Children often witness domestic violence, but social workers have had no standardized way to examine how they are affected by it.
Now, Baltimore County's social services department has partnered with experts from the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Minnesota to develop a screening tool that would, for the first time, quantify the impact of domestic violence on children.
"There is no specific protocol, and particularly for the really young kids, on how you assess the level of domestic violence," said Kathleen King, a supervisor with Child Protective Services. "Social workers now get bits and pieces of that information, but it's not all pulled together."
The department is developing a questionnaire that social workers will use for kids involved in the child welfare system. About 40 social workers will be trained to conduct the interviews.
"Our focus is to really pinpoint the more serious cases, where kids are at more significant risk, and to get them services — and get their parents services, too," King said.
The services could include individual or group counseling and programs for offenders, as well as shelters, she said.
Many parents don't know how much violence their children witness at home, King said.
"The kids always know and see much, much more than the parents realize," King said.
Questions could include whether the child has ever been involved physically in a domestic altercation, whether he or she has ever tried to escape the home, and whether the police have ever been called to the dwelling, King said.
The information could be used in court cases, helping a judge decide whether to require counseling or other treatment for the family, King said.
Researchers estimate that between 10 percent and 20 percent of children nationwide are exposed to domestic violence.
The county department is getting help from Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor in Hopkins' nursing school. In the 1980s she developed an interview tool used to measure domestic violence victims' risk of being killed by their partners.
Campbell said research indicates that exposure to domestic violence can cause both mental and physical health problems in children, including anxiety, aggressive behavior, depression and even the exacerbation of asthma.
A $17,600 grant from the Governor's Office of Crime Control & Prevention is paying for the questionnaire project, which officials plan to complete in September. The department is also consulting with Dr. Jeffrey Edleson, a domestic violence expert at the University of Minnesota.
The Baltimore County social services department hopes that social workers throughout Maryland eventually could use the questionnaire.
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