Domestic violence is devastating to children

by PAIGE KASTELER

Domestic violence is not just a problem for adults. It has an even greater impact on children, a group that cannot seek help for themselves or call attention to their issues.

“Children often experience the same abuse and trauma as battered women do, but children don’t have the emotional capacity to deal with the trauma that their mothers do,” said Mindy Simon, director of Children’s Services for the YWCA.

The number of children who have been victimized from domestic abuse in Utah is at an all-time high, according to the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office. Yet the state has few programs to help with this ever-growing problem. Like many other Utahns, Lisa is struggling to find help for her children who have been abused and victimized.

Lisa, who asked that her last name not be revealed for safety reasons, sought services from the YWCA after years of suffering in an abusive relationship. Lisa has two boys, ages 7 and 10, who also suffered verbal and physical abuse — much more abuse than Lisa realized.

“After I got the boys to talk about the stuff they went through, they told me a lot of stuff that I didn’t think they overheard and sometimes even went through themselves. I had no idea the extent of what they experienced. I always thought I kept them out of it, but with this situation I guess that’s impossible,” Lisa said.

Lisa’s abusive boyfriend had a drinking problem, which led him to become much angrier and physically abusive than he was when he was sober. At first he began to isolate Lisa and emotionally manipulate her. Once Lisa was feeling alone, her boyfriend became physically violent. At first it was just Lisa, but then her boyfriend started being physically abusive with her young boys. That was Lisa’s final indication to leave.

“I should have left much earlier. But I thought I could handle it. Once it turned to my kids though, I knew I had to leave. I couldn’t let them go through what I had been going through for years,” Lisa said.

Once Lisa removed herself and her two boys from the abusive relationship, she had some problems finding places for her boys to get help.

“There are a ton of places for women to get help,” she said. “The YWCA and lots of state programs, but there aren’t that many programs for children that have suffered from domestic violence. I mean someone has to look out for these kids; they can’t get help for themselves like adults can. I think that makes their problems even worse than the problems of women of domestic abuse.”

The YWCA does offer some limited child services and programs, including childcare for children from six weeks to kindergarten age. But no such service is available for children over that age. Simon acknowledges that even the YWCA could use some improvements to its child services.

“As an organization, we are slowly realizing the enormity of the impact that domestic abuse has on children,” Simon said. “We are constantly redeveloping our child services and programs to better serve these children, especially young children, but we can’t fulfill all of their needs. We offer child services and refer them to counselors, but at this point, that’s all we can really do. Although I do realize that this is a huge problem, every child that comes through here is facing a set of obstacles.”

Jennifer Edwards, a Salt Lake resident, also faced issues with her 3-year-old daughter Maya. Edwards’ ex-husband emotionally abused Maya during a prolonged custody battle. Edwards was unsure of how to help Maya.

“I wasn’t sure that counseling could help a child so young, but I didn’t have another option so I tried counseling, and it turned out to be a huge success. It really helped Maya,” Edwards said.

Edwards is a low-income Utahn who received legal help from the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake. This nonprofit organization provided her with free to low-cost legal assistance in dealing with her custody battle and other legal issues with her ex-husband. She got help with her legal needs, but there wasn’t an agency to help with Maya’s issues. Edwards had to cope with Maya’s issues on her own, which was difficult to do, considering all of the other problems she was facing while dealing with her ex-husband.

Edwards is just one of many facing a similar problem. In a national survey of more than 6,000 American families conducted by the American Psychiatric Association, between 53 percent and 70 percent of males who abused their wives also frequently abused their children. One study demonstrated that some fathers deliberately arrange for their children to witness the violence.

This violence often creates an array of problems for the child victims. Not only do they suffer physically, but they also suffer greater emotional and mental damage than adults who suffer the same abuse. Child psychologists are in agreement that abuse occurring to children and adolescents when their brains are in critical development stages results in more permanent and lasting damage than an adult with a fully developed brain.

According to the APA, the symptoms of abuse often include social withdrawal and deterioration of trust; children will isolate themselves and refuse to talk about their traumatic experiences. This results in children being even more unnoticed and therefore receiving less help.

Utah has multiple programs that offer different kinds of assistance to adults, especially women, who suffer from domestic abuse. However, only one program offers any semblance of assistance to children.

The Utah Division of Child and Family Services Web site gives a phone number for people who need help with domestic violence and their children. This line gives references to counseling, shelter and other services. Aside from that resource, this agency doesn’t offer any other assistance to children.

“I guess the state figures it’s the non-abusive parent’s responsibility to take care of all of their kid’s needs,” Lisa said. “And while that parent probably could under normal circumstances, it’s really hard when they’re trying to deal with everything else. If you’re anything like me, then you have your own problems from the abuse and you have to work out a bunch of stuff like where you’re going to go, how you’re going to be a single mom and provide financially for the kids, and legal stuff. It’s really too much to handle without help.” 

Lisa’s boys are still struggling with the effects of their abuse. The boys are doing worse in school; Lisa’s youngest is becoming more withdrawn and isolated and the oldest is starting to act out and lose his temper. Lisa has begun to take them to counseling and hopes that it will help, but it is difficult to afford without assistance.

“I know that counseling will help them. The question is how long I can afford to keep taking them there,” Lisa said.