Survivors of sexual and domestic violence face a number of challenges in accessing services, but their choice to reach out is often viewed as a personal decision. The question of “Why can’t a victim of sexual and domestic abuse just leave their partner?” can be more complex than we think. Over the course of this year’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we will be posting weekly blogs about the barriers survivors face when leaving dangerous situations, and how to be an ally to survivors in seeking help.
Children Witnessing Domestic Violence
According to a study conducted by the U.S. Justice Department, 1 in 15 children have been exposed to domestic violence between parents or a parent and their intimate partner. Exposure to violence as a child can be a risk factor for adverse effects on mental and physical health, poor educational outcomes, and, eventually, perpetration of violence as an adult.
Domestic violence in the home can be a traumatic experience for children of all ages, but particularly during the early stages of development. As discussed in last week’s blog, when someone is experiencing a violent or otherwise upsetting event, the brain has an automatic reaction of releasing hormones meant to protect the brain and body from physical pain. In a child’s developing brain, this survival response becomes embedded, regardless of whether or not the child is truly in danger. A child’s perception of traumatic events impacts the development of healthy neurological pathways for responding to stress, and hinders their ability to develop healthy coping skills. The impact of this type trauma on the brain can actually cause greater impact among infants and toddlers than older children due to their stage of development.
However, although the research shows the adverse effects of children witnessing violence, concerns for the well-being of their children are often cited by survivors of domestic violence as a reason for not leaving their abusers. This can be for a wide variety of reasons, including, concerns that they will lose custody of their children or that they will be removed from their legal guardianship if they report violence in the home, not wanting children to have to change schools or neighborhoods, wanting their children to have a relationship with both parents, and, in some cases, threats by the abuser to harm or kill the children if they try to leave.
While the experience of living in a home in which domestic violence is occuring can be traumatic for children, leaving the living situation can also cause a great deal of stress. They may be leaving a home they’ve lived in their entire life, and are often forced to leave all of their belongings behind, an emotional experience even under safe circumstances. At Hanover Safe Place, we value the relationships between children and parents, and recognize the impact of domestic violence on children’s development. Emily, our Children’s Services Coordinator, states, “Children’s services are important because the parent is going through their own crisis, and may not recognize the impact it has on their children. Providing support and resources to the families gives them the space to cope and heal together.”
References and Additional Resources
- U.S. Department of Justice (2011). Children’s Exposure to Intimate Partner Violence and Other Family Violence
Abby Picard is an intern at Hanover Safe Place and a graduate student in the Master’s of Social Work program at Virginia Commonwealth University.