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Stopping the cycle: How domestic violence affects children

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - The Columbia County Women's Resource Center uses a doll house in its 'play therapy' work to reach children who have experienced domestic violence in their homes, either as victims or witnesses. Since the recent downturn in the economy, people who work in domestic violence advocacy and child abuse cases across the country have seen child abuse rates shoot up, both in number and in brutality.

The cases are also more complex. In some instances, the physical abuse of a child coincides with drug or alcohol abuse by the parent, or it brings to light abuse a parent suffered when he or she was young, said Lisa Galovich executive director of the Amani Center, Columbia County’s child abuse assessment and treatment program.

In times of stress, “sometimes people fall back on and revert to the way they were raised,” Galovich said.

Domestic violence has the tendency to cycle. Like an avalanche moving down a slope, it can start in a small way and quickly become a force, encircling generations.

Galovich has seen the cycle at work.

“Someone has to be willing to break the cycle,” she said. “If they’re not given the right tools, they’ve been set up to fail.”

To her and the advocates at the Columbia County Women’s Resource Center, the right tools are ones that encourage and lead to healing and education.

But, in Columbia County, while there are family counselors and parenting classes, the question is always: “Is there enough?” said Galovich. “Probably not.”

The child in the middle

“Domestic violence programs in general across the state are certainly not overly funded,” said Stephanie Hoskins, who works for the Oregon Department of Human Services to place domestic violence advocates in DHS offices across the state. She believes strengthening ties between the advocates and DHS helps everyone and, most of all, helps clients navigate a complex landscape.

Domestic violence programs must address a wide array of issues: from the predominantly female victims and most often male abusers to the children who are caught in the middle — not always the victims of abuse, but who suffer from its effects in their home.

A child who is around violence is a changed child.

Saundra Mitchell, program manager and counselor with the Columbia County Women’s Resource Center, has seen grade schoolers who live in homes where one of their parents is abused exhibit a wide range of social problems.

“There are more angry outbursts,” she said. “They have more difficulty concentrating because they’re worrying about what’s happening at home.”

This does not simply disappear when the abused parent decides to leave her abuser and takes the children with her.

“You don’t all of the sudden get social skills,” Mitchell said.

One tool WRC counselors use to reach young children in these situations is play therapy. It gives the children one-on-one time with an adult who is “safe” — stable, consistent.

When a child acts out, “what that child is doing is saying, ‘Who is in control of things? Is it going to be OK?’” Mitchell said.

In therapy, “kids don’t want to talk bad about either parent,” Mitchell said. After all, the father who abuses the mother might still be a perfect, loving dad to his kids. So to understand their story, a counselor asks questions.

If a child paints a picture, the counselor looks at where people are located and who is the biggest person in the picture. If a child plays with the dollhouse WRC keeps on hand, how are the figures arranged? Who makes the rules? How do the dolls interact?

Healing

The interviews the Amani Center conducts are very different from the therapy the Women’s Resource Center offers. These are forensic interviews, designed to bring out the truth of an event or a series of events, if the abuse is ongoing. They are not intended to heal a child, though they do open that door.

The interviews are based on development. An abused 12-year-old with a disability may be in a very different place developmentally than a 5-year-old without a disability, Galovich said. But, using that same measure, a 5-year-old who has been emotionally and physically abused may also function at a much younger level.

“People make a hierarchy of what’s important to them,” Galovich said. “If your home environment is out of control and you’re not sure what’s going to happen ... kids who should know their letters and colors, don’t.”

This is not a hopeless situation, however.

Galovich has seen children who, after they have left a stressful, abusive environment, are developmentally right on track.

Amani Center refers almost every child it sees to therapy, as well as many parents especially if the parent was once a victim.

“A parent has to heal themselves before they can help their child heal,” Galovich said. “If people don’t help to heal themselves, these experiences can sometimes come out during times of stress regardless of how hard they try to not have these behaviors.”

Studies have shown children raised in families where domestic abuse occurs have a higher likelihood of someday being abused or becoming an abuser themselves. But children are resilient, Hoskins said.

It is a mistake to think just because a child has witnessed abuse or been abused that this child is now damaged, doomed to always be a victim or doomed to become a monster.

What helps a child who witnesses violence on a regular basis is to have positive relationships with non-abusive adults — this could be an aunt or uncle, the non-abusive parent, teachers, grandparents or family friends, said Cheryl O’Neill, a caseworker with DHS.

“We can all be a part of that.”