Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

The Silent Victims; Children of Domestic Violence Left in Limbo When Domestic Abuse Turns Tragic, Orphaned Kids Become Torn between Divided Families

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

The Silent Victims; Children of Domestic Violence Left in Limbo When Domestic Abuse Turns Tragic, Orphaned Kids Become Torn between Divided Families

Article excerpt

Byline: Story by DEIRDRE CONNER

In the news reports you read about his mom -- if you remember them at all -- Ahmareon Ellis was mostly a postscript.

His role, like that of so many other anonymous children in Northeast Florida, was a simple, chilling detail in the story of his mother's violent death.

You wouldn't know it to meet him. He's a child who lights up his family, the way his mom once did: smart as a whip, with a kind, contagious smile.

Tarnesha Ellis' big family -- they all called her "Tasha" or "Pooh" -- like to recall how in 2005, at age 23, she was working at a good job and planning to buy a house. How she was caring for Ahmareon, then a 3-year-old, going back to church, getting her life together.

But she had a problem. His name was Steve.

"She told me she didn't think Steve was the kind of man she wanted to raise her child," said Mercie Ellis, her grandmother.

It was the only inkling she gave her family that there was something wrong with the on-again, off-again boyfriend who wasn't her son's father. It was the last conversation she ever had with her grandmother.

Steve decided that if he couldn't have Tasha, no one would.

He chased her through her house and broke down the door to the closet where she was hiding. He beat her to death in front of her son.

Then he took Ahmareon out for ice cream and dropped him off at Mercie Ellis' house.

When Steven W. Montgomery was sentenced last year, the judge who imposed the 45-year prison term called his crime the worst murder he had seen, maybe ever.

When Ahmareon saw his mug shot on television that night, he said, "That's daddy."

THE HIDDEN VICTIMS

Ahmareon Ellis is one of a handful of children who are orphaned every year by domestic violence murders, leaving one parent dead and the other imprisoned, or by murder-suicides. Some are high-profile, such as the 11-year-old who witnessed his father kill his mother and then himself at Baptist Medical Center this year. Mostly -- but not always -- their fate is described this way: "The child at the scene was unharmed."

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Children are the missing element in the public's understanding of domestic violence, said Betsy McAlister Groves, a social worker and director of the Child Witness to Violence Project at Boston Medical Center.

"The children may be physically unharmed, but they are not psychologically unharmed," she said. "The message about how children are affected is critically important. We call them the hidden victims."

The effects of domestic violence can reach deep into a family tree, especially if children don't receive proper support and counseling, said Sharon Youngerman, an expert in child counseling and executive director of Quigley House, a shelter in Clay County.

"They may seem to get over it," she said. "But as they become adults, they become more likely to be victims of it or perpetrate it."

That uncertain future never makes it to the headlines. There's little research on the subject of children left orphaned by domestic violence because the veil of silence is so widespread.

Donna Cohen, a University of South Florida professor who has written about murder-suicide and domestic violence homicide, said information is scarce when it comes to studies of children orphaned by such events. Researchers find that only about a quarter of families are willing to speak with them about the impact of such traumatic events, Cohen said.

"The families really are co-victims as well as the people who are killed," she said. They struggle with feelings of shame and guilt. They wonder if they could have, should have done more.

There's only one way to describe it, said Jacksonville resident Anita Samuels: "It's pure hell."

A CHAOTIC AFTERMATH

It was seven years ago when Samuels' oldest daughter was murdered by her abusive husband. …

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