Guest Post: My experience as a child witness of domestic violence

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By Millie Grgas

In the middle of Spring-cleaning this year, I found this old tape recording of my first trip to Paris with my mom when I was 5. Listening to that cassette reminds me of how lucky I am to have one parent who cared enough about me and my safety to leave her abuser.

My name is Millie Grgas and I am a survivor and child witness of domestic violence.

No one can tell that right off the bat, though. I am a genuinely happy and well-adjusted individual. One of the most traumatizing things about violence is that even if it is physically destructive, what lasts long after the scars on your skin fade are the emotional and psychological fractures. Those are things that I have to work on every day.

I try to emphasize that abuse is something that happened to me; it does not define me. That said, I know that it has definitely affected me and my outlook on life. I know that it has certainly affected my relationship with the opposite gender.

I grew up always referring to my abuser as “stupid,” never by his actual name. The thought of calling him dad or even “my father” just didn’t feel right. My mom and grandparents never tried to change the way I referred to him, because as they were told by my court-mandated therapists, it was a normal reaction. Not necessarily a healthy one, looking back on it, but these family-therapy sessions were pretty new technologies back when VAWA was just in its beginning phases in creating resources for women. (Childhood trauma was still a burgeoning field of practice.)

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Impact of Exposure to Violence on Development

Other than the role of “every person, every day,” this CEV Week we’re focusing on the impact of exposure to violence on children’s mental, physical and emotional development. To that end, we developed a new resource providing ways to prevent and address the impact of exposure to violence on a child’s development—from early childhood through adolescence.

Devel chartThe Impact of Exposure to Violence on Stages of Development chart provides an overview of the developmental process and ways to help children successfully achieve developmental milestones even in situations where violence and toxic stress intrude in the child’s life.

A developmental approach is based on the concept that as children grow and mature they are faced with emotional and physical tasks they must master before moving along to the next stage. The tasks build upon one another: a toddler learns to explore his world, which provides the foundation for school-aged children to make friends; this ability, in turn, allows an adolescent tries to form a separate identity and become more independent from his family.

When exposed to violence or other traumatic events, a child’s energy is diverted and they have less capacity to master the developmental challenges on which they are currently focused at their stage of development. We know that many children rebound from traumatic experiences and continue to achieve expected developmental milestones.

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New toolkit for Domestic Violence Awareness Month

Life has been chaotic and scary for 8-year-old Tonya.

Her father has abused her mother for years, and Tonya never knows when things will get bad. Finally, a beating pushes Claire, Tonya’s mother, over the edge.

Claire waits for her husband to leave for his night job. Then, at nearly one o’clock in the morning, she gets Tonya out of bed. Without bothering to pack, the two race outside to a waiting cab, which takes them to the Inn Transition South, a women’s shelter and transitional housing site in Miami.

After arriving safely at the shelter, mother and daughter are exhausted and scared. Over the next few weeks, Claire settles in, but Tonya begins to change.

She wakes up with nightmares, and she won’t interact with the other children at the shelter. Claire worries that Tonya is blaming herself for the violence they have experienced. She longs to see her daughter’s beautiful smile again.

This scenario, one of a participant of a former Safe Start grantee program in Miami, is one of many examples of how exposure to domestic violence can harm a child. A 2006 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that 15.5 million children in the U.S. lived in families in which violence between partners occurred at least once in the previous year and seven million children lived in families in which severe partner violence occurred.

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#CEVchat: CEV in the School

We occupied a small piece of the Twitterverse on Wednesday to discuss children’s exposure to violence and the role schools can play to help. A follow-up to the release of our new toolkit, CEV in the School, the Twitter chat was a way to share our abundance of resources as well as answer any questions about the issue.

No surprise to us, the conversation drifted to the lack of resources for educators when it comes to how to deal with students who are struggling to cope after being exposed to violence. (Please visit our Storify page for a collection of key tweets from the chat) Fellow tweeters said resources lacking included professional development for teachers and mental health employees trained in identifying CEV.

The National Survey of Children Exposed to Violence found that 42 percent of children who had been exposed to violence were known to school authorities, evidence of how crucial it is for school officials to be knowledgeable about CEV. Having a teacher trained of the signs and how to help could make a huge impact on a child.

Children’s exposure to violence is a growing, evolving field and much work is being done to make people more aware of its impact and prevalence. The Safe Start Initiative is one of many steps toward awareness and solutions to children’s exposure to violence. Funded by the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, eight grantees across the country are currently implementing evidence-based programs to test their efficacy in preventing and helping children who have been exposed. There is also Attorney General Eric Holder’s Defending Childhood Initiative, which has grantees implementing similar programs with a law enforcement focus.

Thanks to everyone who helped spread the word about this topic. With so much of a child’s time spent in school, educators play such an important role in helping children who have been exposed to violence at home, in the community or within the school itself.

Questions? Suggestions? Feedback?  Feel free to comment below.

CEV Awareness Week: Community Violence

The issue of exposure to violence touches on a wide range of issues. This week we’re highlighting awareness about Children Exposed to Violence and one of its most difficult and common exposures – community violence.

What exactly do we mean by “community violence” and how does it affect children?

Well, the NYU Child Study Center states:

“Community violence (CV) refers to exposure, as a witness or through actual experience, to acts of interpersonal violence perpetrated by individuals who are not intimately related to the victim. In contrast to community violence, domestic violence refers to acts of interpersonal violence between adult intimate partners.”

But, it is also important to remember that community violence can happen anywhere, and is an umbrella for a variety of issues that include things such as gang violence and delinquency.

Now that we’ve explained what it is, what is the affect on children?

According the National Survey on Children Exposed to Violence (NatSCEV)

“19.2 percent of U.S. children under the age of 18 witnessed an assault in their community during a one-year period. The percentage rises with the age of the child: 5.8 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds witnessed an assault in their community, while 42.2 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds witnessed an assault.

Exposure to community violence can hurt children and they are more likely as they grow to develop a harmful and hostile view of the world. They are also one of the highest groups at-risk for re-victimization later in life.

Let’s take a look at gang violence as one aspect of a kind of community violence that negatively impacts kids.

First, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry defines “gangs [as] groups of children, adolescents and young adults who share a common identity and are involved in wrongful or delinquent activities.” These same activities can lead to repeat victimizations or even death.

A recent example from the, Chicago Sun-Times, shares the severe consequences of youth related community gang violence in the Chicago neighborhood of Roger’s Park. In just the past week alone, there were 16 shootings, including 5 murders, showing an increase in the level of violence since 2011. Sadly, this is just one example of many.

But there are ways to fight back that communities and individuals can use to help stop the exposure to violence in their communities.

A great example of this can be seen here, Roseland’s churches campaign to stop neighborhood violence. Churches, residents and community groups in this Chicago neighborhood are banding together to start community-wide efforts to teach awareness about violence exposure. These efforts are targeted to help treat survivors of violence and to help increase protection for their children in the community.

If you want more resources and programs that help prevent community violence, check out the Child Welfare Information Gateway. They have a wide variety of resources and here you’ll find a specific list of state and local examples.

You can also check out more about what the Safe Start initiative has done to help children exposed to violence in the community and other settings in the Communities Working Together To Help Children Exposed to Violence Findings From Phase I of the Safe Start Initiative.

Please continue to join us this week as we talk more about CEV awareness!

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