Children whose mothers experience severe abuse at the hands of an intimate partner are more likely to wind up in hospital emergency departments, and their increased risk may persist for up to three years after the abuse has ended, new research shows.
"It appears that even when the abuse ends, children's health and health care use may be continued to be affected," Dr. Megan H. Bair-Merritt of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, the study's lead investigator, told Reuters Health. "That has implications for how we think about designing screening and interventions for abused women and their children."
Bair-Merritt and her colleagues looked at data from the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being on more than 2,500 children whose families had been reported to Child Protective Services in 1999 and 2000 to investigate whether exposure to intimate partner violence would affect how frequently children went to the emergency department or were hospitalized. Mothers had reported whether or not they had been abused at the study's outset, and the surveyors had followed up with families 18 and 36 months later.
At both time points, the researchers report in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, children whose mothers had reported being victims of severe intimate partner violence were about twice as likely as other children to have visited the emergency department.
"Understanding is still emerging about why these women are bringing their children to the emergency department," Bair-Merritt noted, pointing out that the data didn't show whether the children were brought there for preventive care, injuries, or other reasons.
Surprisingly, children who had been exposed to minor intimate partner violence were actually less likely to be hospitalized during the second time interval. This seemingly paradoxical finding could have been because these children were lost to the system, or perhaps they were more likely to get help, the researcher said. "There are many explanations, and they would all be hypotheses at this point."
She and her colleagues are planning additional studies to further investigate how exposure to domestic violence affects children's health, as well as the role of a mother's mental health in this relationship.