by Laura Young, Youth Advocate
Daily, children witness and are affected by domestic violence. In 2011 the United States Department of Justice found that “One in four children (26 percent) were exposed to at least one form of family violence during their lifetimes. Most youth exposed to family violence, including 90 percent of those exposed to IPV (Intimate Partner Violence), saw the violence, as opposed to hearing it or other indirect forms of exposure.”
This statistic is high and shocking, however, what shocks me more is the lack of support for children who are witnesses of violence. We have known for some time that a child’s brain and body reacts differently to stress then an adults does. As hard as it is for an adult to recover from witnessing a violent experience, children lack the ability to process through trauma without help and supports. Children often can act out because of all that they have seen or heard in the home. However, it was surprising for me to learn that for a child who has witnessed violence, receiving support after witnessing violence is more of an exception than the norm. A study referenced in the Caledonian Record stated that “none of the more than 400 children who were exposed to violence or trauma in 2014 were referred to mental health or social service agencies.” Although the study was limited to New Hampshire and was done in 2014, it is safe to assume that things are not much different only a short way away here in Vermont and it’s safe to assume nearly two years later not much has changed. This study highlights that children who witness violence are often, unfortunately, quickly forgotten. Yet what they witness and what they have seen can affect their life in many ways both immediately after witnessing violence as well as over the course of their lives.
When he was eight, Michael (his last name was removed to protect his identity) can be heard begging dispatchers in a frantic 911 call (which I give a word of caution for-it’s really hard to hear) to save his Mom as he watches his Mom be stabbed by his Dad. In an article by the Washington Post, then fourteen year old Michael shares about how witnessing a brutal attack on his mother has affected him. “Am I psychologically messed up?” Michael asks. “Yes, it affected me, but there are kids who have witnessed domestic violence for years and years and years. The really unfortunate truth is that if a kid has witnessed things like that from a very young age, they may think it’s okay. I feel because of the experience I’ve had, I will never mistreat my partner in any way.”
Michael is right, while some children grow up to be more respectful of their partners having seen violence, others fall into the cycle as either a batterer or someone being abused. Many times in speaking with an adult survivor here at Umbrella, they disclose to me that they had witnessed domestic violence as a child. All of them say they never wanted to live the same way they had seen their abused parent live, yet with tears, they tell me that they are being abused.
As sad as it can be to see children who are not receiving the services that they need to avoid continuing the cycle, we are not helpless in this situation. It’s time for society to start stepping up and advocating for children who witness domestic violence. So you may say, I agree but there’s nothing I can do. Actually, there are a few things you CAN do!
There is hope for children who witness violence. Although they have experienced a trauma, many will go on to lead successful lives if they receive the help that they need. Let’s not let these children go unnoticed.