Domestic violence is defined as a pattern of abuse used by one partner in an intimate relationship to gain or maintain power and control over the other partner. Until recently, domestic violence has focused on adult survivors, but abuse doesn't happen in a vacuum -- it impacts every family member, especially the children.
According to the international group, Futures Without Violence, it is estimated that in the United States 15.5 million children live in homes where domestic violence occurred at least once last year and another 7 million children live in homes where severe violence occurred. Our community is not immune to this, and unfortunately, neither are our children.
Children growing up with domestic violence are impacted both immediately and long term by abuse. Despite parents' best efforts to protect them, nearly 100 percent of children living in homes with domestic violence are aware of the abuse. They sense the tension, hear the escalated voices, threats and screams, and witness the physical assaults. It is important to note that 85 percent of domestic violence is perpetrated by men toward their female partners, and statistics show that 50-70 percent of men who abuse female partners also abuse children in the home.
Children cannot comprehend the complex nature of the power dynamic that exists in all abusive relationships. This leaves them confused, unable to understand why the very person who is supposed to love them is hurting their mother and why their mothers can't protect them. Under these circumstances, it is difficult for children to establish a nurturing bond with either parent. So at a young age they learn they cannot trust adults. With no one to turn to, most children suffer in silence; they have learned to keep the family secret.
When abuse happens in the home it elicits different responses in children. Some try to intervene to protect their mothers and are inadvertently or intentionally injured by the batterer. Others run and hide, and wait helplessly for the abuse to end. Many children who see and hear abuse are affected in the same manner as if they themselves had been physically abused. Without knowing why or when the abuse will occur again, children in violent homes live in a state of constant fear. This takes a tremendous toll emotionally, socially and behaviorally.
No child goes untouched by violence, and every child is affected differently, even within the same family. The frequency and intensity of the violence, the coping skills and temperament of each child and whether she or he has directly experienced abuse influence how well any child survives. There are many signs that indicate a child may be living with abuse, although some may be present for other reasons. Infants are apt to cry excessively, develop eating, sleeping and attachment disorders, and fail to thrive. Preschoolers often regress in behaviors, complain of physical symptoms such as headaches and abdominal pain, and exhibit separation anxiety. School aged children suffer from anxiety and depression, have difficulty establishing peer relationships, and struggle to focus in school. Adolescents struggle with interpersonal relationships, are often delinquent, and exhibit risky behavior. At any age, children may have a strong desire to connect with the batterer, and may imitate abusive behavior, to gain attention and approval.
The good news is that children are resilient. The single most important factor influencing a child's ability to heal from violence is a strong, consistent relationship with one caring adult, typically the non-abusing parent. Educators, caregivers, family members and friends play important roles by providing care and compassion in a safe, supported, predictable environment. Each of us has the ability to make an enormous difference in a child's life by reaching out to non-abusing parents and letting them know we are concerned and that we are there to provide support. As we have seen repeatedly, when a mom is feeling safe and strong, so are her children.
All too often, women inform us that the abuse does not stop when they leave their batterer. Frequently, batterers are granted visitation with their children, and the abuse continues. Visitations, whether supervised or not, translates into opportunities for abusers to control, manipulate, intimidate and emotionally abuse their children and ex-partners. According to one study, during visitation 5 percent of abusive fathers threaten to kill the children's mother, 34 percent threaten to kidnap their children, and 25 percent threaten to hurt their children. These visits also have the potential to turn lethal, as in the recent Manchester, N.H., case where a father killed his 9-year-old son and himself during a supervised visitation.
Domestic violence is a crime, and as a community it is time to raise the standard by holding batterers more accountable. We need to question whether men who are abusive toward their partners and their children should be granted access to the children, a situation which leaves many of our children vulnerable to continued exposure to violence. An examination of the patriarchal root causes of violence against women, and open conversations addressing these issues will allow us to begin to create a community where every child can feel safe, free to grow and reach their maximum potential.
The Women's Freedom Center is the local organization in Windham County working to end domestic and sexual violence. Follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/womensfreedomcenter and at www.womensfreedomcenter.net. You can reach an advocate on our 24-hour crisis line at 802-254-6954.