13 July 2009

Safe from the Start: Implications of Domestic Violence on the Youngest Memphians

Bringing home a newborn can overwhelm a family, throwing parents off balance as they readjust their lives around their baby’s needs. Meanwhile, research tells us that even the youngest babies are profoundly affected by the conditions in which they develop: first in the womb, and then once they come home.

Sadly, an expectant mother is a third more likely to be exposed to violence than a woman who is not pregnant. In turn, when a child in utero is exposed to domestic violence, they have a heightened risk of prematurity, irregular crying, eating and rest cycles, and they are more vulnerable to infections. Additionally, abused mothers have a harder time relating to their babies, and they are more likely to engage in punishing behaviors and child abuse. Almost 45% of child abuse related deaths occur during the first 12 months of an infant’s life, and one third of abused babies under age 1 are harmed during the first week of life (Lieberman, Diaz, & Horn, 2009).

Fast Facts (Memphis Area Women’s Council, 2004):

- As recently as 2004, Shelby County has the 6th highest rate of domestic homicide in the country.

- Approximately 700-800 cases of domestic violence are reported each month; just a small fraction of cases are actually reported.

How can we strengthen vulnerable families and promote maximum social, emotional and cognitive growth in our youngest children?

Policy Implications (Lawrence, 2002):

1. Very young children can gain from early support and skill building. Studies suggest that the early impact of domestic violence on infants and toddlers and the circular nature of domestic violence (i.e. children who are exposed to domestic violence are more likely to become involved in harmful relationships as adults) emphasizes the need to begin programs early and to take a generational approach to addressing domestic violence issues.

2. Heightened income assistance may make women less susceptible to intrapersonal violence. Women with higher levels of steady employment and income are less susceptible to abuse and may make improved decisions about marriage and relationships.

3. Prompt notice of family abuse should be supported. A modest disclosure rate to welfare professionals, combined with heightened frequency of intrapersonal violence among TANF recipients, is a grave problem and should be taken into consideration in developing policies and programs to improve child well-being. Community awareness of child maltreatment reporting laws is key- welfare professionals cannot strengthen vulnerable families by themselves. Currently, TN Department of Children's Services is transitioning from one track (maltreatment investigations) to three tracks (investigations, assessments, information/outreach). If community members have a solid knowledge of how the new system works to help abused and neglected children, the maltreatment reporting rate could increase (Williams, 2009).

For more information on the well-being of children in Memphis and Shelby County, visit The Urban Child Institute at http://www.theurbanchildinstitute.org.


Lawrence, S. (2002, December). Domestic violence and welfare policy: Research findings that can

inform policies on marriage and child well-being. National Center for Children in Poverty. NY:

Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University.

Lieberman, A.F., Diaz, M., & Van Horn, P. (2009, May). Safer beginnings: Perinatal child-parent

psychotherapy for newborns and mothers exposed to domestic violence. Journal of Zero To

Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, 29(5), 17-22.

Memphis Area Women’s Council: Women’s Policy Action Summit. (2004, April). Retrieved on July 6,

2009 from

Willams, N. (2009, July). Personal communication.

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