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Unsafe at Home: Children often follow parents into patterns of abuse
By Jackie R. Broach
Brandon was about 10 when Donna Watkins, a volunteer counselor who works with victims of domestic violence, last saw him.
He and his little brother, Andrew, had been removed from their home by child protective services after their mother was beaten so badly by her husband that she ended up in the hospital. She was an addict who had become hooked on prescription medications as a way of dealing with the abuse.
Watkins, who was working on an internship at the time, remembers watching Brandon and how it almost broke her heart.
“He was crying his eyes out and worrying about the little boy, who was 7, crying in another room. They were wondering why aren’t they at home and why are they going to live with foster parents,” she said. “The 10-year-old, all he kept saying was ‘where will I go to school?’ ”
School was probably the most stable thing in his life at that point.
It took a while before the boys were able to talk with counselors about their life at home. When they did they told about watching their mom beaten bloody and seeing her lying on the ground, being kicked by her husband’s steel-toed boots.
When the older boy tried to help her, the man tossed him aside without a care, he told social workers.
“He said how he would hide behind something every time the man would come home,” Watkins said. “It was horrible for them to have to stand up and say what they had endured.”
Unfortunately, it’s a situation counselors and social workers see all too often. Studies estimate that as many as 10 million children witness the abuse of a parent or adult caregiver each year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Additionally, many of those children are abused themselves or run an increased risk of being neglected. But even if they’re only witnesses to violence, the effects can stay with them for the rest of their lives, coloring their relationships, hurting their self-esteem and, in many cases, turning them into abusers or victims as adults.
“Abuse is not something that’s just passed down through the bloodline. If I have an abusive parent, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to be an abusive person if I’m taken out of that environment. But if I’m staying there, I learn to be abusive. It becomes a generational thing,” said Debra Rodgers, a counselor who works with Citizens Against Spouse Abuse, a group that serves Georgetown and Horry counties.
Little boys often want to be just like their fathers and they start imitating his behavior at an early age, she added.
“Have you ever gone to the grocery store and seen a mom pushing a 2-year-old in a buggy when he starts to hit at her,” Rodgers asks. Maybe the mom has denied the child a toy or something else he wants, so he becomes violent.
“Where does he see that behavior?” she asks. “Or he says, ‘I’m going to tell my daddy you won’t let me have this,’ and you’ll see her say real quietly, ‘you can have this one thing, but that’s it.’ He has made that threat and she gives in.”
A lot of times in an abusive relationship, the father teaches the son to disobey his mom. Often as the child grows, he starts to fill the father’s role of controller and abuser when the father isn’t around. For children who grow up in abusive homes and become abusers as adults, their first victim is usually their mother, according to Rodgers.
“Most times children are the true victims of domestic violence, I think, because they are where we place them,” she said. They don’t have any control over their situation.
The brothers who made such an impression on Watkins, are a perfect example.
“I was praying and hoping they were going to go to a children’s recovery center and that the right forces were going to be available to help them into a healing process, instead of them going to a foster family that may be dysfunctional or going back to mama, who wanted them, but also wanted to be with that perpetrator,” Watkins said.
“I met their mother later. She was shaking like a leaf because she was off the drugs and she was in so much physical pain.
“She was idealizing the relationship with the perpetrator and you had a sense that she was going to go right back to him, even though the boys wouldn’t have been safe; even though she wouldn’t have been safe. That’s the kind of mentality that some of these women, most of these women have,” said Watkins, who works with the Family Justice Center in Georgetown.
In all her years working with domestic violence victims, JoAnne Patterson, the CASA director, said she has seen a lot of awful things that have stuck with her, but the image of a 4-year-old boy she worked with is one she’ll never be able to forget.
A representative from the Department of Social Services was gathering evidence to prove the boy, not just his mother, was a victim of abuse and Patterson was recruited as a witness.
“This little 4-year-old boy, who was clutching his teddy bear, had to get up on a chair and drop his pants in front of two strange women so the bruising could be documented,” Patterson said. “He was such a brave little boy, and to watch him get examined for injuries from his dad, who is supposed to love him more than anyone in the world…. That was so many years ago and I can still see his face.”
For children who witness domestic violence, the effects vary, but it doesn’t take long for them to manifest.
“What typically happens is you see behavioral problems at home or in school,” Watkins said. “Teachers will start reporting outbursts of aggressiveness with others. Sometimes they demonstrate violent behavior with others because they know no other way to solve problems.”
Sometimes behavioral issues lead children to be misdiagnosed with conditions such as attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder.
Meagan, a young mother, who recently left her abusive husband, said both her preschoolers are showing psychological affects from witnessing abuse. Her husband started abusing her about a year ago and her children watched as he tried to tried to choke her to death and put a knife to her throat, telling her he was going to kill her.
“My daughter is being uncharacteristically mean and my son is acting out and he started wetting the bed,” Meagan said. “He’s just not like himself. He’s coloring on the walls and doing stuff he knows is not OK.”
She and her children are receiving counseling.
Bed-wetting is common in children dealing with domestic violence, as is acting withdrawn, Watkins said. Other children create a fantasy world where they can escape the reality of their home life.
“One boy pretended he was an angel warrior and his job was to take care of mommy,” Watkins recalled. “Where the warrior part came in was he was supposed to slay all the bad men that came.”
Children may also have nightmares or become clingy, having separation anxiety when they are away from their mothers. Others minimize what has happened, because “that’s their normal,” Watkins said.
With little girls, they often become disrespectful to their mothers, but don’t act out as much as boys, Rodgers said. But as they become older they may become sexually active at a young age and act promiscuously. They are also more likely to end up in abusive relationships because they think that behavior is normal.
On the other extreme, girls who have witnessed domestic violence or been abused may become extremely guarded and shy away from relationships, Watkins said.
At least half the victims who come into the Family Justice Center looking for help bring their children with them, according to Watkins. The center has a children’s room where kids can stay, supervised by volunteers, while their parents talk with a counselor or case worker.
The effects of domestic violence on the children who come in are immediately obvious.
“They’re bouncing off the walls because of the stress,” said Alicia Barnes, board chairwoman for the center. “A lot of times they’re really wound up because they’ve just been through a crisis.”
She recalled seeing a pair of brothers come in with their mother. They were about 4 and 6.
“The older brother was very protective of the little one when he wasn’t throwing things at him,” Barnes said. “He would vacillate from wanting to throw things at him to wanting to comfort and take care of him. They try to take care of each other and parent each other, but their lives are just in so much turmoil.”
To read previous stories in the series, click here.