01 February 2018

Children who witness domestic violence have trouble making themselves heard, even though it can harm them just as much as being hit. Today it is not a crime to expose children to such situations, but a change could be on the way.

barn som bevittnar våld

Anna, Karin and Isaac. Out of a class of thirty, three children are forced to witness how one of their parents hits the other.

“Violence within the four walls of the home was long seen as a private matter between those involved. But since the 1980s, violence against family members is subject to public prosecution”, says Ann-Charlotte Münger.

Ann-Charlotte Münger is a researcher in child and youth studies at Linköping University. Her research investigates how society meets the needs of children and young people when they require protection, help and support.

Making violence against family members subject to public prosecution was a signal that it is not a private matter, and the rights of the victim were strengthened. It became possible for other people than the victim to report incidents. However for children, the ones who witness the violence, not much has changed and there is little assistance available.

“For a long time, with crimes of this type, children were seen as an appendage of the mother. If a child lay crying in the apartment when the police arrived following a complaint from a neighbour, it wasn’t mentioned in the police report. It’s like they didn’t count,” says Ann-Charlotte Münger.

However in the late 1990s there was some focus on children. In research into violence in close relationships, a new area emerged that centred on the child, and women’s support organisations started projects for children. It was a political statement that children who have witnessed violence were considered victims of crime and were entitled to compensation.

Difficult to intervene

Roughly ten per cent of all children in Sweden have experienced violence at home at least once, and five per cent often. When an adult is subject to violence in a close relationship or when the child is subject to violence, society has a number of tools for managing these crimes. But when it comes to a child experiencing violence between parents, such support doesn’t exist.

“If a child is beaten, society intervenes, but not if a child is a witness to violence. Some research shows that being in the proximity of violence is actually worse than being exposed to it oneself. In any case it’s clear that these children have worse physical and mental health than other children,” says Ann-Charlotte Münger. Roughly ten per cent of all children in Sweden have experienced 
violence at home. Photo credit: iStock

Research shows that school is important to children who live with violence. But school and daycare staff rarely report any suspicions of violence or abuse in the home, according to the Save the Children report “När man misstänker att barn far illa” (2012) (When you suspect that a child is in trouble). And this is despite the fact that they have a duty to do so.

According to Ann-Charlotte Münger, both social services and the school system find it difficult to intervene when there is suspicion that a child is subject to domestic violence.

“If the parents say that there is NOT any violence in the home, there’s not much the social services can do. The school system, in turn, has trouble identifying these children. Intervening when it is something that the children experience outside school can be tricky – as can the contact with the parents.”

In a research project, Ann-Charlotte Münger and her colleague Ann-Marie Markström have worked with teachers in focus groups, a method that proved effective in getting teachers to process, discuss and reflect on how they can identify and support children who experience domestic violence.

“Focus groups could work as an educational tool in preschool and school. For instance, special needs teachers could use the method when discussing and deciding on ethically difficult work duties.

Criminal to expose a child to violence?

In Sweden there is currently a debate about whether it should be criminal to subject children to domestic violence and abuse. If it were to be criminalised, it would mean that the child would be plaintiff in criminal proceedings, and opinions are divided on this. Those who believe it should be criminal say that the child’s rights will be strengthened and that the child will be made visible in the legal process. For instance he or she will have the right to a legal representative and damages.

Those who are against criminalisation argue that it is extremely difficult for a child to testify against one of his or her parents. Also, it puts the victim in a tough situation: if a mother is hit, she becomes part of the crime that is committed against the child.

Ann-Charlotte Münger says that the whole issue is so complex that she hasn’t yet arrived at her own standpoint.

“But at least it’s clear that children who are subject to this need more protection and help.”

Research on children who witness violence:


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