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A cost-cutting move that narrows the Division of Child and Family Services' ability to get involved when children are exposed to domestic violence has some advocates alarmed, but one child welfare expert is hailing the change as a reasonable approach that reduces chances of victims and their children being doubly traumatized.

In the waning hours of the 2011 session, lawmakers approved a bill requiring DCFS to limit its involvement in domestic violence-related child abuse cases, the most frequently substantiatedtype of maltreatment. Utah is one of just five states in which committing domestic violence in the presence of a child is a crime, although about 18 states allow stiffer penalties for domestic violence that occurs when children are present.

A recent legislative audit found senior staff at DCFS were concerned the division was casting "too wide a net" in making abuse and neglect determinations, particularly in some minor instances of domestic violence involving adults where a finding was made but no services provided.

"We were sending someone out to every single investigation and it was costing the state millions and millions of dollars, and it was redundant in some cases," said Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, before the Senate vote on HB453.

Fiscal analysts estimated the new law would reduce the division's costs by $1.4 million.

DCFS in May began temporarily operating under a proposed rule that limits domestic violence-related child abuse investigations to cases in which a child was physically present, saw or heard the incident; the alleged perpetrator used or threatened to use a dangerous weapon; the alleged perpetrator threatened the victim with or actually caused substantial or serious bodily injury; there have been two or more investigations involving domestic violence within the previous two years; or the case involves other allegations of abuse, neglect or dependency.

"If the answer to the [first] question is no, then we don't even get into other criteria," said Liz Sollis, division spokeswoman. "They have to be in the same room now. It used to be that if they were hiding in a back room and hearing the violence going down, we could respond to it."

The division, which is currently reviewing public comments on the proposed rule, estimates its approach will reduce costs by approximately $261,000. If DCFS decides to revise the rule, the public will again be allowed to comment.

Underlying the policy change is an ongoing debate about how to protect children from the potentially harmful effects of exposure to domestic violence without adding to their trauma by removing them from their homes, which also penalizes a victim — typically the mother — based on failure to protect. Legislative auditors noted that "the investigation could victimize the child more than the incident."

For advocates, the concern is "whether children were going to still be able to receive services and the type of oversight that would be provided in situations in which they witnessed domestic violence," said Judy Kasten Bell, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Council. Among other suggestions, the council has asked DCFS to add property damage, interfering with attempts to call for help and repeated violations of protective orders as criteria that warrant an investigation.

Experts agree that children who witness or observe the aftermath of domestic violence — physical injuries, broken furnishings, police intervention — may experience emotional and developmental trauma such as low self-esteem, sleep disturbances, more aggressive behavior, depression and poor performance in school. Studies also have found that potential harm varies based on degree and frequency of violence, a child's age and proximity to the incident, other stresses in a child's life and his or her individual coping skills. Long-term effects can include depression and an increased likelihood of emulating violent behavior as an adult, but experts say many children exposed to domestic violence, even when it is severe, turn out to be mostly healthy, well-adjusted adults.

That point was made in a review of studies cited by a federal judge, who in 2002found New York City's practice of removing children from a battered mother's care solely based on exposure to domestic violence was unconstitutional. The 1999 review by Jeffrey L. Edleson of the University of Minnesota concluded that "defining witnessing as maltreatment is a mistake. Doing so ignores the fact that large numbers of children in these studies showed no negative development problems and some showed evidence of strong coping skills." Edleson concluded many children have strong protective factors in their lives that buffer them from the worst effects of exposure to violence.

And separating a child from a victim parent is "much, much worse," according to Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

"The child will then think 'Mom was beaten up and now I'm being punished. This must be my fault,' " Wexler said. "While I would not say it is right to ignore these cases, it is wrong to automatically declare them child abuse. And it is doubly wrong to respond with a knee-jerk 'take the child and run' approach. What is needed here is a middle ground between current law and this 'don't look at it at all' decision."

In Utah, children are apparently rarely removed from their homes solely because of exposure to domestic violence. Last year, there was just one instance in which a judge ordered children removed from a parent's custody based on failure to protect, according to Sollis.

But domestic violence-related child abuse investigations are common, although DCFS investigates about twice as many cases of such abuse than it ends up substantiating. Last year, about one-third of the 7,546supported cases of child maltreatment involved domestic violence; some 1,705 of those cases involved only domestic violence.

The proposed rule signals that "we're uncomfortable saying we are going to walk away completely" from looking at such cases, said Charri Brummer, deputy director at DCFS.

"We do believe that domestic violence-related child abuse is a valid form of abuse," Brummer said. "Research does show that children who have witnessed domestic violence oftentimes do have long-term effects."

In public comments DCFS received about the proposed rule, advocates urged the division to not shirk its role in protecting children who live in homes where domestic violence occurs. The division released some comments to The Salt Lake Tribune after withholding identifying information. One comment praised Utah's record in addressing domestic violence and said DCFS needs to "continue its strong message that living in a home where domestic violence occurs is detrimental to children, whether they directly witness it or not."

Another expressed concern that the proposed rule would lead the division to not investigate cases where "an abuser is screaming at, breaking furniture/household items, destroying a cell phone when the victim tries to call for help and violently pushing/shoving/chocking/pulling hair/ etc. of a victim parent in the presence of a minor child."

"My concern is that children witnessing domestic violence may slip through the cracks and not receive much needed mental health counseling and resources that will assist them in becoming healthy individuals," said Ronda Gates, director of the Center for Women and Children in Crisis in Provo.

Twitter: Brooke4Trib —

Child welfare and domestic violence

Delaware, Georgia, Oklahoma and North Carolina also specifically acknowledge the potential harm to a child by making exposure to domestic violence a separate crime. About 18 other states allow judges to impose harsher penalties when children are present during an act of domestic violence.

Here's a look at the number of domestic violence-related child abuse cases handled by the Utah Division of Child and Family Services in fiscal year 2011:

4,506 • Cases investigated

2,544 • Cases supported

2,960 • Cases in which the only allegation was domestic violence-related child abuse

1,705 • Supported cases involving only domestic violence —

Examples of Utah's law in action

Domestic violence in the presence of a child has been a crime — depending on the nature of the incident, it's either a third-degree felony or a class B misdemeanor — in Utah since 1997. Here are instances of situations that triggered the charge, culled from charging documents:

A boyfriend threw a beer bottle at his girlfriend, breaking two of her teeth, as she held her 1-year-old child on her lap.

A father slapped, pushed and then chased his daughter out of his house. Outside, the father grabbed a pair of tree pruners and chased his daughter's boyfriend, threatening to kill him. The couple's child was in their car during the incident.

A man climbed up a balcony and entered a window at the home of his estranged wife, grabbed her by the throat, pushed her up against a wall and began smacking her with his hands while a child was present.

As her husband began to strangle her, a woman urged their child to call 911. The father took the phone away from the child and then began punching the mother in the head, causing her to lose consciousness.

A man previously convicted of domestic violence punched his girlfriend in the face as she held their 5-month-old child and while their 2-year-old child was present; three days later, the man again showed up at the girlfriend's apartment and attacked her, breaking her cellphone as she tried to call police. After the woman lost consciousness, the man left the apartment with their 2-year-old daughter.

A woman, accompanied by her two children, pulled her vehicle up to a West Valley City police officer's vehicle at Valley Fair Mall and said her husband was following her and she was frightened. When the officer approached the husband in his nearby truck, the man then slammed his truck into his wife's car and continued to do so as she attempted to drive off. A chase ensued, during which the man rammed his wife's car four more times before officers trapped him. As officers used a Taser to subdue the man, he screamed "I'll kill you" and "Our kids will watch me kill you" at his wife.