Provide Supportive Services to Children Exposed to Domestic Violence or Who Lost a Parent to Domestic Violence Homicide
The Project has identified the impact of exposure to domestic violence and domestic violence-related homicide on children as one of its key findings since 2004. How to best provide resources for, and services to, child witnesses and child survivors of homicide is central to the conversation of addressing the problem of domestic violence.
In 45 percent of reviewed cases, the perpetrator and victim had at least one minor child together. Sharing children can significantly increase victims’ barriers to safety, including their decision to leave the relationship, their ability to support themselves and their children away from the abuser, and continued interactions with the abuser regarding custody arrangements. But the presence of children in a home where abuse is present also exposes young victims to traumatic events which may affect them far into their futures.
In 37 percent of cases reviewed by the Project, one or more children witnessed the fatal incident. A child was considered to have witnessed the incident when they had a sensory experience of the homicide; many of the cases involved instances where the child visibly witnessed the homicide or observed the aftermath. Children are also considered to be a witness to the homicide in situations where they overhear the incident.
In another 37 percent of reviewed cases, children were present in the vicinity of the homicide but did not directly witness the crime. In multiple circumstances, children were the first to discover their deceased parent or caregiver, as it was in one case where the victim and the perpetrator were in the process of separating. The victim drove the children to their father’s house to collect some belongings. While the children were inside, the mother and father stayed outside to talk. When the children returned to the car, they found their parents deceased in the vehicle, discovering their father had murdered their mother and then completed suicide.
During the 16 years Jason and Mari were together, she suffered severe abuse at his hands. Jason drank heavily on a regular basis, which seemed to fuel sexual and physical violence. He had a history of punching, kicking and slapping Mari as well as pulling a knife on her. He was also verbally abusive to their two young children.
Eight months before the homicide, Jason’s violence against Mari escalated. During one incident, Jason held a gun to Mari’s head and accused her of cheating on him. He punched her repeatedly in her body, causing bruising on her arms. Their 3-year-old child started screaming for Jason to stop when he kicked her in the ribs. Jason then grabbed the couple’s 12-year-old son, Javier. He held the gun to Javier’s head and told Mari he would kill the child if she did not tell him who she was cheating with. This incident led to a judge granting a Temporary Protective Order (TPO) at Mari’s request.
Six weeks after the TPO expired, in the early morning hours, Jason hid in the bushes outside the apartment Mari shared with her children and new boyfriend, Jimmy. Jason confronted Jimmy outside the apartment as he returned home from working the night shift. He pointed his gun at him and demanded he open the door to the apartment slowly, without entering. After the door was opened, Jason shot Jimmy repeatedly, killing him. The sound of gunshots awakened Javier, who had been asleep in the living room. Javier saw his father walk past him in the living room and into Mari’s bedroom where Jason shot her repeatedly in her sleep. Javier waited quietly until his father fled the apartment and then called the police. Javier later reported being scared his father would come back to the residence and kill him.
EFFECTS OF EXPOSURE TO DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
According to data gathered by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, in 2017, over 50 percent of callers from Georgia noted there were “children involved” in the circumstance for which they were calling (National Domestic Violence Hotline, 2018). Furthermore, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation reports that 106,755 children were present at the scene of family violence calls between 2012 and 2016 (Georgia Bureau of Investigation, personal communication, May 30, 2018). This is a documented average of 21,351 children per year who witness family violence in their homes. Given that not all law enforcement agencies submit data of this type, not all reports accurately reflect the presence of children on-scene, and not all domestic violence incidents are reported to law enforcement, this staggering number represents an undercount of the extent of the problem of children experiencing violence in their homes.
Children are exposed to domestic violence in the following ways:
- witnessing abuse by visually seeing violence happening, hearing violence in another room or observing the aftermath of the violence + intervening by getting between the abusive caregiver and non-abusive caregiver during an abusive incident
- intervening to protect and minimize harm to non-abusive caregiver
- intervening to join in and participate in violence against non-abusive caregiver
- acting as a confidant when the offending and/or the non-offending caregiver discusses adult content and abuse with child, like they were an adult friend
- taking on adult responsibilities before, during or following an abusive incident
- creating a distraction with attempts to call attention to self rather than non-offending caregiver to distract from abuse
- hiding or remaining out of sight during abusive incident
- escaping violence by exiting the abusive space (National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2018)
The effects of children’s exposure to domestic violence vary widely. Being subjected to domestic violence in childhood can impact the emotional, behavioral, social and cognitive development of a child to varying degrees, depending on the child’s age and developmental level. Infant and toddler witnesses to violence in the home may have more difficulty than infants and toddlers not exposed to trauma, when it comes to completing developmental tasks such as establishing a safe and secure attachment to caregivers, building autonomy, or learning to use fine and gross motor skills. Young children are particularly susceptible to experiencing interruptions in their development due to being highly dependent on the adults around them (Peterson, 2018a). Adolescents exposed to domestic violence are at increased risk for antisocial behavior, school truancy, substance abuse, running away, involvement in violent or abusive dating relationships, depression, anxiety and social withdrawal (Peterson, 2018b).
LONG-TERM IMPACTS OF EXPOSURE TO DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
The development of programs and resources for children exposed to domestic violence is especially critical to stave off its potential to create long-term effects lasting into adulthood. Such effects are illustrated in the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, one of the largest investigations ever done to examine the links between traumatic childhood experiences and long-term health, well- being and social consequences.
The study revealed that adverse experiences people have as children can impact them over their lifetime, potentially causing greater prevalence of co-occurring physical, mental health and substance abuse conditions such as depression, illicit drug use, alcohol abuse, smoking, suicide attempts, intimate partner violence, sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancy, high-risk sexual activity, fetal death, liver disease, heart disease, obesity, and/or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018).
For a more in-depth discussion on the impact of trauma on children including an overview of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, please refer to the 2015 Georgia Domestic Violence Fatality Review Annual Report available for download at GeorgiaFatalityReview.com/reports/report/2015-report.
Information and additional research on the ACE Study is available at cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy.
CHILD SURVIVORS OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE HOMICIDE
In addition to the trauma of witnessing domestic violence, children who survive a domestic violence-related homicide experience further difficulties. Not only do they lose their victim parent, but they often lose both parents simultaneously when the abusive parent is incarcerated or takes his own life. Children who experience this type of loss grapple with the complicated grief which comes along with losing their parent(s) suddenly and tragically. They may feel angry and confused as they try to comprehend how one parent or caregiver could take the other’s life. They may feel conflicted and confused as they experience anger and blame towards the perpetrator, combined with the love they have for them as a parent. Conversely, they may blame the victim for doing something, or not doing something, to “cause” their own death.
The response of children’s caregivers has an impact on how children deal with their own trauma, therefore it is critical to connect families with helping services. Surviving children are often placed with a family member or friend who is also deeply emotionally affected by the homicide. In many circumstances, the new primary caregivers are the parents of the deceased victim. In addition to their own grief associated with losing their loved one, new caregivers are immediately faced with unexpected tasks and challenges. They must wrap up the affairs of the deceased, including planning and paying for a funeral. They may also be impacted by the stress of the upcoming trial, unexpected emotional and financial child- rearing responsibilities, and the unique parenting challenges of caring for a child exposed to domestic violence and domestic violence-related homicide.
Project interviews with families of the deceased victims revealed most families were still deeply struggling with their grief and the aftermath of the loss, years later. Surviving family members repeatedly disclosed that, in most cases where children witnessed or were present at the time of the homicide, they rarely received specialized trauma interventions, grief counseling, or other necessary wraparound services. New caregivers often cited a lack of financial resources and lack of information about existing resources as barriers to children receiving follow-up services.
That appears particularly true in cases of murder-suicide, after which surviving family members often lack a connection to supportive resources and counseling. This gap is due in part to the fact that, because the perpetrator died by suicide, there is no prosecution and family members do not receive the assistance of Victim Witness Assistance Programs. In many communities, prosecution-based advocates are the primary connection to services such as referrals to counseling and the Georgia Crime Victims’ Compensation Program.
RESILIENCE IN CHILDREN
Against all odds, children are resilient. For a child, resiliency is their ability to recover and adapt from difficult and traumatic events. Resilient child witnesses use safe coping skills to manage stress, grief and trauma. Fortunately, resilience can be cultivated by concerned adults and supportive peers. Protective factors that promote resilience in children and lessen the negative effects of domestic violence exposure include:
- having safe relationships with caring, stable, supportive adults
- access to and support from other surviving family members who share a connection to family culture, bereavement ceremonies and traditional practices (Alisic et al., 2015)
- access to positive role models + receiving effective parenting under stress + caregivers receiving emotional and financial support for stability
- access and use of responsible systems of care (National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2018)
The impact of domestic violence on children and suggestions to build resilience in them were discussed in depth in the Project’s 2015 Annual Report, which is available at GeorgiaFatalityReview.com. Since that time, two statewide initiatives have been implemented, which address key recommendations regarding children exposed to domestic violence and domestic violence homicide:
During 2017, the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence launched the Child and Youth Project. It focuses on coordinating, facilitating and developing various resources, training opportunities and technical assistance for providers of direct services to child and youth witnesses of domestic violence. The project was founded in response to a 2015 recommendation to develop capacities to respond to cases where children are present at or witness to a domestic violence homicide, or who lose one or both parents to domestic violence homicide. Since 2017, the Child and Youth Project has trained over 200 advocates, clinical therapists and direct-service providers.
In 2017, the Georgia Commission on Family Violence launched the Support for Survivors of Murder-Suicide (SSMS) Project to provide support, resources and referrals to survivors of domestic violence murder-suicide in Georgia. The project was designed in response to fatality review recommendations. Its goal is to develop a statewide outreach program to link surviving family members of homicide victims to the many services they need: financial services, the Georgia Crime Victims Compensation Program, advocacy and case management, grief counseling and parenting support. The SSMS Project also provides training, technical assistance and resources to communities seeking to strategically develop supports and interventions pertaining to murder-suicide incidents.
During 2018 and 2019, GCADV’s Child and Youth Project and GCFV’s SSMS Project will partner to facilitate training for domestic violence task forces across the state. The Healing on Their Time: Understanding the Trauma, Bereavement and Recovery of Child Survivors of Domestic Violence Homicide training will deepen stakeholders’ knowledge and understanding of the impact of domestic violence homicide on surviving children and families and will encourage a coordinated response to support these vulnerable youth.
STEPS GEORGIA CAN TAKE TO PROVIDE SUPPORTIVE SERVICES TO CHILDREN EXPOSED TO DOMESTIC VIOLENCE OR WHO LOST A PARENT TO DOMESTIC VIOLENCE HOMICIDE:
- Evaluate community resources available to families who have lost a loved one to homicide, and the process for making families aware of them. Connecting children who have been exposed to domestic violence and/or survived domestic violence homicide to services is imperative to break the cycle of domestic violence and prepare children to have healthy relationships. Communities should develop protocols for outreach and response to child witnesses of domestic violence and for child survivors of domestic violence homicide. Protocols should make certain children are referred to counseling with therapists who specialize in grief and trauma, and ensure surviving family members who are raising children are aware of kinship care resources and the Crime Victims Compensation Program. Protocols should also include strategies for conducting follow-up with families at six months, one year, 18 months and two years after the homicide. Consider reviewing the model protocol “When Children Witness Domestic Violence Parental Homicide,” developed by the House of Ruth (Maryland) and the Baltimore City Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team to assist with this process.
- Develop new resources and services which benefit child witnesses. Proactive responses to children exposed to domestic violence require significant commitment from their community and local service providers. Every system can play a role in assisting children exposed to domestic violence. Family connections, local school boards, teachers, faith-based youth groups, after-school programs, camp counselors and coaches are each positioned to develop resilience in children and to provide warm referrals to existing resources. Every system should promote programs for children and teens which teach coping skills, positive and healthy relationships and how to identify and manage emotions.