The forgotten victims of domestic violence
October 19, 2005
When domestic violence is portrayed in the media, we often see images of men perpetrating violence against their girlfriends or wives. We hear loud yelling, objects smashing against the walls, pleas for help, fists making contact with skin, and threats of continued violence. What we don’t often see or hear about are the children who attempt to intervene, who watch through cracked doors, or lie in their beds crying. Children are profoundly impacted by domestic violence although they are often the forgotten victims. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and it is important to note that 3.3 to 10 million children in the United States witness domestic violence each year. Parents often believe that if the children are asleep, in another room, or watching a movie they can hide the abuse from their children, yet children will tell you otherwise. Research indicates that 80 to 90 percent of children who live in violent homes are aware of the abuse. Domestic violence is a problem that affects all family members, with the most acute effects on the children. The legal system is beginning to recognize the need to protect and care for these children. Today approximately 20 states have enacted legislation that specifically includes children who witness domestic violence as a class of persons in need of legal protection. In California, due to the trauma children experience, witnessing domestic violence is considered emotional abuse of a child and is reportable to Child Protective Services.In a violent home, children can be the direct or indirect targets of abuse. In a national survey of more than 6,000 American families, 50 percent of the men who frequently assaulted their wives also frequently abused their children, often in an effort to further control and intimidate their partners. Children may be inadvertently hurt in the crossfire from flying objects or weapons. Younger children may be injured while being held in their mother’s arms, whereas older children may be hurt when trying to protect the victimized parent and stop the abuse which they often believe is their fault.These children are living in unstable environments, where their safety and that of their mothers is often in question. Additionally, in violent relationships, children are frequently used as tools of manipulation. Batterers use children to relay messages during conflicts or separation and use visitation as an opportunity to harass their partner. Children may exhibit a wide range of reactions to the violence in their home. Each child has different coping skills according to developmental level. Preschool/kindergarten age children may become withdrawn or non-verbal. They may exhibit regressed behaviors, concentration problems, eating and sleeping difficulties, and physical complaints. Pre-adolescent children affected by domestic violence may show a loss of interest in social activities, low self-concept, withdrawal or avoidance of peer relations, rebelliousness, and oppositional-defiant behavior in the school setting. Adolescents are at risk of academic failure, school drop-out, self injurious behavior, depression, substance abuse, and engaging in exploitative relationships. Furthermore, children learn from observation. When they witness domestic violence, they learn it is okay to use violence to solve problems and to control people to get what they want. They have often developed attitudes that support the use of violence to maintain power and control in dating relationships. According to Strauss, Gelles, and Smith (1990), men who grow up in violent homes are twice as likely to abuse their partners as men from non-violent homes. Women who were exposed to domestic violence as children are also more likely to become victims of domestic violence in their adult relationships. This pattern of abuse across generations is known as the intergenerational cycle of violence. Although children are profoundly impacted by domestic violence, they are also very resilient and can unlearn the unhealthy behaviors and attitudes they developed. It is important to note that the impact of the domestic violence can be less detrimental if there are protective factors in the children’s lives, including: peer support; high achievement in one area; a strong cultural and ethnic identity; and/or a healthy relationship with the non-violent parent or another significant adult. If you suspect any child to be a victim of abuse please contact Child Protective Services (CPS) at 888-456-930 in Nevada County, 888-886-5401 in Placer County or 775-328-1060 in Washoe County. Also, the Truckee Tahoe Child Abuse Prevention Council, a regional partnership of agencies and individuals, meets monthly to discuss topical issues and create opportunities for enhancing the nurture and well-being of children in the Truckee Tahoe area. Meetings are held the first Thursday of each month at Truckee Town Hall and are open to the public. For more information about TTCAPC activities or local resources for children and families, please call Ruth Hall, Chairperson, at 587-7499. Gina Farrell is the Tahoe Women’s Services Children’s Program Coordinator.