A. Background

Domestic violence, also referred to as family violence, can be described as a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.[217] Family violence is defined in Tex. Fam. Code § 71.004. Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, psychological, or technological actions or threats of actions or other patterns of coercive behavior that influence another person within an intimate partner relationship. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone. Physical aggression is not always a tactic that is utilized in domestic violence; however, if it is used, physical aggression may or may not show physical evidence of harm.

“Coercive control is a central dynamic in domestic violence situations, and it can take the form of tactics to isolate, degrade, exploit, and control [the victim] as well as to frighten them or hurt them physically” although it can also take the form of emotional and psychological intimidation without physical violence.[218] Other methods of coercive control can take the form of “depriving victims of their financial independence or material possessions and regulating their everyday behavior.”[219] The cumulative effect is a pattern that minimizes the victim's “autonomy, equality, liberty, social supports and dignity in ways that compromise the capacity for independent, self-interested decision-making vital to escape and effective resistance to abuse.”[220]

Domestic violence can include the domestic violence perpetrator (hereinafter referred to as perpetrator) taking away access to resources needed by the survivor parent and the children as well as removal of psychological or emotional support. In a child welfare case, coercive control can manifest as the perpetrator taking away access to resources and/or documents as a threat, consequence, or barrier for the survivor parent participating in the child welfare investigation process, signing a safety plan, or getting a protective order. This could also take the form of the perpetrator making threats about the children, employment, or basic needs. These actions by the perpetrator increase risk to the survivor parent and the children and can compromise the survivor parent's ability to protectively parent and in turn increase the negative impact that domestic violence has on the children. It is crucial to respond to domestic violence in a way that supports the protective capacities of the survivor parent and bolsters protective factors for the children, while simultaneously holding the perpetrator accountable for the impact that their behavior and parenting choices have on the family.

It is important to note that witnessing family violence, in and of itself, is not defined as child abuse under Texas law. However, co-occurrence of domestic violence and child neglect or abuse is common and domestic violence constitutes the single greatest precursor of child maltreatment fatalities.[221] In 2023, Texas DFPS' annual report on child fatality and near fatality[222] documented that out of the 182 child fatalities in Texas the following circumstances were present:

•   The families of 107 of these children (58%) had a documented history of domestic violence in their case file;

•   The families of 63 of these children (35%) had active domestic violence in their home environment; and

•   Physical abuse was the cause of death for 66% of the 63 child fatalities where there was both a documented history and active domestic violence present in the home environment.

A common response by perpetrators is an unwillingness to participate in the child welfare process, including choosing not to engage in conversations, meetings, and services. This can leave the survivor parent accountable for addressing all safety concerns on their own, even when they may not be the cause of all safety concerns. It is important to note that a survivor parent's decision to leave an abusive relationship may leave them without the financial resources to care for the child and might result in a loss of employment, housing, and childcare. Poverty has a compounding impact on survivor parents due to the isolation, coercion, and economic abuse they may experience. Instead, the survivor parent may stay in the relationship as a protective response, believing that the perpetrator will do more serious harm if the survivor parent tries to leave. Notably, women who leave their abusive partners have a 75% greater risk of being killed than those who stay.[223]

Exposure to domestic violence can have long-lasting negative effects on children's physical and emotional well-being. Children who are removed from their home as a result of domestic violence may also then experience the trauma of being separated from the survivor parent. Also, the separation of the children from the survivor parent creates more opportunity for the perpetrator to use the children as a tool to manipulate the survivor parent. These threats can add to other sources of pressure to stay in a domestic violence situation, such as cultural practices or norms, religious pressures, and the desires of the children to return to their home.