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Johnny was lucky - nobody ever laid a hand on him. He heard all the yelling and screaming, he saw his mother pushed around sometimes. He heard the thump of her body hitting the kitchen floor as he curled up, crying silently, in a dark corner of his bedroom. But no one ever hit him. He wasn't a victim of domestic violence himself. Or was he?
Children don't have to be victims of violence themselves to be deeply affected by it. For children living with domestic violence, it's as if they're living in a war zone, said Saralyn Tabachnick, program director and counselor at AWARE, Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies. "There's no rhyme or reason for the violence, there's no predictability. They don't know when the next bomb will drop. These children are living in emotional chaos."
Domestic violence and child abuse occur in high correlation with each other, according to the state Division of Family and Youth Services. "A very high number of our cases of child abuse or neglect involve domestic violence as well," said Tim Stewart, an intake investigations supervisor with DFYS. "We learn about it during the course of our report of harm investigations. We frequently find that the non-offending parent is also a victim of abuse."
Whether the children are witnesses or victims of domestic violence, the impact on their lives is significant. "The residual effects are long term. Our domestic violence statute speaks to mental injury of any child that witnesses domestic violence, so we look very seriously at our reports of harm that involve this," Stewart said.
Children who witness domestic violence experience feelings of confusion, fear, anger, sadness, a lack of trust, shame, anxiety, self-blame, and loneliness, according to Ann Rausch, former education specialist at AWARE. "When children live in families where there is domestic violence," Rausch explained, "the feelings of love, trust, security, and acceptance necessary for healthy human development are to some degree absent from their lives."
This creates the potential for life-long, if not multi-generational consequences. Like aftershocks from an earthquake, the impact of the initial violence spreads to children, to their ability to function at school, then to neighborhoods and communities. Ultimately, when these children become adults with families of their own, the impact can spread to the next generation of children.
Recent research conducted by the National Institutes of Justice confirms this effect. A February 2000 report, "An Update on the Cycle of Violence," concluded that childhood abuse and neglect increased the odds of future delinquency and adult criminality overall by 29 percent. Adults from violent homes are at greater risk of repeating the violence and abuse patterns they observed in their childhoods. They are also at greater risk for early and excessive experimentation with sexuality and illegal substances, for substance abuse, and more likely to commit crimes against a person. Adults from violent homes often struggle with feelings of deep loneliness and isolation, anger, depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, and other stress related conditions.
We can help by reassuring children that the violence is not their fault. We can also help by contacting organizations that serve children in crisis, and by holding abusers accountable for their actions. Both AWARE and the Division of Family and Youth Services offers assistance to children living with domestic violence. AWARE can be reached 24 hours a day at (800) 478-1090. DFYS can be reached at 465-1650.
Sherrie A. Myers is former a rural outreach coordinator for AWARE, where she worked with programs in nine rural Southeast Alaska communities.