Scarier than monsters under the bed

November 20, 2009
By

Domestic violence hurts children, too

When we think of domestic violence, we tend to think of a situation between two adults in an intimate relationship…and we turn away and leave it to them to resolve. As a community, we can do better, and we should—for many reasons. Turning away further isolates victims who desperately need to hear the words, “You are not alone.” Turning away empowers abusers. And it does nothing for the thousands of children who witness the abuse of their mothers or primary caregivers each year.

Children are the collateral victims of domestic violence. They can suffer long-term, devastating effects from seeing—or hearing from behind closed doors—the abuse of their mothers. The abuser is often their father, which adds a further layer of confusion, hurt and despair.

“What happens to children when one parent is the terrified victim and the other is the perpetrator? There are no adults who are able to focus on the child’s perspective,” points out Betsy McAlister Groves, director of the Child Witness to Violence Project at Boston Medical Center.

In addition, children living in homes where a parent is being abused are often abused themselves, and many exhibit symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. Without some form of intervention, it is likely they will perpetuate the cycle of violence later in life, either as batterers or victims themselves.

Fortunately, there are steps we can take to help end the intergenerational cycle of violence in families. At Boston-based non-profit Casa Myrna Vazquez, Greater Boston’s leading provider of shelter and supportive services to women and children made homeless by domestic violence, we worked with 75 children in our residential programs last year. Over 80 percent were under the age of 6. Our specially trained family services advocates helped them and their mothers recover from the trauma of abuse and violence. For younger children, that can mean helping them feel safe enough to laugh, play and sleep through the night. It can also mean working with mothers to help them learn appropriate, calm and supportive ways to respond to the violent behavior their children may be exhibiting.

Younger children in need of specialized help may be referred to the Child Witness to Violence Project. Older children are connected to the Homeless Student Initiative at Boston Public Schools, which helps ensure their psycho-educational needs are being met. We work to ensure all the children are connected to a network of community-based support systems that will help sustain them after they have moved on.

What can members of the public do? Talk with their children about healthy relationships. Speak up about domestic violence with friends and family. Be willing to have those difficult conversations. As a community, we can’t turn a blind eye to the domestic violence in our midst. Unlike monsters under the bed, it’s real. Pretending it isn’t real won’t make it go away. Any child can tell you that. Especially the ones living with domestic violence.

Anyone who is experiencing or knows someone they believe is experiencing domestic violence, they may call the toll-free, multi-lingual state hotline SafeLink at 877-785-2020, which is operated by Casa Myrna, or go to www.casamyrna.org for more information.
Linda Jo Stern
Jamaica Plain

The writer is the executive director of Casa Myrna Vazquez.