Former children's services counselor describes working with the young victims of domestic violence
Growing up in Fresno, L.K. remembers drawing pictures of happy families, creating a fictional world she could slip into and escape from domestic violence at home.
In her make-believe perfect family, there was no yelling, punching, shoving – and no mothers crying. At the sound of an angry voice, she would sketch a character and “I would become someone else when bad things were happening,” she says.
L.K. was 7 years old when her father left and the domestic violence ended, but invisible bruises left by the abuse she witnessed have yet to entirely heal more than two decades later. She married and divorced an abuser, she says, struggles with anxiety and self-esteem, and has difficulty trusting others.
The Bee is identifying L.K. by her initials to maintain her children’s privacy.
More than two-thirds of the time when a police officer responds to a domestic violence 9-1-1 call in Fresno, children are home. And being caught in the middle of the violence can scar children, even if they are not physically assaulted. Fresno is overwhelmed with domestic violence; in the past year there were more assaults that left victims seriously injured or traumatized than in prior years.
Children exposed to domestic violence react to the experiences in different ways, but studies show the effects can be devastating and long lasting. About 40 percent of children in homes where there has been physical violence have mental illnesses, such as depression, anxieties and conduct disorders. Brain development in the very young child can be affected. Physical health can be compromised as well, with children more likely to have asthma, upset stomachs and other ailments.
Exposure to severe physical violence – punching, beating, shoving, threats with a gun or knife or use of a weapon – can also trigger Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in children, with the same effects as seen in combat veterans. Some studies have found as much as 50 percent of elementary-school-age children in shelters show signs of PTSD.
Only about 20 percent of children are resilient to the stresses of domestic violence, says Sandra Graham-Bermann, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who has studied the effects of violence on children for 30 years. Domestic violence is “toxic” to young people, she says.
L.K., 34, did not escape unscathed.
She went to college to become a clinical social worker and studied psychology, but says she still feels insecure. She doubts herself. “I’m always questioning, ‘Am I doing the right thing.’”
She swore she would not end up in the same type of relationship as her mother, but she says she married at 18 and the cycle repeated. “All the red flags were present at the beginning of the relationship,” but she ignored them, telling herself that her husband’s behavior wasn’t as bad as her father’s had been.
After 11 years of marriage and three children, she divorced two years ago. Now “trust is an issue” with dating, she says.
Witnesses to violence
Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer says, as a general rule, children are in 70 percent of the homes when patrol officers investigate domestic violence.
Children of domestic violence exhibit a spectrum of emotions and behaviors when they come to Marjaree Mason Center in Fresno, which provides safe houses, counseling and other services to victims of domestic violence and their children. “They might be aggressive in their language and in their behavior or both, and sometimes they’re very isolated and withdrawn and shy – afraid of people,” says Corina Carrillo, former children’s services coordinator.
Some children living in a state of fear have developmental delays, Carrillo says. It’s not uncommon to see a 3-year-old who does not talk, for example.
Older children can refuse to speak, having been taught to keep the family’s secret and remain silent. Nicole Linder, executive director at Marjaree Mason, tearfully recalls a 12-year-old girl who did not say more than 10 words when she came to the shelter. The staff gained her trust and finally, the girl shared: “I never knew what it felt like to be safe, to sleep without being afraid.”
As a child, L.K. pretended to be asleep when a fight started, but she heard the yelling and her mother’s cries, and she sensed the fear that lingered in the home afterward.
Her mother kept an immaculate house in an attempt to please her husband, and admonished L.K. and a younger brother not to make a mess and to be quiet. L.K. grew up thinking: “Maybe, if I wasn’t good enough, or I did something bad or if I wasn’t perfect, that my mom would get hurt in some way.”
She had another thought too: By being a perfect child, she would be safe from her father. “He’ll never do anything bad to me. He’ll never hit me.” The abuse, however, trickled down to her and her younger brother, she says, recalling a time when she stepped in front of her mother to protect her. “He just grabbed me and threw me out of the way and I hit the wall.”
It’s not uncommon for perpetrators of domestic violence to abuse their children.
Graham-Bermann says children can be “poly-victimized,” having experienced domestic violence, child abuse and possibly sexual abuse and are more prone to having mental health problems, delinquency, aggressive and violent behaviors.
Programs to help children of domestic violence can work, she says. “We have a Kids’ Club program that has been able to reduce about 80 percent of the problems of the aggression and anxiety.” And the program also reduces post-traumatic stress for the mothers.
At Marjaree Mason, children are offered individual and group counseling, and Carrillo says the center provides children with a safe place. “It’s a judgment-free zone where everyone can be comfortable,” Carrillo says. “The children trust us and we are not going to judge them or shame them in any way.”
L.K.’s eldest son has benefited from having a Big Brother. Children need healthy role models, she says. She could have used one.
“If there was somebody in my life who showed me something different, or a relationship that was different, then maybe things would have been different for me.”
Help for children and adults
The Marjaree Mason Center offers individual and group therapy for adults and children affected by domestic violence.
Call the 24-Hour Crisis Hotline for referrals at 559-233-4357. All hotline services are confidential to individuals seeking support, help and information.
For non-emergency inquiries, call the administration office at 559-237-4706.