“Stop hurting mommy!” Criminal Penalties for Domestic Violence in Front of a Child

By: Myra Reyes

In 2006, the United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Body Shop International, and the Secretariat for the United Nations Secretary-General’s Study on Violence against Children’s global report displayed that an estimated 339,000 to 2.7 million children in the United States have been exposed to domestic violence.[1]  This range is significantly larger compared to other developed nations that only have around an estimated range of 2,000 to 1.1 million children that have witnesses domestic violence, excluding Turkey and Iceland.[2] Only seventeen states have specifically addressed the issue of criminal penalties for domestic violence that occurs in front of a child.[3]  Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Mississippi, Montana, Ohio, and Washington consider domestic violence in front of a child as an aggravating factor for sentencing which usually results in a longer jail term, an increased fine, or both.[4] Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, and Oregon do not use the term “aggravating circumstance” in its statutes but required more severe penalties for domestic violence in front of a child.[5]  Delaware, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Utah have legislation which states that domestic violence in the presence of a child is a completely separate crime which may be charged alone or in conjunction with the act of domestic violence.[6]

The remaining thirty-two states have not addressed this issue in their state statutes. [7] However, Alabama recently proposed Hollie’s law (Alabama House Bill No. 338) to the senate, which if enacted would clarify Alabama’s stance on domestic violence in front of a child. [8] Alabama House Bill Number 338 states that “[d]omestic violence, increased incarceration periods and enhanced penalties for convictions of first, second, or third degree domestic violence if committed in the presence of a minor, capital offense expanded to include murder of a parent or guardian in the presence of a child.”[9] If this bill gets ratified, Alabama would be added to the other eight states that have increased penalties for domestic violence in front of a child.[10]

Hollie law was written in memory of the 2009 murder of Hollie Newbury who was shot and killed in front her children by her ex-husband during a child custody exchange.[11] Her ex-husband, Christopher Rich, only received a capital murder charge because he stole Hollie’s truck after he killed her.[12] Students from the University of North Alabama and the Lauderdale County District Attorney’s Office drafted Hollie’s Law.[13] Critics of laws similar to Hollie’s Law state that enacting these types of laws would expose abusive parents to extra charges for allowing child to witness violence but the effectiveness and repercussions of these laws are currently unknown as the trend is recent.[14] Advocates of these laws feel that judges may not always recognize the harm done to children and ensures that the children are being taken into consideration when deciding a sentence.[15]  While opponents of these laws favor judicial discretion, sometimes a judge may not place the importance of the welfare of the child during sentencing.  The merits of law similar to Hollie’s law would be highlight that domestic violence in front of a child is a grave offense. Furthermore, these laws would ensure equality in sentencing for all perpetrators of this crime.

There are many factors which influence a child’s response to domestic violence such as a child’s age, experience, prior trauma history, and temperament.[16] On March 1, 2016, Alabama Governor Robert Bently signed Winston’s Law into effect which would make aggravated child abuse a Class-A Felony for child victims under the age of six, punishable by life in prison and a $60,000 fine. [17] If Alabama continues with the trend of being tougher on domestic violence then it is likely that Hollie’s law will be enacted. However, the actual effectiveness of harsher penalties in deterring child abuse has yet to be seen.


[1] UNICEF et. al, Behind Closed Doors: The Impact of Domestic Violence on Children, 2006, “http://www.unicef.org/media/files/BehindClosedDoors.pdf”

[2] Id. (showing that Iceland has an abnormally low estimated number of children exposed to domestic violence at 2,000 children, and that Tukey has an abnormally high estimated number of children exposed at 2 to 6.2 million children compared to other developed nations).

[3] See generally U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau, Child Welfare Information Gateway, Child witnesses to domestic violence, (2013) “https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/witnessdv.pdf”.

[4] Id. at 3, see also id. at n. 8.

[5] Id.; see also id. at n. 9.

[6] Id.; see also id. at n. 10.

[7] See generally supra n. 3.

[8] See generally 2016 A.L. House Bill No. 338. (2016).

[9] Id.

[10] Supra note. 3 at 3.

[11] Breken Terry, Bill proposes stricter penalities for domestic violence offenses in front of children, ABCWaay31, http://www.waaytv.com/appnews/bill-proposes-stricter-penalties-for-domestic-violence-offenses-in-front/article_95faedbc-e64c-11e5-9209-cbe73fa37cab.html (last visited March 20, 2016).

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Theresa Vargas, Washington Post, ‘Don’t kill her!’ Children who witness domestic violence carry lifelong scars,  https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dont-kill-her-children-who-witness-domestic-violence-carry-lifelong-scars/2014/03/08/d30cc6bc-9d83-11e3-b8d8-94577ff66b28_story.html (last visited March 20, 2016).

[15] Id.

[16] Domestic Violence Collaborative Group, National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Domestic violence and children: Questions and answers for domestic violence project advances, (2010) http://www.doj.state.or.us/victims/pdf/domestic_violence_and_children.pdf (last visited March 20, 2016).

[17] The Office of Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, Bill Signing for Winston’s Law, http://governor.alabama.gov/newsroom/2016/03/bill-signing-for-winstons-law/ (last visited March 20, 2016).