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Children who witness domestic violence more likely to experience abuse: report

Children who are exposed to domestic violence are more vulnerable to physical, emotional or sexual abuse, a new report has found.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies research, issued on Wednesday, looked at the effects of domestic and family violence in the home on children. 

It found young people who grew up in violent homes were more likely to experience other forms of child abuse, such as sexual, physical and emotional abuse or mistreatment.

That was on top of the negative impact the abuse often had on a child's behaviour, education, cognitive development and mental and physical wellbeing, as well as often causing homelessness, the report said.

Institute director Anne Hollonds​ said the research showed there was an overlap between domestic violence and child abuse leading to "cumulative harm" in children.

ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner John Hinchey​ said while other forms of abuse didn't necessarily have a direct correlation with domestic violence, predators regularly targeted vulnerable families and children. 

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He said often in families where domestic violence took place, parental oversight "is perhaps not what it should be" and children were often more at risk of being preyed upon than those raised in loving and caring environments. 

The long-term impact of violent homes on children varied and depended on how old they were when they witnessed the violence, the length of time they were exposed to it, their relationship with the perpetrator and victim. 

It also hinged on whether they were abused themselves and the presence of other safe and secure relationships in their lives.

YWCA Canberra's community services manager Suella Jarvis had seen exposure to domestic violence manifest in children as anxiety, aggression, emotional distress and disturbance, lack of concentration at school, and difficulty seeking and maintaining positive relationships.

She said children who experienced violence often didn't have a strong sense of self-worth or self-confidence and could be vulnerable.

"We know that for normal and healthy growth and development, children need parents who are a safe and secure base for them," Ms Jarvis said. 

"Children exposed to domestic violence are exposed to a parent or carer who has hurt them or hurt a person close to them, like a mother.

"So it really ruptures that sense of the parent as a safe and secure base."

Mr Hinchey said the long-term effects for family violence and child abuse victims were "the cumulative effects of the short-term impacts" and often resulted in mental illness, drug and alcohol problems and homelessness.

Ms Hollonds said the experiences of young people affected by domestic violence was poorly understood and often underestimated, despite evidence "significant" numbers of children were exposed to family abuse nationally.

The report pointed to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics' personal safety survey, which showed 54 per cent of women who experienced violence at the hands of a current partner had children in their care at the time of the abuse. 

More than 30 per cent of those children had witnessed the violence. 

The figures were similar for women abused by a former partner, with 61 per cent of victims having children in their care at the time and 48 per cent who saw or heard it. 

The report found policy responses to children exposed to domestic and family violence were complicated by the intersecting policy jurisdictions of child protective services, family law, and domestic and family violence sectors.

"Collaboration and effective integration of these sectors are crucial to providing timely and adequate support to children, as is ensuring that service responses to domestic and family violence are child-inclusive and trauma-informed," it said. 

Ms Jarvis said counselling for families affected by violence was time and resource-intensive and better education about safe relationships was vital to curbing family violence and other types of abuse children experienced in the long-term.