DFCS Online Policies & Procedures

  DFCS Online Policies & Procedures

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Handbook 3: Assessment Guides
3-15 Assessment of Domestic Violence
Assessment Guides
3-15  Assessment of Domestic Violence
Reference Points
Cultural Factors in the Assessment of Domestic Violence
Assessing Effects of a Child's Exposure to Domestic Violence
Assessing the Victim
Assessing the Batterer
Special Populations
Other Reference

Reference Points
Effective Date: 11/1/07
Last Updated: 9/04/07
 Legal Basis:
Popup Window Welfare and Institutions Code (WIC) § 300
Popup Window In re Heather A., 52 Cal. App. 4th 183 (1996)
 CWS/CMS Forms:
PDF Services Management Section: Contact Notes


Domestic violence can take many different forms, some of them very
subtle. Many relationships in which domestic violence is present involve little or no physical abuse.  Examples of domestic violence include: name-calling or putdowns, isolation from friends, family, and the community, withholding money, actual or threatened physical harm, sexual assault, stalking.  While relationships involving family violence may differ in terms of the severity of abuse, power and control are the primary goals of all offenders. Domestic violence can be practiced in plain view of the public eye, but more often, it is kept in the confines of a home. It is often hidden by both the perpetrator and the victim to avoid any legal or personal consequences.  (Through Their Eyes: Domestic Violence and Its Impact on Children)


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Defining Domestic Violence  

The California Alliance Against Domestic Violence defines abuse as including:

  1. A pattern of coercive control directed toward the victim.
  2. Behavior that physically harms, arouses fear or prevents the victim from doing what he/she wishes.
  3. Intentional behavior used to have and maintain power over the victim.
  4. Battering is deliberate behavior, not the loss of control.
  5. The deliberate attempts to control and restrict the behavior and activities of another.

Battering is constant domination and/or frightening of one person by another.

Victims are persons against whom the batterers direct abuse. 

The perpetrator is never a victim, even if those abused direct violence against the perpetrator to defend themselves to stop the abuse.

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Cultural Factors in the Assessment of Domestic Violence   It is important to identify the influence of a family's culture as it pertains to domestic violence. Issues regarding family roles, male dominance, and other beliefs must be understood in order to do an accurate assessment and effective intervention. If you are unaware of the values of a certain culture, consult your supervisor, or a local community group for assistance.
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Assessing Effects of a Child's Exposure to Domestic Violence  

Studies have shown that there is significant overlap between domestic volence and child abuse—homes where one is present are likey to have the other.  Domestic violence has the potential to impact children in a number of ways, and children's responses to domestic violence vary.  Some children are resilient enough to come through a upbringing involving domestic violence relatively unscathed.  For others, living with domestic violence in the home may turn into a developmental issue, causing a profound disturbance that can affect every aspect of the child’s life.

In the assessment of children, the social worker:

  • Assesses for:
    • Physical abuse
      • Children in domestic violence households are more likely to be physically abused than in non-violent households.
      • Consider that the battered person may over discipline the child in an effort to control the child’s behavior to protect them from what they see as greater abuse from the batterer.

        See OPP Chapter 3-14: Assessing Allegations of Physical Abuse.

    • Neglect
      • Consider that the battered person may give full attention to the abusive partner in an effort to appease and control the level of violence and survive, leaving the child’s emotional, medical, social and physical needs unmet.
      • Consider that the battered person may be emotionally unavailable to the child due to the trauma and fear.
      • Consider that it is not uncommon for battered persons to use alcohol/drugs/over the counter medication to anesthetize the pain arising from the battering situation.
    • Sexual abuse.

      • Consider that children in domestic violence homes are at high risk for sexual abuse.
    • Emotional abuse.

      NOTE: Based on the Heather A. case in California law, the witnessing of domestic violence by a child is sufficient cause to substantiate a petition under Welfare and Institutions Code (WIC) § 300 (c).

  • Considers the age of the child in observing reactions, symptoms and level of risk.
    • Children 0-5 years old are more vulnerable to accidental injury during incidents of battery.
    • Children 0-5 years old may exhibit sleep disturbances nightmares, loss of skills (self-care, wetting in pants) separation anxiety, failure to thrive, and tantrums.
    • Children 6-12 years old may exhibit eating disturbances, seductive or manipulative behavior, fear of abandonment or loss of control, depression, anxiety, and shame and may attempt to protect the victim.
    • Adolescents feel separated from the family and tend to run away, engage in suicidal or homicidal thoughts, act out sexually, become pregnant, abuse drugs/alcohol, perform poorly in school, or experience violence in dating relationships.
    • Overall, these children exhibit more impulsive, aggressive and delinquent behaviors and are more withdrawn and anxious. These symptoms are often consistent with a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

  • Determines if the child has a disability (physical, developmental, cognitive and/or mental) or is deaf or hard of hearing.  See OPP Chapter 3-13: Assessment of Medical, Educational and Mental Health Needs.
    • Children with disabilities are more vulnerable to all forms of abuse (physical, sexual, neglect, exploitation).
      • They are more dependent on others for their care.
      • They may be limited in their contact with others outside the home.
      • They may be unable to understand what is happening to them or their caregivers.
      • Their ability to communicate may be limited.

    • The stress on resources and finances when caring for children with disabilities may contribute to continued battering.

    • Children with disabilities may express their exposure to abuse or violence in the home by:
      • Sudden changes in behavior, such as increased agitation, distress
      • Loss of appetite
      • Self-harming
      • Soiling
      • Sexualized behavior
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Assessing the Victim  

In assessing the victim, the social worker considers if the victim:

  • Has a history of childhood abuse and/or has she found herself/himself in repeated battering relationships.
  • Looks to each new partner for a sense of safety and security.
  • Lacks family support.
  • Lacks access to information.
    • Victims who have experienced chronic abuse may need greater assistance in accessing resources and strong reinforcement for positive service outcomes.
  • Presents as severely depressed.
    • If so, assess carefully for hidden suicidal ideation.
  • Presents as passive and cooperative, yet nothing changes.
    • Depression is symptomatic of trauma and may not subside until safety is achieved. Interventions and services should be decided in partnership with the victim in order to promote a personal sense of competence and power.

Further consideration should be given to the following:

  • Does the relationship appear to involve battering by both partners?
  • Does the victim behave in aggressive and violent ways?
  • This can be confusing when trying to ascertain who is the primary initiator of the violence within the relationship. To assess self-defense and other responses to violence accurately, examine who holds the control in the relationships, who has been injured, who is afraid, and who has access to resources. Court records, police reports, and documentation from probation, and the batterer's treatment, may provide critical information.

  • Does the victim blame herself/himself for the violence?
  • Does the victim feel a deep sense of shame and hopelessness?

    Always assess for the potential of self-harm. Safety planning is critical.

Substance abuse may exacerbate but does not cause domestic violence.  Consider whether:

  • The victim's substance abuse:
    • Impairs her/his ability to assess the level of danger in the home.
    • Impedes her/his ability to safely plan for herself/himself and her/his children.
    • Is used by the offender to exercise control?
  • The offender offer his substance abuse problem or his partner's as an excuse for bad behavior.

Never confront the offender or victim when they are under the influence of substances.


Consider that when a victim leaves her batterer, her risk of serious violence or death rises dramatically.

  • Discuss the following issues with the client, when applicable:
    • A majority of homicide victims separated from the batterer prior to their death.
    • Victims are particularly at-risk during the first two months of separation and remain at high risk if they had unilaterally decided to end the relationship.

A victim may be reluctant to leave the batterer or may often return to the batterer because of one or more of the following factors:

  • Fear of greater violence or death
  • Intimidation and threats
  • Protection of the children from physical/sexual abuse by the batterer
  • Fear that the perpetrator will kidnap or gain custody of the children
  • Economic dependence on the perpetrator
  • Lack of resources (no support systems, social isolation, no place to go, children may be separated)
  • Difficulty of finding shelter placements with adolescent children, particularly male children (age 12-17)
  • Feelings of failure imprinted by society (family, friends, etc.)
  • Batterer’s promise of change (the cycle of violence)
  • The victim’s love for the partner
  • Cultural/religious belief systems
  • Poor or unsatisfactory experiences with the service delivery system (law enforcement, court, child protection agencies)
  • The victim’s belief that her/his child needs the dominant, aggressive partner for parenting, especially for the acting out/emotionally disturbed child
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Assessing the Batterer  

Consider that the underlying dynamic in the relationship between the batterer and victim is one of power and control by the batterer. In order to sustain this dynamic, the batterer will frequently:

  • Intimidate and threaten the victim, the children, other family members and/or pets.
    • When the batterer threatens homicide or suicide, increases.
  • Isolate the victim and/or the children from family, friends, work, which increases the victim’s dependence on the batterer.
  • Following incidents of violence, manipulate the victim by promising change, often presenting gifts, flowers, etc. (honeymoon phase).


In assess the batterer, the social worker:

  • Looks for patterns:
    • In language, in which the batterer:
      • Rationalizes/justifies what happened by blaming the victim.
      • Emphasizes the victim’s behavior rather than taking responsibility for his/her own behavior.
      • Minimizes the seriousness/severity of what happened.
    • In behavior, in which the batterer falsifies the reality of the situation by:
      • Calling in false police/child abuse reports.
      • Injuring him/herself to deflect the focus of the situation.
      • Harassing/stalking the victim after the victim has left the relationship to perpetuate the illusion of power and control.
  • Remains aware that the batterer’s mental state effects the degree of risk to the victim and children residing in the home. For example:
    • Acute depression may include homicidal fantasies directed at family members:
      • Actual homicide/suicide may occur when the batterer sees no other way out.
    • The batterer perceives that his/her partner is “owned” by the batterer and therefore the victim has no right to any independent actions:
      • When the victim leaves the relationship and may form another relationship, both people are at high lethality risk.
    • The batterer idolizes his/her partner, has isolated him/herself from all other community and totally depends on the partner to organize and sustain the batterer’s life:
      • When the victim threatens to or leaves the relationship, the batterer feels betrayed and justifies lethal retaliation.
    See OPP Chapter 3-15.1: Assessing Lethality in Domestic Violence Cases .


  • Recognizes that the batterer who is involved in substance abuse has a potential for greater violence due to poor impulse/anger control and impaired judgment.
  • Considers that a batterer who possesses weapons, has used them and/or threatened to use them in the past in his/her assaults on the victim, the children or him/herself, presents an increased risk for lethal assault.
  • Remains aware that stresses in the domestic violence family contribute to the batterer’s perception that he/she is losing control and this may contribute to intensified violence. These stresses may include:
    • Unemployment, eviction, financial difficulties
    • Severe health problems, disabilities
    • Behavioral changes in the children moving into different developmental stages
    • Separation, divorce
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Special Populations  

While the guidelines in the previous sections apply to all cases, there are additional challenges to special populations.  Social workers need to be aware of their own belief systems and understand that domestic violence cuts across culture, family lifestyle and gender.




  • When assessing domestic violence in households involving a victim who is an undocumented and/or recent immigrant consider the following:
    • For the undocumented immigrant, there is a fear of deportation to the country of origin, which may involve returning to a dangerous situation and/or being separated from her children who may be citizens of the U.S.

      NOTE: The 1994 Violence Against Women Act was changed in 2000 to allow abused immigrant spouses a two-year period after a divorce to petition for permanent residence. It also removed a requirement for battered spouses so that they do not have to prove that they would suffer “extreme hardship” if deported.

    • There is usually unfamiliarity with laws and rights.
    • Language barriers can inhibit communication and the ability to access resources.
    • Fear of involving law enforcement, courts, child protective agencies and others in authority may arise from experiences of abuse by and distrust of these systems in the country of origin.
    • The role of the woman in some cultures/religions including maintaining the marriage for life, sacrificing oneself for the good of the family and bestowing power on the male, can perpetuate domestic violence.
    • It may be culturally taboo to discuss the topic of domestic violence.
    • Private family matters may not be discussed publicly as this would bring shame and dishonor to the family.
    • Maintaining a current list of referrals for legal assistance and shelters.
    • Utilizing culturally sensitive and linguistically appropriate resources.


  • When assessing domestic violence in households involving gay, lesbian, and/or transgender relationships consider the following:
    • There is reluctance in the gay, lesbian, transgender community to acknowledge battering as it might increase an already negative view of this group in a homophobic society.
    • Battering of female partners by women is not taken seriously because it is contrary to beliefs that domestic violence is largely a gender issue.
    • It is frequently assumed that gay, lesbian, transgender abuse must be “mutual” and it is consequently under-reported. It may be difficult to identify which partner is the aggressor without having knowledge of patterns of control and blame.
    • There may be threats to “out” the partner, i.e., identify the sexual orientation to the public, which has major implications of possible discrimination in such areas as:
      • Economic
      • Social
      • Familial relationships
      • Child custody
    • If the partners’ lives are financially intertwined, they have no legal process to assist in making sure assets are evenly divided or child custody issues will be resolved.
    • There are few resources (shelters, counseling) which are sensitive to the needs of this population (especially gay men).
    • A lesbian victim has a greater chance of being found by her batterer, as a female batterer can access the same resources posing as the victim.
    • Utilize appropriate referral sources.


  • When assessing domestic violence in households involving heterosexual men who are battered by their female partners consider the following:
    • Being battered is contrary to societal expectations for their role and identity resulting in:
      • Feelings of denial and shame
      • Discrimination in the way society (e.g., law enforcement, court, extended family, and friends) responds to them
      • A reluctance to disclose
    • There are few resources (shelters, counseling).
    • There are some situations in which battering men are learning to use the system against the victim (e.g., calling law enforcement and filing restraining orders against the victim). To make an accurate assessment:
      • Look for patterns of abuse and control.
      • Consult with domestic violence experts to clarify the issues.


  • When assessing domestic violence in teen relationships consider the following:
    • An average of one in five high school girls suffer physical or sexual assault by their dating partners (American Medical Association, 2000).
    • The potential for lethality is just as high for teens as adults.
    • Due to developmental/age issues, girls are uncertain about what a relationship is supposed to be. They:
      • Are unfamiliar with appropriate boundaries
      • Rationalize abusive behavior under the pressure to have a boyfriend
      • Misinterpret attention, jealousy, possessiveness as positive rather than negative control
      • May have a skewed model of what is considered a “normal” relationship if they have had a history of exposure to domestic violence
    • Societal messages, as well as familial exposure to domestic violence, encourage teenage boys to behave aggressively.
    • Teenage girls who experience violent relationships are at high risk for attempted suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse and/or pregnancy.
    • Denial and shame by both teenagers and their parents has led to under use of resources.
    • Educate and refer parents and their teenage children to appropriate resources.


  • When assessing domestic violence in households involving a victim who has a disability or who is deaf consider the following:
    • A person who is deaf or hard of hearing does not consider him/herself to be disabled, but rather as belonging to the deaf community/culture. Vulnerability to domestic violence exists due to:
      • Limitations in communicating with the hearing population.
      • The perception by the batterer that the victim is unable to tell and therefore unable to seek redress from the abuse
    • The victim often is dependent on the abuser (who also may be the primary caregiver) to meet their daily needs which may include:
        • Withholding wheel chairs and other medical devices and/or medications
        • Not allowing or assisting the victim to meet medical appointments
        • Withholding telecommunications devices for the deaf (TTDs/TTYs) and/or refusing to be the victim’s sign language interpreter
        • Refusing to assist with personal needs (hygiene, clothing, food)
        • Withholding Supplemental Security Income (SSI) checks
        • For the blind victim: rearranging the room; taking away the cane, guide dog, or threatening to injure/kill the guide dog
    • The victim may have extremely low self-esteem and a feeling of powerlessness, viewing him/herself as “damaged goods” who is only accepted by the abuser.
    • The victim fears that his/her children will be taken away if the abuse is reported (even if the batterer is removed) based solely on the victim’s disability.
    • The victim may be physically incapable of executing the tasks necessary to implement an escape or safety plan.
    • The victim may fear that he/she will lose the primary caregiver (the batterer) leaving the victim destitute with no caregiver or place to live.
    • There is a lack of services and shelters which can accommodate the special needs (such as wheelchairs, attendants, translators) of the victim who has a disability or who is deaf.

      NOTE: Do not assume that a person who has a disability or is deaf cannot also be a batterer.

  • Discuss the issues with the client as appropriate to the specific population.
  • Document all findings and observations in the Contact Notebook (and Health Notebook for adults with special health care needs).

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Other References  
PDF (Through Their Eyes: Domestic Violence and Its Impact on Children)
bullet2 OPP Chapter 3-14: Assessing Allegations of Physical Abuse
bullet2 OPP Chapter 3-15.1: Assessing Lethality in Domestic Violence Cases
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