Evaluation of a Protocol for Identification of Woman Abuse in Families with Allegations of Child Abuse or Neglect 

Adapted and updated from Practice & Research, Fall 1994. 

Randy Magen, Ph.D.

Kathryn Conroy, D.S.W. 

The recognition of child abuse as a modern social problem occurred in the 1960s, while the acknowledgment of the problem of woman abuse emerged in the 1970s. For the most part, social activists, social scientists, and social workers have focused on either the problem of child abuse or the problem of woman abuse. Very little research or direct practice has centered on the coexistence of the problems. 

The literature on family violence illustrates what Martin (1983) calls, "an interesting division of labor." Men are described as perpetrators of woman abuse while women traditionally are viewed as responsible for child abuse. While clear evidence exists that a significant proportion of abusive parents are male (Martin, 1983), mothers often are treated as complicit in allowing children to be abused or witness their own abuse (Stark & Flitcraft, 1988). 

The separate research traditions have failed to recognize that their focus often is on the same family member, the mother. Child abuse literature's focus on the mother as the abuser and the spouse abuse literature's examination of the woman as the survivor result in sets of separate studies purporting to explain the behavior of the same person. The focus of the collaborative study with the New York City Child Welfare Administration is on the intersection of child abuse and woman abuse within families. 


A variety of research methods examine the extent of coexistence of child abuse and woman abuse. These approaches have included case studies, surveys of clinical populations, large-scale random population samples and crossnational comparisons. Studies from the field of child abuse are consistent in finding a relationship between woman abuse and child abuse. They are found to coexist even though the studies involved different populations, settings and methodologies. But, estimates of the degree to which child abuse and woman abuse coexist vary from 11% of families reported for child maltreatment (Daro & Cohn, 1988) to 45% (Stark & Flitcraft, 1988). Literature from the field of woman abuse provides further evidence of coexistence. An early study on the experience of battered women found that 37% had abused children while 54% of batterers had been abusive (Gayford, 1975). Fifty-six percent of Giles-Sims' (1985) sample of battered women recounted using violence against their children. These women reported that 63% of their abusive partners had engaged in child abuse. Significant in Giles-Sims ' study was that abuse toward the child was six times more frequent from abusive men than from battered women. 

Straus and his colleagues (e.g., Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980) are the only investigators who have conducted studies focused on the coexistence of woman abuse and child abuse in non clinical samples. Their national surveys show that in families where women are subjected to violence, child abuse is double that of families with no violence. When woman abuse becomes more severe and more frequent, the rate of child abuse also seems to double. 

Services To Victims 

Some argue (e.g., Straus, 1983) that services to battered women should be separated from assistance to abused children. However, Cummings and Mooney (1988) point out that child protective service workers and battered women's advocates both ". . . share an interest in stopping the violence, their perspectives and approaches are frequently in conflict." Child protective service agencies typically adopt a family-centered approach and follow the principle of working "in the best interests of the child." Battered women's advocates adopt a woman-centered approach and follow the goal of empowering women. In spite of the commonalties of these two kinds of abuse, risk indices for child abuse do not screen parents for the presence of woman abuse (Nelson, 1984) and services to battered women often are developed without considering the needs of children (McKay, 1994). This traditional division of services may not be the most effective means of intervention. 

New York City Initiatives 

The death of Elisa Izquierdo captured the headlines for several days in the Spring of 1996. The failure of caseworkers and supervisors, the mental condition of the mother, and the unanswered pleas by Aliza's relatives were all factors which lead to this tragedy. Less apparent to the casual observer was the fact that Aliza's mother was a battered woman. This fact, which in no way negates her role in Aliza's death, is a factor in over 71% of the child fatalities in New York City (Task Force on Family Violence, 1993).

Abused women in New York City are assisted through the Crisis Intervention Services of the Human Resources Administration and children are assisted through the Child Welfare Administration. 

In April 1993 the Task Force on Family Violence published, " Behind Closed Doors: The City's Response to Family Violence." Subsequently, several members of the New York City Interagency Task Force on Domestic Violence joined with faculty affiliates of the Center to form a Program Work Group. With cooperation from the Child Welfare Administration, the Group developed a 15-item interview protocol to identify and serve battered women. The protocol was implemented in one service zone in Manhattan on a pilot basis to test effectiveness and examine questions about coexistence of child abuse/neglect and violence against women. The Center was invited to lead research development and evaluation.

The Research

This pilot study was described in the Fall 1994 issue of Practice & Research. It's primary objective was to describe the incidence and characteristics of cases in which domestic violence and child abuse were found to coexist as well as the actions taken in those cases. It also sought to identify beneficial outcomes of the protocol, effectiveness and any obstacles to implementation. A volunteer sample of Child Welfare Administration staff, responsible for protocol implementation, were interviewed. Case data from child protective service caseworkers and supervisors, which documents the process and outcome of all child abuse/neglect investigations, also was collected. A previous Center Newsletter reported on the efforts of these faculty to develop and implement a battered woman screening and assessment tool and for child protective service workers. Details of that study, referred to as the Zone C project, can be found on a World Wide Web (WWW) site devoted to issues of battered women and their children. This site can be reached using a Internet browser at http://www.columbia.edu/~rhm5.

Results of the pilot study were used to design the current study. Through a grant from the Department of Health and Human Resources, Administration for Children and Families and matching funds from The Center for the Study of Social Work Practice two CUSSW faculty affiliated with the Center are engaged in a project to train New York City child protective service workers about domestic violence. Assistant Dean Kathryn Conroy and Assistant Professor Randy Magen reviewed past attempts at training child protective service workers and developed an innovative training curriculum. This two day training focuses first on building empathy for battered women, then helps workers understand the batterer and the effects of woman abuse on children. Once workers understand the perspective of the battered woman they are taught how to assess and intervene.

A systematic evaluation is part of the development and implementation of the training curriculum. Preliminary analysis of the first 100 workers trained indicates that worker attitudes do change--they are more sympathetic toward battered woman, are less likely to believe that woman abuse is justified, and are more likely to believe that women do not cause the abuse to occur. The follow-up data, which is still being collected, will be analyzed to see if the training leads to changes in worker behavior toward battered women.

This project is one of five funded in various locations in the United States. It reflects the increased attention now being given to the co-existence of woman abuse in child welfare settings.

Co-lnvestigators: Randy Magen, Ph.D.; Kathryn Conroy, D.S.W. with the collaboration of Peg Hess, Ph.D. and Barbara Simon, Ph.D. (CUSSW). The pilot study was conducted in collaboration with the New York City Child Welfare Administration. The current study is being conducted in collaboration with the New York City Agency for Children's Services. 


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