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Screening For Domestic Violence In The Pediatric Emergency Department

December 2006


Similar scenarios are commonly encountered by all emergency medicine (EM) physicians. However, physicians are often hesitant to ask about Domestic Violence (DV). In a study by Sugg, physicians reported that exploring domestic violence in the clinical setting was analogous to "opening Pandora's box," citing lack of comfort, fear of offending, powerlessness, loss of control, and time constraints as concerns.1

DV, or intimate partner violence (IPV), is commonly defined as a pattern of coercive behaviors including repeated battering and injury, psychological abuse, sexual assault, progressive isolation, deprivation and intimidation.2-4 Women who are injured as a result of DV/IPV often present to the emergency department. However, the majority of these women are not identified as victims. In one study, 37% of female patients with injuries presenting to the emergency department were injured by their partner, but only 5 to 7% of these battered women were identified by emergency department (ED) staff.5 In another study, 44% of women murdered by their partner had visited an emergency department within two years of the homicide; over 90% of these women presented to the ED for evaluation of injuries incurred as a result of DV/IPV. Another ED study found the incidence of acute DV/IPV with a current male partner to be 11.7%. The cumulative lifetime prevalence of DV/IPV exposure was 54.2%.6 The American College of Emergency Physicians encourages emergency personnel to screen patients for domestic violence and appropriately refer those patients who indicate that domestic violence may be a problem in their lives.7

There has been heightened awareness of DV/IPV as a pediatric problem as well. In a recent position paper, the American Academy of Pediatrics stated that "recognizing and intervening in domestic violence may be the single best way to prevent child abuse."8 Approximately 3.3 to 10 million children witness the abuse of a parent or adult caregiver each year.9-11 Children living in families with domestic violence are more likely than their peers to be victims of abuse; the incidence of child abuse in families experiencing domestic violence ranges between 30 to 60%.9, 12,13 One study found that children of abused mothers were 57 times more likely to have been harmed because of DV/IPV between their parents, compared with children of non-abused mothers.14

Children who live with domestic violence face increased risks of exposure to traumatic events, neglect, direct abuse, and losing one or both of their parents. Several studies have shown that exposure in one's home environment to domestic violence as a child leads to the increased likelihood of adult health issues and risk taking behaviors, such as behavioral and emotional problems, cognitive problems, depression, and risks of violence in adult relationships.9,12,15 Children who are raised in homes with domestic violence are at an increased risk of perpetrating or experiencing violence in adulthood, and are more likely to be victims of child abuse. In addition, a child's exposure to DV/IPV can lead to moderate to severe post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).16

While a physician may be the first non-family member that a victim of domestic violence may turn to for help,2 current rates of screening for domestic violence are low (8 to 21%). This is particularly true in the pediatric setting, in part because pediatricians may feel they lack training in family violence screening and intervention skills.17 ED staff and EM and pediatric emergency medicine (PEM) physicians are in a unique position to recognize DV/IPV and intervene on behalf of the victim and children. However, while physicians may observe patterns of injury, repeated injuries, and the adverse mental outcomes of domestic abuse, they may fail to recognize them as DV/IPV.

Without institutional policies and procedures for detecting and treating victims of DV/IPV, many abused women will remain unidentified and without intervention. Only recently has the health care system become an important site for DV/IPV programs.18 In 1992, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) required that all accredited hospitals implement policies and procedures in their facilities to identify, treat, and refer victims of DV.2 However, most of these programs focus on screening and identification, and few focus on treatment of victims of DV/IPV.18 In one study, pediatric ED providers supported both DV/IPV resource information and routine screening. 19

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