Advocating for Children Who Have Witnessed Family Violence

Oct 28 2015

Advocating for Children Who Have Witnessed Family Violence

By Steven Olender

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, an issue that many of the children and youth we serve have faced in some way in their young lives.

Effectively advocating for youth in care means acknowledging they face more trauma than the abuse or neglect that brought them into the system. Focusing only on those issues that landed a child in care overlooks the myriad of other traumas they face, like bullying, LGBTQ issues and poverty. One issue that faces a disproportionate number of children we serve is domestic violence.

Some of our child advocacy specialists have seen up to 85% of their cases affected by domestic violence. This prevalence should be alarming. Witnessing violence is not simply a passive act, as children may be isolated, humiliated, threatened and denied basic needs like healthcare or food. Child witnesses can be pushed into the middle of violence, either into the role of parent to their younger siblings or the role of abuser towards their parent victim. This conflict and emotional insecurity comes at the very time when a child's brain becomes hard wired for future behavior and the added emotional stress can impair cognitive and sensory growth.

We see the effects of this violence manifesting at different points along the developmental spectrum. Infants may see major developmental delays, excessive separation anxiety and regressions in development like forgetting potty training or becoming non-verbal. School-age children can manifest the effects of violence differently, with depression, self destruction, aggressive behavior and problems in school. Over time, as a mechanism for coping, they become more likely to rationalize violence and lose their ability to empathize with the needs of others. Teenagers often exhibit increased suicide risk, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders and risky sexual behavior.

The good news is that children can heal from the effects of witnessing domestic violence if they are nurtured and feel safe. Having a consistent, attentive adult helps children cope better and CASA is committed to helping facilitate this healing.

Most kids we serve are in some form of court-ordered therapy, which is extremely important for their healing. A boy in our care was so terrified of his father that he told his counselor of his plans to self harm as a way of getting out, if he had to return home to the father who terrified him. The counselor was able to work with him through reasonable safety planning to lower his anxiety enough that he could work to the emotional core of the issue.

Addressing this violence is important not simply for the children we serve but to prevent cycles of abuse from continuing. Children who witness abuse may grow up to become perpetrators or victims of domestic and sexual violence as they learn from their parents how they should behave. It is for this reason CASA holds healthy relationship training at least once every year as a part of our youth meet-up series, so that youth learn what is and is not healthy in a relationship to help stop violence before it starts.

For CASA volunteers, as well as CPS workers and judges, getting the best possible outcome for children means digging deeper than the circumstances that brought a child into the system. Whether it is violence that children experienced themselves or that they witnessed, it can have profound impacts on their wellbeing and on their future. CASA volunteers make sure that they know all traumas that a child has faced, so that they can effectively advocate for the right services to help them heal.

Sources:

Cunningham, Alison, and Linda Baker. "How Violence Against a Mother Shapes Children as They Grow." PsycEXTRA Dataset (2007): n. pag. Web.

Unicef, and Stop Violence in the Home. "Behind Closed Doors: The Impact of Domestic Violence on Children." (2006): 1-14. Web. <http://www.unicef.org/media/files/BehindClosedDoors.pdf>.

Paluzzi, Pat, and Abby Kahn. "The Impact of Child Maltreatment and Family Violence on the Sexual, Reproductive, and Parenting Behaviors of Young Men." PsycEXTRA Dataset (2007): n. pag. Web.