Masters Theses

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science


Child and Family Studies

Major Professor

Megan Haselschwerdt

Committee Members

Elizabeth Johnson, Jenny Crowley


Children exposed to domestic violence (CEDV) disclose their experiences to a variety of people, most commonly peers and less commonly formal (e.g., teacher) and legal (e.g., police) professionals. Legal system involvement and disclosure is more common than formal system disclosure yet remains understudied leaving unanswered questions about the nature of these disclosers and factors that influence the disclosure decision. Guided by communication privacy management theory and Johnson’s typology of domestic violence (DV), this study addressed gaps in the CEDV literature through a theoretical thematic analysis of the DV exposure and legal system involvement and disclosure experiences of 25 young adults (19-25 years; 23 women, 2 men; racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse college students) exposed to father-mother-perpetrated DV during their childhood. I specifically focused on factors that influenced their legal system involvement and disclosure decisions. Half of the participants had no legal system involvement (n = 12; nondisclosers) and half had at least some legal system involvement (n = 13; disclosers). Factors influencing the nondisclosures’ lack of legal system involvement included compartmentalizing their fathers’ violence, contextual constraints, and fearing their father, but some did discuss DV within their families whereas others never spoke about the DV. Over half of these young adults were categorized as being exposed to situational couple violence. Disclosers’ influencing varied based on initial versus subsequent disclosures. Initial disclosure factors included escalating violence and wanting to protect themselves or other family members, whereas subsequent disclosure factors were specific to whether their disclosure goal aligned with the outcome, familial responses upon disclosing and associated outcomes, and whether it produced a self-perceived positive (e.g., violence decreased) or negative (e.g., feeling blamed/guilty) outcome. The majority of these young adults were categorized as having been exposed to coercive controlling violence. Overall, these young adults’ legal system disclosure decisions were heavily dependent upon their family’s secrecy norms pertaining to non-familial involvement. This study has implications for practitioners working with DV-exposed youth, as our findings unpack the conditions under which youth choose to (not) disclose, the factors influencing these decisions, and how the responses and reactions from legal systems inform future disclosure decisions.

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