Pictures Tell Stories of Young Witnesses to Violence at Home

Article excerpt

Byline: Lewis Taylor The Register-Guard

A weekly meeting that started out as child care for battered women in support groups has grown into something much more at Womenspace.

The children who come to the Eugene domestic violence agency all have experienced domestic violence in one form or another. They range from toddlers to 15-year-olds. The youths take part in "play therapy," "art therapy" and other exercises - for support and to stimulate them to share.

Sometimes it's as simple as telling their experiences during group discussions. At one recent meeting, a willowy girl with short black hair volunteers her story.

"Once, in the living room, my dad was fighting with my mom and then I tried to stop him," she says.

"He pushed me and then I got hurt. The end."

Such tales are not uncommon. Sometimes the kids tell their stories with the aid of their own illustrations.

"This is a guy and the kids are running to the neighbors' house and calling the police," says a tough-looking little boy pointing to a magic marker drawing. "Then the police (came) and he got arrested."

Cindi Hirschhorn, the coordinator of children's activities at Womenspace, says the weekly meetings are multifaceted.

"People call it a lot of different things, but for me it's education," Hirschhorn says. "I am here to educate the kids. That doesn't mean that we don't do a lot of things to build self-esteem. We talk about domestic violence not being their fault, we talk about their safety, we talk about how they have choices in life."

There is therapeutic value to the activities that go on, but Womenspace officials say "peer counseling" is probably the best way to describe the meetings, which have been in existence for more than two years. The kids are divided by age into small groups. Along with the more serious group discussions and activities, there are also field trips, birthday parties and, of course, snack time. All that's required is that their mothers be in a support group at Womenspace.

"There's a lot of empowerment, assertiveness, being able to advocate for themselves, learning how to seek help from a safe adult," says Margo Schaefer, community outreach director for Womenspace. "Hopefully, they'll never be in that situation again, but if they are, (the hope is) that they have some of those skills."

There's a commonly held belief that domestic violence doesn't affect children because they aren't the intended targets of the abuse. Womenspace officials say it's a myth that they would like to put to rest.

`I would talk to the moms about the kids and they would say, `Oh, no, they didn't hear anything, they didn't see anything,' and they were adamant about it,' says Hirschhorn. `Then I spoke to the kids and the comment I heard more than anything else was, `I stay in bed at night and hope my mom won't die.' '

Not only do kids often hear what's going on, Hirschhorn says, but they go to bed scared, wake up tired and have trouble paying attention in school. They act out, skip meals and can't concentrate because their minds are on what's happening to their mothers.

"You can't hurt the child's primary partner (the mother) without hurting the child (and without) teaching the child all of these completely inappropriate lessons on gender, on aggressiveness, on violence and manipulation," says Schaefer. …