Violence witnessed in childhood can have lifelong ramifications
[Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment in a multipart series about domestic violence. The following story may contain graphic details that some readers may find disturbing.]
Domestic violence has far-reaching and damaging impacts on the most innocent members of society – children. And the effects of growing up in a violent environment can reverberate throughout a lifetime.
Some children are the targets of abuse themselves and others are affected by witnessing violence inflicted on other members of the household.
Every family’s situation is specific, according to Joyce Prusak, executive director of the Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC).
Through prevention, education and intervention, CAC serves children who are victims of severe abuse.
More than 3,700 children and their non-offending family members have been referred to the center for services since it opened its doors in 2005.
In 2018, the local organization served 276 possible child victims. Of them, 84 percent were alleged victims of sex abuse; 8 percent were severely physically abused; 2 percent were psychologically harmed; 2 percent were severely neglected; and 4 percent were drug endangered, according to Prusak.
The bottom line, she said, is many local children are not safe.
“A number of the families the center helps experience both domestic violence and child abuse,” Prusak said. “Although the CAC primarily helps children who are victims of severe abuse, we have often been involved and helped children who have witnessed domestic violence in the home.”
Witnessing violence, Prusak added, can mean either seeing the abuse happen or hearing it.
“Both are traumatic to kids,” she said.
“It’s important to remember there is no such thing as a child being too young to experience the effects of domestic violence,” Prusak said.
Children who witness domestic violence often experience trauma themselves and frequently blame themselves for violence in the home, according to Prusak.
“They also may struggle with developing bonds, especially to other adults, and they often act and live in fear,” Prusak said. “This can lead to depression, anxiety and numerous other symptoms that are indicative of trauma.”
Many of these children grow up to become either victims or abusers themselves.
“Some children may become more violent themselves while others may become more withdrawn,” Prusak said. “They often will struggle in school as well.
“Children who witness domestic violence also may experience more significant health problems later in life as indicated by the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study,” Prusak added. “Unfortunately, research has also shown us that female children who witness domestic violence are more likely to become victims themselves when they get older and that male children are often more likely to display violent behavior as adults.”
Domestic violence is not limited to the homes where it occurs.
“We know the long-term effects of abuse and domestic violence are great, not only to the victims and those who may witness the crimes, but to society as a whole,” Prusak said. “In general, people tend to think about the immediate risks to the individual and/or family, but someone who experiences domestic violence may have lingering long-term physical and mental-health problems.”
The community can help battle the issue through learning about the problem and raising awareness. In fact, Prusak said, awareness is a key to the solution.
“Individual cases of domestic violence are so unique, but it is important to note that many domestic violence organizations will not only just help the victim, but will provide information and guidance to those who may suspect or know of abuse happening to a friend or family member,” she said.
Representatives of those organizations dedicate their time and efforts to assist anyone who suffers or suspects abuse.
“They will help friends and family try to determine what might be most helpful,” she said.
Often, those agencies provide the link between the victim and the resources. They make sure friends or family members have the necessary tools and information to share with the person experiencing violence.
Be a positive example
Prusak encourages community members to provide a positive model of behavior, and urges parents and family members to educate children about the indications of abuse.
Violence is not only physical, Prusak noted, it can also mental or emotional.
“It is really important for children to have examples of healthy relationships and learn about spotting the signs of an unhealthy relationship,” Prusak said. “Domestic violence isn’t always about physical violence. It is about control – one person controlling the actions and behaviors of another. This is not always done through physical violence.”
Gestures as simple as complimenting children can make a difference. Boosting a child’s self-worth can help that child grow up healthy and confident.
“We want all children and adults to live in safe and healthy environments,” Prusak said. “Making sure children have healthy self-esteem growing up can be important in helping children as they grow up and get into relationships themselves.”
Report child abuse
“If there are children involved and if there is any suspicion that the children are unsafe or victims themselves, this should be reported immediately,” Prusak said.
If you suspect a child is suffering abuse, call the child abuse reporting hotline at 877-237-0004 or local law enforcement.
For more information, call CAC at 931-723-8888. The center is located at 104 N. Spring St. in Manchester.
Elena Cawley can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.