Behaviors of children who are exposed and not exposed to intimate partner violence: an analysis of 330 black, white, and Hispanic children

Judith M McFarlane, Janet Y Groff, Jennifer A O'Brien, Kathy Watson
Pediatrics 2003, 112 (3): e202-7

OBJECTIVE: To compare the behaviors of black, white, and Hispanic children who were 18 months to 18 years of age and exposed to intimate partner violence with an age- and ethnically similar sample of children who were not exposed to violence and to compare both exposed and nonexposed children to normative samples.

METHODS: As part of a study on treatments for abused women in primary care public health clinics and Women, Infants and Children clinics in a large urban area, 258 abused mothers completed the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) on 1 of their randomly selected children between the ages of 18 months and 18 years. An ethnically similar sample of 72 nonabused mothers also completed the CBCL. The CBCL is a standardized instrument that provides a parental report of the extent of a child's behavioral problems and social competencies. The CBCL consists of a form for children 18 months to 5 years and a version for ages 6 to 18 years. The CBCL is orally administered to a parent, who rates the presence and frequency of certain behaviors on a 3-point scale (0 = not true, 1 = somewhat or sometimes true, and 2 = very true or often true). The time period is the last 6 months for the child 6 to 18 years of age and 2 months for the child 18 months to 5 years of age. Examples of behaviors for the child age 6 to 18 years include "gets in many fights," "truancy, skips school." Examples of behaviors for the child 18 months to 5 years of age include "cruel to animals," "physically attacks people," and "doesn't want to sleep alone." Both forms of the CBCL consist of 2 broadband factors of behavioral problems: internalizing and externalizing with mean scale scores for national normative samples as well as clinically referred and nonreferred samples of children. Internalizing behaviors include anxiety/depression, withdrawal, and somatic complaints. Externalizing behaviors include attention problems, aggressive behavior, and rule-breaking actions. Behavior scales yield a score of total behavioral problems. Scores are summed and then converted to normalized T scores. T scores >or=60 are within the borderline/clinical referral range-higher scores represent more deviant behavior. Multivariate analyses of variance (MANOVAs) were used to determine whether children from abused mothers differed significantly in their internalizing behaviors, externalizing behaviors, and total behavior problems from children of nonabused mothers. One sample t tests were used to compare children from abused and nonabused mothers to the matched clinically referred and nonreferred normative sample. Four pair-wise comparisons were considered: 1) children from abused women to referred norm, 2) children from abused women to nonreferred norm, 3) children from nonabused women to referred norm, and 4) children from nonabused to nonreferred norm. The internal, external, and total behavior problem T scores were dichotomized into a referral status: nonreferred = T score < 60, referred = T score >or= 60. Frequencies and percentages were used to describe the distribution of referral status among the children from the abused and nonabused women, and chi(2) tests of independence were used to determine whether the groups were significantly different.

RESULTS: No significant differences in demographic characteristics between children from the abused women and nonabused women were observed. The sample consisted of a large number of Hispanic children (68.9%) and slightly more girls (53.6%), and nearly half (45.2%) had annual household incomes <10,000 dollars. Means, standard deviations, and results from the MANOVAs performed on internal, external, and total behavior problem scores between children from abused and nonabused women revealed no significant differences (F[3,139] = 1.21) for children ages 18 months through 5 years. Results from the MANOVA performed for ages 6 through 18 years revealed a significant group difference (F[3,183] = 3.13). Univariate tests revealed significant group differences for internalizing behavior (F[1,185] = 6.81), externalizing behav = 6.81), externalizing behavior (F[1,185] = 7.84), and total behavior problems (F[1,185] = 9.45). Overall, children of abused mothers had significantly higher internalizing (58.5 +/- 12.1), externalizing (55.5 +/- 12.4), and total behavior problems (57.6 +/- 12.3) scores than the internalizing (52.9 +/- 13.7), externalizing (49.7 +/- 10.6), and total behavior problems (51.0 +/- 13.0) scores exhibited for children of nonabused mothers. Most comparisons of children from the abused women to the referred and nonreferred norms are significant. The mean internal, external, and total behavior problem scores from children of abused women were significantly higher than the nonreferred norms and significantly lower than the referred norms. In contrast, all comparisons for children from nonabused women were not significantly different from the nonreferred norms.

CONCLUSIONS: Children, ages 6 to 18 years, of abused mothers exhibit significantly more internalizing, externalizing, and total behavior problems than children for the same age and sex of nonabused mothers. In addition, the mean internalizing behavior score for boys 6 to 11 years of age as well as girls and boys 12 to 18 years of age of abused mothers were not significantly different from the clinical referral norms. Internalizing behaviors of anxiety, withdrawal, and depression are consistent with suicidal risk. The association of a child's exposure to intimate partner violence and subsequent attempted and/or completed suicide demands research. Our data demonstrate that children of abused mothers have significantly more behavioral problems than the nonclinically referred norm children but also, for most children, display significantly fewer problems than the clinically referred children. These children of abused mothers are clearly suspended above normal and below deviant, with children ages 6 to 18 being at the greatest risk. If abused mothers can be identified and treated, then perhaps behavior problems of their children can be arrested and behavioral scores improved. The American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect recommends routine screening of all women for abuse at the time of the well-child visit and implementation of a protocol that includes a safety plan for the entire family. Clinicians can use this research information to assess for intimate partner violence during child health visits and inform abused mothers of the potential effects on their children's behavior. Early detection and treatment for intimate partner violence against women has the potential to interrupt and prevent behavioral problems for their children.

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