A medical look at child abuse

Dr. Jamye Coffman, medical director, The Center for Prevention of Child Maltreatment and Care at Cook Children's Medical Center, talks about putting the puzzle together.
Up Next
Dr. Jamye Coffman, medical director, The Center for Prevention of Child Maltreatment and Care at Cook Children's Medical Center, talks about putting the puzzle together.

Bud Kennedy

In family violence, the kids watching also get hurt. This city says that’s a crime, too

By Bud Kennedy


September 09, 2017 06:39 PM


First he punches her.

Then he hits her again.

Then maybe he tries to choke her.

It happens about once a day in Burleson alone, often in front of a frightened child.

Be the first to know.

No one covers what is happening in our community better than we do. And with a digital subscription, you'll never miss a local story.

Now, Burleson is among cities pioneering a way to protect children.

A new city ordinance makes it unlawful to physically attack anyone in front of a child, meaning abusers can be punished for a child’s anguish as well as for injuries.

“These children live in constant fear and terror,” said Casey Gwinn, a former San Diego city attorney now leading a national campaign speaking up for children in abusive homes.

“This puts police and the public on notice about the danger to the child.”

Burleson’s new law is only a Class C misdemeanor. The punishment is up to a $500 fine, the most a city can impose.

But the point isn’t the fine. It’s to establish that an attack on a parent or family member is also an indirect attack on a child.

That becomes evidence in a custody case.

“We see women every day who’ve been abused, but then they turn around and have to share joint custody,” said Kathryn Jacob of SafeHaven of Tarrant County, a family violence agency which serves Burleson.

Family courts are filled with men who beat women but claim to be a “good dad.”

Burleson’s law offers paper proof they’re not.

When you commit violence and you’re exposing the child … then you are victimizing the child.

Burleson Mayor Ken Shetter

“We serve dozens of women who would have a different outcome in custody cases under this ordinance,” Jacob said.

Since it’s a city violation and not a state criminal charge, Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson wouldn’t be prosecuting the misdemeanor cases. But she welcomed Burleson adding a charge.

“Studies have indicated that adults who witnessed domestic violence as children are more likely to have relationship difficulties and emotional problems,” Wilson wrote in an emailed statement.

“This ordinance provides an opportunity to talk about the devastating effect on the family where one adult abuses the other.”

Johnson County Attorney Bill Moore did not return a call. (Burleson lies in both counties.)

Mayor Ken Shetter is also president of Fort Worth-based One Safe Place, a crime prevention agency that operates a family counseling and service center for assault victims, both adults and child witnesses.

The ordinance passed the council unanimously, although one council member asked if it applied to spanking, or when “redneck [family members] come over and get into a brawl in your home.”

The law only punishes “unjustified” violence, not legal spanking, Shetter said. (And not whatever muscle it takes to eject redneck relatives.)

It shall be unlawful for a person to intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly allow a child relation or a child of the person’s household to witness the commission of unjustified violence against another.

Burleson City Ordinance Section 54-172

Burleson, with nearly 50,000 people, is the second largest city in Tarrant County west of Interstate 35W.

The city had nearly 300 family violence cases reported last year, 27 with injuries, according to police statistics. More cases this year involve injuries, Shetter said.

“When you commit violence and you’re exposing the child to that, then you are victimizing the child,” Shetter told the council.

He asked council members to pass the law “rather than wait for the state to take action.”

Dr. Dyann Daley of Fort Worth, an anesthesiologist, has a passion for protecting children from abuse and until recently worked with a prevention program at Cook Children’s Medical Center.

She gave the law and accompanying resolution a quick read.

“Everything this says is true,” she said.

“This helps raise awareness that exposing a child to violence, even just within earshot, is traumatic.”

If it helps in Burleson, the next stop is Austin.

Dr. Dyann Daley, executive director of The Center for Prevention of Child Maltreatment, explains child abuse mapping.


Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, @BudKennedy.