A Texas town has made it unlawful to physically assault anyone in the presence of a child, a step intended to hold perpetrators accountable for the mental consequences of domestic abuse along with the physical.
The Burleson, Texas, City Council passed the ordinance with support from Mayor Ken Shetter, whose “day job” is serving as president of Fort Worth-based One Safe Place, which offers family counseling for assault victims.
Shetter says they frequently encounter children who have encountered or been forced to participate in the trauma of abuse.
“It’s an epidemic of trauma,” Shetter said.
Children exposed to violence in their homes can suffer throughout their lives. They are, as studies from the U.S. Department of Justice have shown, more prone to commit suicide, are at greater risk of learning disabilities and at higher risk of engendering patterns of abuse and violence in their adult lives.
Because it falls under city code rather than state code, Burleson’s new ordinance makes the offense just a Class C misdemeanor with up to a $500 fine, the most a city can impose. The law addresses “unjustified” violence between partners with their children, whether biological, adopted or fostered.
According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data from April 2016, 24 states and Puerto Rico have some form of statute addressing the issue of “witnessing by a child.”
Many of the laws and statutes are piecemeal, however, with varying definitions of domestic violence and which children the law can apply to. In 10 states and Puerto Rico, the law is tailored to apply to children who are “related to or a member of the household of the victim.”
According to the Department of Health and Human Services data, 14 state statutes define “witnessing by a child” as a child who is physically present, can see or can hear the violent act.
Ohio’s law stipulates witnessing occurs when the violence is committed “within 30 feet or within the same residential unit occupied by the child, whether or not the child is present or can see the commission of the offense.”
The consequences of these statutes are also varied.
Some states consider witnessing by a child to be an “aggravating circumstance,” which could result in harsher sentencing for the original assault charge, for example.
In Delaware, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Utah, it is a separate charge to the original domestic abuse charge.
Some states require the offender to pay for counseling a child victim may require, while Ohio and Oklahoma require the offender to undergo their own counseling.
Shetter believes it should be a felony and would like to see other cities back similar ordinances to attract the attention of state legislators.
But, even as a misdemeanor, the law establishes that an act of violence against a partner is also an indirect attack against the child, Shetter said. Often those committing the abuse will disregard children or even make the child participate in the intimidation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have experienced “severe physical violence” by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
Shetter estimates some 1,000 children in his town are exposed to some form of domestic violence every year.
“We have seen a significant increase in domestic incidents,” he said.
The ordinance, he said, gives police another tool when investigating such calls.
The Cleburne, Texas Times-Review contributed details to this story.