When Violence Hits Home: Responding to Domestic Violence in Families with Kids Requires a Coordinated Effort to Help the Victim and Protect the Children

Article excerpt

Carol Johnson (not her real name) credits her son, in part, with giving her the strength to leave a violent relationship. She suffered severe physical and emotional abuse daily for more than four years and she believed her abuser when he told her she was worthless--until someone else depended on her. carol had three miscarriages caused by abuse before Mark's birth and believes she would have lost him, as well, if her partner hadn't been in jail during her pregnancy.

When Mark was little, he sometimes tried to stop his father from beating his mother. Although he wasn't a direct target of his father's abuse, he was hurt when he got in the way. carol was scared, but didn't know where to go for help. "I knew he was going to kill us, but I didn't know how to leave or where to go," she says. Finally, when Mark was 5, his father was sent to jail again, and Carol fled to another state.

Children in violent families often are caught in the middle, and, in many homes, they also are abused. Even if children are not directly beaten, they can be harmed by exposure to domestic violence.

"Violence begets violence," says Kansas Representative Rocky Nichols. Observing domestic violence as a child makes it all the more likely that a person will become a perpetrator or victim as an adult, he says.

Furthermore, the systems designed to protect children can inadvertently make their problems worse. Welfare workers may remove children from mothers who "failed to protect" them from domestic violence. Victims' advocates argue that women are held accountable for violence against them and their children, even when they seek help. Carol is certain that, had authorities known what was happening, they would have taken Mark away from her.

He was lucky. His mother reports that he doesn't remember the violence he witnessed, and she hasn't given him the details. He is 18 now. Carol reports that he is a "happy, healthy, loving, marvelous boy" who gets good grades and participates in a number of extracurricular activities. He has met his father, a habitual criminal, and is embarrassed by him. He gets angry sometimes that he grew up without a dad and that they're "poor," even though Carol has always been able to work. She returned to school, received her college degree in 1998 and owns a home.

As for Representative Nichols, he has direct experience with the dangers of domestic violence. Two years ago, his sister, Risa Schnegelsiepen, was killed by her husband, who then took his own life. Their 12-year-old twin daughters lost both parents to this horrific act.

"It is impossible for any child to fully recover from such an experience," he says. Like other state legislators across the country, he is searching for policy solutions to the problems confronting adult victims of domestic violence and their children. Increased attention to these problems in recent years has led to several potential approaches.

HOW ARE KIDS AFFECTED?

"There are at least 100 studies documenting the negative effects for children exposed to domestic violence," says Professor Jeffrey Edleson, who directs the Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work. It contributes to a number of behavioral and social problems, he says, ranging from anxiety and depression to increased aggression toward their peers. In many cases, these behaviors persist into young adulthood, and contribute to a generational cycle of violence when grown children use the same behaviors in their personal relationships that they witnessed as children.

Edleson, a nationally recognized expert on domestic violence and child welfare, cautions that not all children respond in the same way. He says children in violent homes need to be individually and carefully assessed to determine the best course of action. Several factors influence how children respond to trauma--the frequency and severity of violence to which they are exposed, the presence or absence of compassionate and trusted adults, and a child's own ability to cope with traumatic situations. …