programs to improve their interventions with children exposed to domestic violence. These programs include coordinated court responses, child development training for police officers, multidisciplinary team approaches, and supervised visitation centers. However, few of these programs have been evaluated for overall effectiveness in improving outcomes for children. Better evaluation is needed, as is ongoing funding for the replication of successful programs nationwide. A companion article by Matthews in this journal issue examines federal laws and policies with regard to domestic violence and children, and reviews many of the state statutes on which the court decisions discussed here are based.