Module 2: Indicators for Domestic Violence

Indicators for domestic violence in adults
Indicators for domestic violence in children
Witnesses of domestic violence
Domestic violence in the school sector

Learning objectives

The learning objectives of this module are to become familiar with the various indicators for domestic violence, their related risks and to be sensitised to them. Special attention should be paid here to indicators in the school sector.

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Indicators for domestic violence in adults

The following are indicators associated with victims of domestic violence. Please note that none or all of these might be present and be indicators of other issues. Some victims also give hints in conversations and their behaviour can also be revealing. Victims are therefore dependent on being listened to, one being persistent and asking for signs and clues. This is where using these indicators as a guide can complement the practice of asking directly.

Physical Indicators
  • Unexplained bruising and other injuries
    • Especially head, neck and facial injuries
    • Bruises of various ages
    • Injuries sustained do not fit the history given
    • Bite marks, unusual burns
    • Injuries on parts of the body hidden from view (including breasts, abdomen and/or genitals), especially if pregnant
    • Chapped lips
    • Teeth knocked out
  • Miscarriages and other pregnancy complications
  • Chronic conditions including headaches, pain and aches in muscles, joints and back
Psychological Indicators
  • Emotional distress, e.g. anxiety, indecisiveness, confusion and hostility
  • Sleeping and eating disorders
  • Anxiety / depression / pre-natal depression
  • Psychosomatic complaints
  • Self-harm or suicide attempts
  • Evasive or ashamed about injuries
  • Seeming anxious in the presence of their partner
  • Social isolation / no access to transport
  • Frequent absences from work or studies
  • Submissive behaviour / low self-esteem
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Fear of physical contact
  • Nervous reactions to physical contact/ quick and unexpected movements
Possible Indicators for sexual violence
  • Self-harming behaviour
  • Unwanted pregnancies / abortions
  • Complications during pregnancy
  • Miscarriages

Indicators for domestic violence in children

Physical Indicators
  • Difficulty eating / sleeping
  • Slow weight gain (in infants)
  • Physical complaints
  • Eating disorders (including problems of breast feeding)
  • Fingertip injuries

Psychological Indicators
  • Aggressive behaviour and language
  • Depression, anxiety and/or suicide attempts
  • Appearing nervous and withdrawn
  • Difficulty adjusting to change
  • Regressive behaviour in toddlers
  • Delays or problems with language development
  • Psychosomatic illness
  • Restlessness and problems with concentration
  • Dependent, sad or secretive behaviours
  • Bedwetting
  • ‘Acting out’, for example cruelty to animals
  • Noticeable decline in school performance
  • Fighting with peers
  • Overprotective or afraid to leave mother or father
  • Stealing and social isolation
  • Exhibiting sexually abusive behaviour
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Transience

Source: Hegarty (2011): Intimate partner violence – Identification and response in general practice

Witnesses of domestic violence

Caregivers and family members, but also neighbours or work colleagues can become potential witnesses of domestic violence. The victim’s cooperation and consent are the most important prerequisites for intervening as a witness. An intervention by a witness can include talking to the victim, helping to access help services or supporting the reporting of domestic violence to the authorities.

Factors that may inhibit or encourage intervention by witnesses

  • Witnesses often have a strong desire to intervene, but not necessarily to report domestic violence to the police. The possibility to remain anonymous can encourage them to report domestic violence to the authorities.
  • Understanding domestic violence and knowing how to support victims can motivate witnesses to intervene. This underlines the importance of awareness-raising campaigns that promote understanding and help to identify the signals of domestic violence (especially non-physical violence) and provide guidance on how to support victims.
  • In the health and social sector, the obligation to report domestic violence is a crucial factor, as witnesses must report domestic violence to the authorities. However, these obligations vary from country to country and the existing conflict between reporting and confidentiality may prevent them from reporting.
  • As a rule, witnesses are more inclined to report domestic violence to the authorities if children are involved. If they do not report domestic violence in those cases, it may be because they are worried that children will be separated from their parents or experience trauma as a result of a police investigation.
  • Other factors that may prevent witnesses from intervening are a negative picture of the police and justice system, fear for their own safety and the misunderstanding that domestic violence is a private matter.


  • There is a great need for action to implement measures that sensitise witnesses and encourage them to act. Further information is needed for professionals who are obliged to report domestic violence.
  • It is crucial that police and judicial authorities increase their efforts to deal with reports of domestic violence in a way that protects both victims and witnesses.
  • Further research is needed to ensure that relevant measures to promote and facilitate witness intervention, such as awareness campaigns and helplines/hotlines, are monitored and evaluated to maximise their effectiveness.

More information on the decisive factors for witness intervention in domestic violence can be found here:

Domestic violence in the school sector

Verbal statements, visible injuries, behavioural problems or changes in behaviour of a child or adolescent may raise the suspicion that domestic violence could be present in a family. Educators, school social workers and teachers should be sensitised for this. In any case, the primary goal should be to end the violence against a child, an adolescent or a parent. In most cases of domestic violence, the best way to help the child or the adolescent is for the parent itself to change in the situation. Encouraging them to do so and giving them access to help is an important task in the school sector.

Possible steps for dealing with suspected domestic violence
  • Observation of behavioural problems of a child or an adolescent
  • Documentation
  • Reflection on the observation
  • Assumptions about possible causes for the child’s or adolescent’s behaviour (forming hypotheses)
  • Involvement of a colleague
  • Team meeting (collegial consultation)
  • Involvement of the management
  • Decision on how to proceed and agreement on further steps of action

The last step, “decision on how to proceed and agreement on further steps of action”, must be organised individually depending on the case. One possibility would be to talk to the mother and/or father of the child or the adolescent with behavioural problems. In the first place, the observed and documented behavioural problems of the child or the adolescent should be discussed. If it becomes clear in the conversation that the mother or father could be affected by domestic violence, then it is important to have another conversation with him or her in private. Confidentiality should always be assured and information about help options such as counselling centres, anonymous telephone counselling, etc. should be given.

The cooperation with the mother and father as educational partners should be very sensitive and thus be secured in the long term. If mothers and/or fathers are not willing to work on the problems and make use of help offers, then cooperation with other institutions without the parents’ consent is only possible if the child’s or adolescent’s well-being seems to be at risk, otherwise the school must guarantee data protection. However, it is possible to get advice from different help organisations by phone or in person without revealing the data of the family concerned. If the child’s or adolescent’s well-being is at risk, the Youth Welfare Office must be informed; the child’s or adolescent’s well-being takes precedence over data protection. Also, for the clarification of a possible endangerment of the child’s or adolescent’s well-being, the Youth Welfare Office can first be consulted while preserving the anonymity of the family concerned, to then be able to decide on further steps, e.g., to officially involve the Youth Welfare Office.

Recommendations on how to proceed in cases of suspected domestic violence

Don’t rush things

You can discuss your own feelings, uncertainties and fears with colleagues, counselling centres or the district youth welfare office. Be careful and cautious with your suspicions to avoid uncontrolled actions by other people. Everything you do must be in the best interest of the child or young person.

Clarify suspicion

Conspicuous behaviour can also have very different reasons: a child or adolescent may be in a difficult life situation, perhaps parents are getting divorced, or important caregivers such as grandparents have died. However, a possible cause for conspicuous behaviour can also be witnessing domestic violence or being a victim of DV. It is always important to ask yourself the following: what is the basis for the suspicion and whether abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, or domestic violence is the only explanation for the child’s or adolescent’s behaviour or whether there are other possible causes.


Compile your observations and keep records. Systematic documentation of the child’s or adolescent’s behaviour, expressions and actions are an important source of information for assessing the suspicion and planning further action. Possible causes for the child’s or adolescent’s behaviour and further action steps for the specific child or adolescent could be discussed with a team at work and/or by speaking with a colleague. The observations and documentation could also serve as a basis when communicating with the parents and with other institutions/organisations, e.g., the youth welfare office.

Talking to the child or young person
  • Seek contact and speak with the child or adolescent and signal to them that you are on their side and will help them. Do not make promises you cannot keep.
  • Use the child’s or young person’s language level and ask open questions (no alternative or suggestive questions). Encourage the child or adolescent to tell you about their situation at home. “Incidentals” that say something about rules and control can give you an idea of the child or adolescent’s living situation.
    • “How are things at home?” / “Many children having behavioural issues at school have problems at home. Is there anyone in your family who puts pressure on you?”
    • “How do you get along with your parents/siblings/other family members?”
    • “Is there anything that makes you sad or you are worried about?”
    • “Some children are afraid at home. What do you think makes them being afraid?” / “Are there times when you be afraid at home?”
  • Help the child or adolescent to talk about his/her experiences, feelings and needs. If the child or adolescent does not want to talk, offer to talk at a later time.
    • Strengthen the child’s or adolescent’s self-esteem by making it clear that violence is never okay and that they are not to blame. Reinforce and confirm that the child’s adolescent’s feelings are right. Support the child or adolescent in perceiving and respecting their own boundaries and those of others. A secret that is scary and dangerous, that feels scary or threatening, that can give you a stomach ache or even nightmares, is not a real secret – you are allowed to talk about it, even if you promised not to. “Violence is never okay.”
    • “It’s not your fault.”
    • “You are allowed to feel angry/sad/insecure/etc”.
    • “You may talk about it, even if you promised not to.”
    • “We will do something together to get help.”
  • Believe the child or adolescent. Listen carefully and do not trivialise anything. Tell the child or adolescent that it is helpful to talk about it.
    • “I believe you.”
    • “I’m glad you came to me.”
    • “I’m so sorry that happened.”
  • Coordinate further activities with the child or adolescent, if possible.
  • Be sure that when seeking support from the child’s or adolescent’s parents or other confidants that this is done with the child’s or adolescent’s consent and does not aggravate the child’s or adolescent’s situation. Ask about the child’s or adolescent’s relationships with father, mother, siblings, other relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Cautiously establish contact with the child’s or adolescent’s family or caregivers.
Talking to the parents
  • Always critically examine your own experiences and personal attitudes towards domestic violence.
  • Question your own attitude towards the family under question.
    • “Am I inwardly aggressive towards the parents?”, “What could contribute to this?”
    • “Am I interested in what they themselves have to say about the problems – or not?”
    • “Am I sensitive enough to their fears and can I understand why they would rather not talk about it?”
  • Share your concern for the child or adolescent rather than focusing on any misbehaviour on the part of the parent.
    • “Do you sometimes worry about…?”
    • “She/he seems so depressed sometimes and we don’t know why.”
  • Name possible hurdles.
    • “I can understand why this conversation is difficult for you.”
    • “We can see that your child is injured. Let’s think together about how we can make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
    • “I can see that you are injured, and I am concerned about you and your child.”
  • If you feel that personal limits are being reached so that continuing the conversation is not possible, it is a good idea to adjourn the conversation to a later time.
    • This interruption gives the opportunity to “reflect what has been said”.
    • Every conversation should end with the agreement to continue the conversation.
    • In the case of suspected violence in the family, it must be made clear that you want to offer help and support, especially for the child/adolescent, as well as to show the adults involved that there are always ways out and help available even though the situation is obviously difficult.
Professional assurance

For support in cases of suspected domestic violence, counselling centres, youth welfare offices and other contact persons can be contacted. If you are sure that the situation poses a high risk for the child or the adolescent, you must protect him/her, involve the Youth Welfare Office after consultation with the school management. Local and regional support systems have proven their worth in protecting children and adolescent from abuse and neglect. Here, “institutionalised cooperation” takes place through working groups in which specialists from youth welfare organisations, schools, the police, the judiciary, health and welfare offices, child and youth psychiatry and the medical profession meet regularly to coordinate their actions.

Expand your knowledge

Inform yourself through further training on this topic to reduce your own uncertainties and fears.

You can find further education and training offers in the field of domestic violence in the social sector here.

Who can I turn to?

The help that a child or adolescent affected by domestic violence and his or her family need is usually very complex and time-consuming. They cannot be provided by one person or institution alone. Cooperation with other support institutions is necessary.

You have the following options; whereby anonymous counselling is possible for all of the following offers:

  • Stay in contact with your colleagues and superiors, especially in phases when you feel insecure. Conduct case conferences with your colleagues (possibly including the contact person of the youth welfare office).
  • Take advantage of telephone or personal counselling by the police. However, you should note that the police are obliged to prosecute criminal offences. If the police become aware of a child’s or adolescent’s well-being being endangered by abuse or neglect, criminal measures must be taken.
  • Contact the Youth Welfare Office if there are indications that the child or adolescent is at risk in the family and the persons concerned cannot or do not want to seek help of their own accord. Here, too, you can first take advantage of counselling by telephone or in person. Youth welfare offices are not obliged to report such offences or to inform the police. Priority is given to the protection of the best interests of the child, which in the case of adolescents is often perceived in consultation with social services and counselling centres in such a way that individual help and protection concepts are developed which the adolescents can support.
  • The information of authorities or counselling facilities of independent institutions should always be given with the consent of the child or adolescent and the legal guardians. However, authorities can also be involved without this consent if the well-being of the child or adolescent is at high risk. Making the case anonymous is a way of obtaining competent advice without breaching confidentiality. Facilities in the field of youth welfare such as child and youth emergency services, child protection centres, educational counselling centres and a partner, marriage, family and life counselling service offer advice and help.
  • School psychological counselling centres can also be involved in conflict management. They advise those seeking advice and can establish contacts with other specialised counselling centres.
  • Health care facilities such as public health offices, paediatricians and general practitioners, children’s hospitals and child and youth psychiatric facilities have the important task of investigating the causes of health hazards and eliminating harmful factors. The opportunity to do this is particularly offered within the framework of school health care, especially during school enrolment examinations.
  • Take into account the respective cultural background and the question of residence status in every offer of help.

What are the legal obligations for teachers?
Do I have to inform the youth welfare office if I have a suspicion?

Teachers are obliged to inform parents about indications of a risk to the child’s or young person’s well-being as long as this does not jeopardise the protection of the child or young person. It may therefore be necessary to seek outside expertise to assess the risk situation before considering further steps. If there is a well-founded suspicion of neglect or maltreatment, a decision should be made in consultation with the school management whether to file a criminal complaint. In individual cases, however, it may make more sense to involve competent authorities such as the Youth Welfare Office and to take other appropriate measures to help the pupil.

What should I do if I suspect that a pupil is being abused or neglected at home?

There is no uniform guidance how the pupil can be helped best: e.g. other agencies could be involved or by drafting a report to the youth welfare office. Some countries have a mandatory obligation to help included in their laws. Some schools have included the obligation to intervene in case of signs of child abuse or neglect in their statutes or in the school programme.

The question of whether parents are to be informed of a suspicion depends very much on the individual case and the relevant country regulations. In principle, parents have a right to be informed, as they are also responsible for protecting children from danger for their own good. If it can be assumed that the parents or other guardians may be the perpetrators or accomplices, the parents should not be approached at first. In this individual case, the parents are also not informed that, for example, the school has passed on the suspicion to the youth welfare office.

Do I have to take any action at all?

Yes. The duty to act follows directly from the school’s, and thus the teachers’, duty of care. It must also be taken into account that teachers and school management may be liable to prosecution under the Criminal Code if they do nothing at all despite clear signs of abuse and neglect of a pupil.

May I act on my own authority?

Teachers must observe the official channels and, in particular, coordinate every external action with the head of the school. However, the official channels do not have to be adhered to when, for example, discussions are held with parents or informal advice is sought from other institutions (e.g. the youth welfare office).

Do I have a duty to report to the police?

In Germany for example, there is no statutory obligation to report suspected child abuse or neglect to the police or any other competent authority. However, this may be different in other countries.

Assuming that the suspicion turns out to be false, don’t I then have to fear charges from the falsely suspected parents myself?

Only if the teacher or the school disregard objective facts, it can happen that the wrongfully filed report of possible child abuse has detrimental consequences for the complainant.

Do I have to cooperate if I am asked for help by the youth welfare office or the police when there is a suspicion of child abuse?

Yes, you would be a witness in such preliminary proceedings. Further obligations may arise from the respective country civil service regulations.

Does the school have to notify the parents of the child or adolescent concerned if it has decided to inform the police or the youth welfare office of its suspicions?

In principle, the parents must first be informed of the indications and, if necessary, asked to seek help from the youth welfare office. If the effective protection of the child or adolescent would be called into question by the parents’ involvement, the school is authorised to inform the Youth Welfare Office directly. The Youth Welfare Office then has the task of fulfilling the protection mandate in order to avert a risk to the child’s or young person’s well-being. The task of hearing witnesses or possible suspects is the responsibility of the police and the judiciary. In this case, informing the parents could jeopardise the investigation if they had to be included in the circle of possible suspects.

Case Study: Domestic violence has a negative impact on children

Gabby married her husband Nick after a long relationship and shortly thereafter moved to her husband’s family farm. The couple were happy at the farm and soon had their first child. During the pregnancy Nick’s behaviour began to change and by the time their daughter was born the relationship did not ‘feel’ as it had before. Nick seemed withdrawn and spent long periods of time by himself. He began to remind Gabby of Nick’s father who had always been a stern presence in his life.

Nick’s behaviour became threatening and controlling, especially in relation to money and social contact. He was increasingly aggressive in arguments and would often shout and throw objects around the room. Gabby thought that because he wasn’t physically hurting her, his behaviour did not constitute abuse. Nick did not show much interest in their daughter, Jane, except when in public, where he would appear to be a doting and loving father.

Jane was generally a well-behaved child, however, Gabby found that she was unable to leave her with anyone else. Jane would cry and become visibly distressed when Gabby handed her to someone else to be nursed. This was stressful for Gabby and also meant that her social activities were further limited.

Jane took a long time to crawl, walk and begin talking. Her sleeping patterns were interrupted, and Gabby did not often sleep through the night, even when Jane was over 12 months of age. When Jane did begin to talk, she developed a stutter, and this further impeded her speech development. Gabby worried about Jane a lot. Their family doctor told her that this was normal for some children and if the speech problems persisted, that she could always send Jane to a specialist at a later date.

After a number of years, Nick’s behaviour became unacceptable to Gabby. During arguments he had taken to holding the rifle that he had for farming purposes, and Gabby found this very threatening. On a number of occasions, items that Nick threw hit Gabby and she was increasingly afraid for their daughter. Gabby decided to leave and consulted the local women’s service, who assisted her to get an intervention order against Nick.

Once Gabby had taken Jane away from Nick her behaviour changed. Jane’s development seemed to speed up and Gabby couldn’t understand why. As part of her counselling at a local women’s service, she discussed this issue and her counsellor recognised the developmental delay, stutter, irritation and separation anxiety as effects of Jane’s having lived in an abusive situation.

This could be seen as a missed opportunity for identifying family violence. If the family doctor could have asked Gabby or Nick (who had presented with chronic back pain) about their relationship then what was happening to the family, and specifically to Jane, could have been identified much earlier.


(1) What forms of domestic violence are present?
(2) What indicators of domestic violence can be seen in the case study?
(3) How do you assess the risk for Gabby and her daughter?

The wide range of professionals, provider services and specialist agencies who may be involved in supporting victim-survivors of domestic violence can include—but are not limited to—primary and secondary health care services, mental health services, sexual violence services, social care, criminal justice agencies, the police, probation, youth justice, substance misuse, specialist domestic violence agencies, children’s services, housing services and education.

Adapted from a case study from RACGP (2014): Abuse and Violence: Working with our patients in general practice


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Buchholz, Thomas (2011): Kinderschutz bei Kindeswohlgefährdung als Aufgabe von Schule und Jugendhilfe. In: Jörg Fischer, Thomas Buchholz und Roland Merten (Hg.): Kinderschutz in gemeinsamer Verantwortung von Jugendhilfe und Schule. 1. Aufl. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag, S. 93–116.

Buschhorn, Claudia; Rüsch, Detlef (2018): Kindeswohlgefährdung und Kinderschutz. In: Herbert Bassarak (Hg.): Lexikon der Schulsozialarbeit. Baden-Baden: Nomos, S. 277–278.