State laws recognize trauma for child witnesses of violence

About half of America has state laws addressing the serious trauma often suffered by children who witness violence at home. Experts studying the effects of domestic violence say witnessing violence has the same effects on children as it would if they'd directly experienced it physically.

Washington is one of the states that has enacted laws making violence in the presence of a child a more harshly punishable crime than it would be without a child witness. Also, under Washington law, it maybe possible to bring a lawsuit for the damages done to a child by witnessing acts of violence or other kinds of trauma sustained by one or both of his or her parents.

A common experience of childhood

Every year, roughly one in 12 children witness an act of violence between family members. Over time, about one in three Americans witness such an act as a child.

These are the findings of the National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence, which according to the Washington Post is considered the most comprehensive survey on the subject. The U.S. Justice Department has long sponsored the survey.

Effects similar to those from direct violence

At a much higher rate than the national average, children who witness these crimes grow into adults who suffer addiction and other health problems, and they also commit or are victims of violence at a much higher rate. The effects often persist long after the children are adults and can include aggression, concentration disorders and depression.

Washington punishes abusers witnessed by children

The state of Washington makes domestic violence in front of children an "aggravating circumstance," making tougher sentences possible for those found guilty. Committing domestic violence "within sight or sound of the victim's or the offender's minor children under the age of eighteen years" can be treated as an aggravating circumstance.

This raises some questions, including what the law considers domestic violence, and what difference aggravating circumstances make.

What is domestic violence?

Washington State provides a list of crimes (although the list is not meant to be exhaustive) that can constitute domestic violence if they're committed by one family member or household member against another. Crimes on the list can also constitute domestic violence if committed against an intimate partner.

Among the crimes on the list are assault, drive-by shooting, coercion, criminal trespass, kidnapping, unlawful imprisonment and many more.

Aggravated crimes and stronger sentences

The statutes provide sentencing lists with specific ranges of fines and prison terms for each category of crime (misdemeanor to class A felony). These lists apply when the crime is not treated as mitigated or aggravated.

However, the statutes give no specific ranges for crimes that are considered to be aggravated.

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