Defending Childhood Recommendations: Domestic violence services

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Attorney General Eric Holder affirms that children’s exposure to violence is nothing less than a national crisis. With this public health issue comes serious ramifications for the future of our country and the young men and women who will soon be called upon to build that future.

In response to these troubling statistics and others, Holder launched the Defending Childhood Initiative in 2010, which has since resulted in a report on prevalence of childhood exposure to violence and recommendations to address it. Throughout the month of July we’ll take a closer look at some of the recommendations, what is being done and what you can do to help.

One of the Task Force recommendations is to “ensure that parents who are victims of domestic violence have access to services and counseling that help them protect and care for their children.”

Everyone knows that within intimate relationships, conflicts occur. When parents handle differences calmly, particularly in the presence of their children, they are helping to shield their children from toxic stress. On the other hand, heated confrontations in front of children are much more likely to teach even young children that home is far from safe. This is particularly true when there are frequent hostile interactions between parents. Repeated exposure to such conflicts can be a source of chronic stress. Infants can begin to worry for their parents and to see their parents as frightening. Toddlers and school-aged children are likely to learn aggressive behavior and develop poor social and emotional skills.

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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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Safe Start in the Community: Aurora, Colo.

FB general coverThroughout the month we will feature the 10 Safe Start Promising Approaches grantees and the work they’re doing in their communities to help children exposed to violence and their families.

Tommy is an 8-year-old boy who is struggling in school after witnessing domestic violence. He often saw his mother, Gail, being hit and thrown to the ground by her boyfriend. At school, Tommy began having difficulty concentrating, getting into fights at recess, and refusing to do his homework. At home, Tommy talked back to his mom, spent time away from the family, and did not want to talk to anyone about what had happened.

Tommy had been seeing a school-based therapist. After Tommy started showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as being distracted and jumpy and not listening, the therapist referred him to the Aurora Safe Start program. Tommy’s teacher knew about the program after attending training by the Safe Start project manager. The training addressed the effects of exposure to violence and trauma on children’s educational achievement.

At the Aurora Safe Start program, Tommy receives Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. He learns and practices coping skills and things to do at school and home to help him when he feels scared or angry. He learns how to relax his body with his breathing and using positive thoughts. Eventually, Tommy writes a story about the night when his mom was hurt by her boyfriend.

Gail learns how she can support Tommy and talks with him about his feelings, especially his feelings when he saw her being hit. At the end of treatment, Tommy feels more comfortable at home and school. His behavior is not perfect, but he is not getting in trouble at school and goes to his mom when he needs help with his feelings.

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Women Making an Impact on CEV: Sherry Hamby

This month the Safe Start Center is honoring National Women’s History Month by profiling women who have made an impact on the issue of children’s exposure to violence.

hamby2012Dr. Sherry Hamby is currently Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at Sewanee, the University of the South and part of the team who developed and conducted the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV). A licensed clinical psychologist, Hamby is founding editor of the Psychology of Violence journal, published by the American Psychological Association, and has written a variety of publications on family violence and youth victimization.  With Mary Beth Skupien, she also conducted the first reservation-based study of intimate partner violence among American Indians.

Why do you feel children’s exposure to violence is an important issue and how did you get involved?

Starting with children is our best chance to break the cycle of violence and reduce the psychological, physical, and financial burdens of violence.  Like virtually everyone, I have seen the price that loved ones pay when they are exposed to violence. My own work in the anti-violence movement started with domestic violence, which is also a key part of the solution to reducing the societal burden of violence.  David Finkelhor knew I liked questionnaire development and he asked me to help develop a measure that could assess the full spectrum of violence.  That turned into the Juvenile Victimization Questionnaire (JVQ).  More personally, having children of my own has changed the way I view the problem of violence.  Becoming a mother has been a big part of my developing a focus that is more child-centered and family-centered and less oriented around institutional categories.

What have you learned through your work on NatSCEV?

I learned that the interconnections among all forms of violence are stronger than I ever even imagined.  Who knew that victims of sexual assault are also at higher risk for property crime?  Early work tended to look for connections across seemingly similar types of violence, such as domestic violence against an intimate partner and physical abuse against a child.  It turns out this “matchy-matchy” approach is wrong.  Other forms of child maltreatment, such as neglect, are more closely tied to domestic violence, for example.  Most of the underlying vulnerabilities that lead to poly-victimization (multiple victimizations) are not specific to any one type of violence.

What would you like to see develop in research, policy and/or communities regarding children’s exposure to violence?

I would like to see a more developmental approach.  In many ways, the needs of a 6-year old who has been maltreated are more like the needs of a 6-year old who has been bullied than they are like a 16-year old who has been maltreated.  Services would be better organized around the main developmental stages of childhood, not by specific types of violence.  Zero-to-Three is one such model.  Why stop at 3?


Children and Domestic Violence: Public policy, parents and community involvement

From Safe Start Center Director Elena Cohen

Research has clearly demonstrated that children who are exposed to domestic violence exhibit significantly more behavioral and emotional problems than children who have not been exposed.  Importantly, children who are exposed to violence are more likely to use violence in solving problems as adolescents and adults.

Children’s reactions to exposure to violence can be immediate or appear much later. Reactions differ in severity and cover a range of behaviors. One common response is a loss of trust, while another is a fear of the event reoccurring. But not all children exposed to violence react in the same way. Some children exposed to domestic violence show no greater problems than children not so exposed.  Even siblings in the same household may be exposed to differing degrees of violence depending on how much time they spend at home. Protective adults – including the child’s mother, relatives, neighbors and teachers, older siblings, and friends – may all play protective roles in a child’s life. The child’s larger social environment may also play a protective role if extended family members or members of church, sports or social clubs with which the child is affiliated act to support or aid the child during stressful periods.

Research has shown it is likely that a child who is exposed to domestic violence will also suffer other types of traumatic experiences. For example, the Adverse Childhood Experiences found that men exposed to physical abuse, sexual abuse, and adult domestic violence as children were 3.8 times more likely than other men to have perpetrated domestic violence as adults.

Public Policy Responses  

Laws relating to childhood exposure to domestic violence have changed considerably in the last decade. These laws focus most often on criminal prosecution of violent assaults. There are several examples of recent legislative changes in criminal statutes in a number of states that directly respond to concerns about the presence of children during domestic violence assaults.  Some laws have been changed to permit misdemeanor level domestic assaults to be raised to a felony level charge.  In addition, many states now include the presence of domestic violence as a criterion that judges may use to determine custody and visitation arrangements when disputed.

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#CEVchat: Children and DV recap

Exposure to DV puts kids at risk for becoming poly-victims, more so than many other forms of violence.

— Sherry Hamby, psychologist and NatSCEV researcher

In observance of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Safe Start Center teamed up with VAWnet to host a Twitter chat on children’s exposure to domestic violence.

Special guest Sherry Hamby discussed the issue related to findings from the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV).

Hamby explained that NatSCEV found more than one in four children were exposed to domestic violence during their lifetime and that the definition of parents has been expanded to include others in a household that may participate in the violence.

“Boyfriends of mothers, for example, were 1 of 9 perpetrators and are missed in most studies of children’s exposure to dv,” Hamby tweeted.

Other than Hamby’s insight, participants from across the country were able to connect, ask questions and share resources. From polyvictimization to building resilience, the chat covered multiple aspects of children’s exposure to domestic violence.

Missed the chat? Catch up on the discussion on Storify.

Domestic Violence Awareness Month is almost over, but work to protect children exposed to this type of violence isn’t. Below, find helpful resources for anyone who works with children and families touched by domestic violence.

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#CEVchat: CEV in the Home

You’re Invited!

Please join us Oct. 24 at 2 p.m. ET as we take to Twitter to discuss domestic violence’s impact on children. In observance of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we’re joining forces with VAWnet to discuss the prevalence and implications of children’s exposure to domestic violence and what parents, practitioners and family advocates can do to help.

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.  The study also found seven million children lived in families in which severe partner violence occurred.

To increase awareness, the Safe Start Center recently released a toolkit focused on children’s exposure to domestic violence.  The toolkit includes an easy to understand infographic, issue brief and tip sheets on CEV and how adults can help.

VAWnet, a project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, is an online library supporting evidence-based, culturally-specific prevention and response to domestic and sexual violence. VAWnet’s collection of materials on Children Exposed to Domestic Violence review key research findings and offer promising practices.

We hope you’ll join us using #CEVchat to follow and participate in the conversation. Questions about how our Twitter chats work? Find instructions here or click on the Twitter Chats tab at the top of this page.

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Feedback? Questions?  Feel free to contact us at

The impact of domestic violence on children’s health

As we continue the conversation this month we wanted to raise awareness about domestic violence as a health care issue contributing to a number of short and long-term mental and physical health problems. Futures Without Violence points out some of the health issues that exposure to domestic violence contributes to, including depression, sexually transmitted infections, substance abuse, diabetes and even heart disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the monetary cost of domestic violence is also high, costing several billion dollars each year in the provision of direct medical and mental health care services.

For children exposed to domestic violence, one of the biggest risks is the threat of physical injury. In a domestic violence situation children are more likely to be abused by the adults in the home. In these situations children are also at higher risk for developing physical illnesses such as migraines, asthma and gastrointestinal problems. These health risks also don’t typically end during adolescence. In their adult years these same children are also much more prone to develop cancer and obesity, as well as the health problems mentioned above.

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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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Teen Dating Violence: An Overview of Boys and Girls

Teen Dating Violence (TDV)

We opened the month in support of Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, and this week we’d like to talk more about how teen dating violence affects girls and boys. Because “among adolescents aged 12 to 21, almost 3 in 10 have experienced violence in opposite-sex relationships,” and according to “in the United States, teens and young women experience the highest rates of relationship violence. In fact, 1 in 10 female high-schoolers say they have been physically abused by a dating partner in the past year.”

The Cycle of Violence

Although teen dating violence is a problem itself, it is helpful to look at violence as a whole to better understand why, how, and when it happens. One way of looking at the subject of violence is through what is called the “cycle of violence,” which looks at the different phases of abuse. This cycle is about controlling another person within the boundaries of a relationship, and it can be physical, emotional, mental, or even financial.

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