Supporting Children in Domestic Violence Shelters

To help children who are victims of domestic violence and living in shelters, The Duke Endowment granted $200,000 for a yearlong project to train shelter staff to screen and treat children for post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues. This initiative is closed. The Child Care program area is no longer accepting applications in domestic violence work.


For children exposed to domestic violence, the impact can be devastating. Violence within families creates home environments where children live in constant fear. While it is impossible to define exact numbers, researchers estimate that between three million and ten million children are exposed to domestic violence in the United States every year. Those who witness domestic violence are affected in ways similar to children who are physically abused, and they are often unable to establish nurturing bonds with either parent. Children exposed to domestic violence may suffer both short-term and long-term effects, both behaviorally and developmentally. They may be anxious, depressed, aggressive, have trouble sleeping and difficulty paying attention in school. Exposure to domestic violence can cause children to be fearful and nervous and react strongly to any kind of scary experience. Children in these situations are also at a greater risk for abuse and neglect and are more likely to experience other forms of adversity that impact their development and well-being, including maternal depression, parental substance abuse, poverty and disruption to their living situations.

Shelters Tend to Focus on Needs of Adults

For many victims of abuse, domestic violence shelters provide aid to escape unhealthy and dangerous situations; they are also places of respite for those who need a break from their situations, but who intend to return home following their stay. While domestic violence shelters focus on the immediate needs of adult victims, they often lack personnel who are trained to deal with the unique and often hidden needs of children. In the Carolinas, as in the rest of the country, programs that provide shelter to families fleeing domestic abuse typically have not been designed to respond to children's emotional, psychological and developmental needs. Instead, the focus traditionally has been on helping adult victims become healthier emotionally and physically in order to parent better. As a result of this hands-off approach, children who are at risk for developing a range of problems from their exposure to domestic violence are left without the necessary help they need.

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To improve the ability of domestic violence shelters to identify and respond to the needs of child residents who have been exposed to family violence, The Duke Endowment, together with the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, funded the Domestic Violence Shelter Project, a yearlong pilot project in six shelters in North Carolina. Mental health experts developed a standardized training protocol that would help staff at domestic violence shelters screen children for distress resulting from their exposure to family abuse, intervene when necessary and refer children to expert resources in the community.

The program was a collaborative effort that included the Center for Child & Family Health and the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University. Five key strategies shaped our response:

  1. Determine standardized methods to provide routine screening for children residing in domestic violence shelters to assess post-traumatic stress and related psychological and developmental problems. The screening process was intended to help shelter staff understand how each child has been affected by domestic violence and to improve intervention and referral strategies for shelter and community-based care.
  2. Evaluate selected screening methods to ensure that staff would be able to incorporate them into domestic violence shelter programs. Also, develop ways to potentially share effective screening strategies with other domestic violence programs around the world.
  3. Train shelter staff to use screening tools appropriately, reliably and validly. Training sessions emphasized the importance of collaboration between shelter staff and community service providers to give children the expert help they need.
  4. Train shelter staff to respond to the immediate needs of children affected by domestic violence, with a focus on teaching and empowering parents to help children overcome the effects of domestic violence.
  5. Develop a plan to expand this program to domestic violence shelters across the state.

Participating Sites in North Carolina

  • Shelter Home, Caldwell County
  • Family Services of the Piedmont, Guilford County
  • Hannah's Place, Halifax County
  • Southeastern Family Violence Center, Robeson County
  • Wesley Shelter, Wilson County
  • Area Christians Together in Service, Vance County


Area of Work

  • Prevention and early intervention for at-risk children

Program Area

  • Child & Family Well-Being

Grantmaking Status

This program ran from 2005 to 2009

Areas of Work

  • Prevention and early intervention for at-risk children

    To equip children and families with skills to ensure that children reach developmental milestones to lead successful lives.

  • Out-of-home care for youth

    To drive child welfare systems toward greater accountability for child well-being.

  • Quality and safety of health care

    Improving the quality and safety of health care delivery

  • Access to health care

    Improving health by increasing access to comprehensive care

  • Prevention

    Expanding programs to promote health and prevent disease

  • Academic excellence

    Enhancing academic excellence through program and campus development

  • Educational access and success

    Increasing educational access and supporting a learning environment that promotes achievement

  • Campus and community engagement

    Promoting a culture of service, collaboration and engagement among schools and communities

  • Rural church development

    Building the infrastructure and capacity of United Methodist churches to enhance ministry and mission

  • Clergy leadership

    Strengthening United Methodist churches by improving the quality and effectiveness of church leadership

  • Congregational outreach

    Engaging United Methodist congregations in programs that serve their communities