Domestic violence protection cases point up minors' risk

Threats or acts of violence had been directed at youths under age 18 in almost two-thirds of protection orders that included minors.

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Threats or acts of violence toward minors were referenced in almost two out of three domestic violence protection orders (DVPO) issued in King County that involved minors, new research shows. In nearly one-fourth of those orders, the abusive person either owned or had access to a firearm.

“We know from prior research that people who threaten or harm their former or current partners often threaten and harm their children,” said lead author Alice Ellyson, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine and an investigator in its Firearm Injury & Policy Research Program. “Firearms add an extra level of danger and are involved in two-thirds of intimate partner violence-related child homicides.”

Ellyson and her colleagues report their findings today the journal Pediatrics.

In the study, the researchers reviewed a random sample of nearly 3,500 domestic violence protection orders granted in King County, Wash., where Seattle is located. The investigators’ goal was to determine how often children under age 18 were referenced in such orders, how common threats and acts of violence against them were documented, and the role played by firearms access or ownership. 

Over half of the domestic violence protection orders in King County identified minors as needing additional protection or included details about minors’ exposure to, or experiences of, violence in the relevant case narrative files. 

Domestic violence protection orders are the mechanism by which a person, called the petitioner, seeks court protection from an abusive family member or intimate partner, called the respondent. If granted, the court order affords legal protections such as restraining the respondent from contacting the petitioner, excluding the respondent from locations such as the petitioner’s home, and specifying whether child visitation is allowed. 

The documentation compiled during this process also provides information about the use of weapons in threats and violence against minors in families experiencing these circumstances, Ellyson said. 

The researchers found that, in domestic violence protective orders that included minors, 38% documented the respondent’s use of some weapon, and 23% documented firearm possession. Explicit threats of violence toward a minor were documented in 32% of these court orders. Acts of violence toward a minor were documented in 49% of these orders. 

Weapons were used in acts of violence against children in almost 1 in 3 cases that involved this type of violence; that number was appreciably higher, almost 69%, when the respondents’ violence was said to involve the use of hands, fists or other body parts 

“These findings provide important information on child lethality risks, and there are several important implications for policy and practice,” said Ellyson. “Civil courts can grant DVPOs requiring respondents to relinquish firearms and weapons. Family courts can limit contact with children until respondents comply with orders and demonstrate progress. Healthcare providers can refer families to trauma-informed services. 

“It is important that domestic violence protection orders address the safety of minors as well as the petitioner,” Ellyson said.

This work was funded by the Grandmothers Against Gun Violence Foundation. Collaborators included Sandra Shanahan of King County’s Regional Domestic Violence Firearms Enforcement Unit, research colleagues Avanti Adhia in the UW School of Nursing, and Ayah Mustafa, Vivian Lyons and Dr. Ali Rowhani-Rahbar of Firearm Injury & Policy Research Program. Rowhani-Rahbar, the paper’s senior author, is a UW professor of epidemiology and the Bartley Dobb Professor for the Study and Prevention of Violence. 

Editor’s note:  Individuals in abusive or violent relationships can obtain confidential support 24/7 by calling the National Domestic Violence hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233), by texting “START” to 88788, or by visiting the website,


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