They could be your child’s classmates or youth members of your church who back away shyly when you greet them. They could even be the neighbor kids who come over to play with your children.
As difficult as it is to identify adult victims of domestic or intimate partner abuse, spotting children of violent homes is just as difficult.
This is especially true considering an outsider’s vantage point—someone who only sees a parent or guardian “keeping it together” and hiding their own trauma.
Even if a child is not directly experiencing domestic abuse, it is reported that 17.9% of children in the U.S. have been exposed to some form of domestic violence over their lifetime. The percentage of children exposed to psychological abuse, in addition to physical abuse, spikes the number to 25.6%.
Between 2013 and 2018, domestic violence against children increased from 2,803 to 3,939 in Wisconsin. In Rock County, those cases rose from 314 to nearly 500 over that same five-year period. More worrisome is the belief that that number is far larger because many domestic child abuse cases go unreported.
The prevalence of domestic abuse in Rock County was the subject of a recent report by Kendra Schiffman, data analyst for the Rock County Human Services Department, and Edgerton Police Chief Robert Kowalski.
Educating childrenKelsey Hood-Christenson and Eboni Morrow of Defy Domestic Abuse Beloit said they interact with families affected by domestic and sexual abuse. The community-based center provides Rock County families with a wide variety of services such as therapy, counseling and education in an effort to respond, cope and prevent future instances of domestic violence.
Morrow, a family advocate with the organization, deals with children across the age spectrum. She visits school health and gym classes and after-school programs. Morrow teaches teens and preteens about healthy relationships and bullying,
She says there is no specific curriculum in any Rock County schools that teaches domestic abuse awareness.
“I don’t know what the holdup is because it’s needed,” Morrow said. “Throughout life, we have to be in healthy relationships, whether it’s at jobs or in romantic relationships and relationships with our families and friends.”
Hood-Christenson, director of survivor empowerment services at Defy Domestic Abuse Beloit, said schools are one of the few places where children can be consistently and effectively taught about abuse in their home or by extended family.
“Children don’t necessarily regularly encounter information on what is abuse or what is OK,” she said.
It starts at homeHood-Christenson said children come to accept patterns of abuse at home, which creates for them a familiarity with that type of behavior. In these instances, she said, children might consider the abuse as normal and not feel a need to report it.
“They may have no reason to discuss these things (with professionals) because that’s the only home they know,” she said.
Jessi Luepnitz oversees the local YWCA’s Alternatives to Violence program and CARE House, both of which help domestic violence victims and their children transition into a new life away from abusive environments.
Luepnitz estimates that 60% to 65% of homes where an adult is abused is a home where children are being abused, as well.
Through crisis hotlines and referrals from members of the community or law enforcement, the YWCA fields allegations of domestic or intimate partner abuse. Luepnitz says a challenging aspect of acting on these reports is the hesitancy of victims to cooperate.
“All of our services are voluntary, so the call for help has to come from the individual who needs the help,” she said.
Victims often blame themselves to justify the abuse they’ve experienced. And children internalize abuse out of fear of betraying the parent or guardian abusing them.
Luepnitz said she and her colleagues focus on behaviors related to the abuse rather than portray the abuser as a bad person. This allows a child to recognize bad and unacceptable behavior.
“The bottom line for domestic violence, whether it’s with adults or children, is someone desiring and holding power and control over someone else,” Luepnitz said.
Spotting warning signsDoctors, teachers and other professionals who regularly come into contact with children tend to be trained to recognize signs of trauma. But even they become aware of abuse only after it has occurred.
Children with unexplained bruises, students acting out in class, and young people acting morose or distant are some of the possible signs of abuse. But abused younger children whose language skills are underdeveloped are trickier to spot.
That’s why Hood-Christenson argues that domestic violence awareness education needs to be taught in public schools.
“We should be pushing ourselves to not only improve our response but go beyond response,” she said.
Unreported cases of domestic violence against children could be the result of pandemic-related home isolation experienced by so many young people, Hood-Christenson said.
Stopping the cycleExposure to domestic abuse can be reenacted by children as they grow up. A third of victims reportedly become abusers themselves because learned behavior in volatile environments can lead to a distorted understanding of healthy relationships.
“To them, that’s a normal relationship, so nothing is wrong with it,” Morrow said.
Domestic violence can also lead to criminal behavior and rebellious acts toward adults in positions of authority. Morrow recounted an encounter with a youth who frequently ran away from home and repeatedly wound up in detention centers.
“I remember talking with that child” while in custody, she said. “I said ‘Do you like it here?’” Morrow said the child told her it was better than being at home.
Breaking the cycle of domestic abuse requires stopping abuse at the onset. The child advocates stressed the need for early intervention to help children ascertain whether they are experiencing abuse.
Luepnitz said the lack of prevention-centric education has grim consequences.
“They’re either going to become victims themselves or become perpetrators because it’s been normalized,” she said.