Children become innocent victims of abusive relationships

October 13, 2001|By KELLY GRANT, Staff Writer

The sounds are chilling.

As a little girl screams for help, the angry confrontation between her drunken stepfather and seemingly helpless mother rages in the background.

The girl, Lisa, though only 6-years-old, knows enough to call 911 at times like this. It's not the first time Lisa has witnessed domestic violence in her home.

And it won't be the last, say workers at the Center for Family Solutions of Imperial Valley.

"Could you just send the police, please?!" Lisa begs the emergency operator.

"He's hurting Mommy," Lisa says.

Workers at the center use this recording of a real emergency call to illustrate how children are affected by domestic violence.

It's important for people to realize that even if kids aren't the intended targets of violence, they are deeply affected by witnessing it happen to those around them, center officials say.


Many women in abusive relationships figure if they are the only ones being hit and battered, their children aren't suffering.

Not true, say center officials.

Even if children hide when the violence starts, they can still hear the yelling and the beating.

"Children are the most innocent victims," said center Executive Director Barbara Shaver.

"They can't do anything about the living situation. They can't move themselves out," Shaver said.

Instead, they adapt by taking on different roles. Some act as the scapegoat to try to deflect attention from the victim with their own bad behavior. Some take on other roles such as that of the super achiever who obsessively tries not to do anything wrong.

"They're not allowed to be children," Shaver said.

As kids age, the violence continues to affect them.

Some teen-age girls will seek motherhood to provide the unconditional love and happiness they lacked from one or both of their own parents.

Domestic violence is a learned behavior, center officials explain. Kids who see it while growing up will likely do it or be its victims as adults.

According to one statistic provided by the center, a boy who has witnessed his father abusing his mother is 1,000 times more likely to be a batterer than boys who don't.

Center officials hope that if women won't leave abusive relationships for their own good, they will for their children. It's not just a suggestion: it's the law.

It is illegal to perpetrate domestic violence in front of children, Shaver explained. It becomes a form of secondary child abuse and if you don't take action, your children can be taken away from you, she said.

Children coming with their mothers to the center's emergency shelter are introduced to the center's children's programs, activities designed to make life less stressful for kids in the shelter while still addressing domestic violence. Children outside the shelter also participate while their mothers receive services at the center.

When she begins working with the kids, center children's program coordinator Alejandra Castro says most are shy and want to keep to themselves. The majority of kids Castro works with have been the direct victims of domestic violence and have witnessed their mothers being abused.

"It takes them a while to trust people," Castro said.

Gradually, the kids start to come around and eventually many believe Castro when she tells them they can always come to her with their problems.

"That makes me feel good, that they can trust me," Castro said.

The room in which Castro works with children at the center's offices is bright and colorful. The walls are decorated with artwork the kids have given her. Several of the children's smiling photographs are displayed. This is a place where the kids can get back to the happiness captured in those photos.

The kids work on educational lessons ranging from domestic violence to water safety. The children put on skits and discuss ways to deal with anger in non-violent ways.

"I like them to draw a lot," Castro said. "I like to see them express themselves in their drawings."

The children's program also has a gardening project where "they learn that if they care for plants and give them water and things like that, they'll get results," Shaver said.

"We teach the children to nurture through gardening because a lot of them don't know how to nurture. They've not been nurtured themselves," Shaver said.

In helping kids deal with domestic violence, it's important to make the children feel loved and to tell them they are not responsible for what happened, center officials say.

"Children learn by what they see," Castro said.

By eliminating the abuse and showing them respect and caring, children of domestic violence don't have to be destined to repeat the cycle.

Staff Writer Kelly Grant can be reached at 337-3441.

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