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How can I help a child exposed to domestic violence?

One simple connection can give a child hope. (Children of Domestic Violence, 2012)

It’s true. For a child whose home is a scary, unpredictable place, one simple connection can be transformative. Betsy McAlister Groves, founding director of the Child Witness to Violence Project at Boston Medical Center, emphasizes relationships with caring, supportive adults as the single most important factor to promote healing and resiliency in children exposed to violence. You could be the person that makes a key difference in the life of a child exposed to domestic violence. Or better yet, you could support and help strengthen their relationship with their non-abusing parent or caregiver.

What’s true for children exposed to domestic violence is true for all children: they need honesty, consistency, freedom, clear expectations, and a voice. They need constant reminders that they are worthy, competent, and loved. They need role models who demonstrate respect, compassion, and non-violence in their relationships. Children who are given these things will thrive and grow.

In fact, an adult who suspects that a child may be exposed to violence at home can and should work to fill these needs, regardless of having confirmation that such abuse is occurring. Children living in fear often learn to keep the abuse secret – they should have your permission to share their story as much as they should have your permission not to. We have learned that there is great value in simply being with children, and empowering them to decide if, what, when, and how to share. In that way, the answer to this TA question is both simple and complex: just be there.

It is important to always remember that you may not be able to end the violence, but you can help a child or teen find a new path. This video from the Children of Domestic Violence Foundation highlights the power of caring adults in inspiring hope in children exposed. Their Change a Life Program helps to build skills and offers tools to any individual that wishes to help children experiencing domestic violence on their path to healing and thriving.

The role of domestic violence programs

In just one day in 2011, domestic violence programs across the country served 25,871 children. (NNEDV, 2012).

Research indicates that as many as 68% of survivors in domestic violence shelters are accompanied by their minor children. (Lyon, Lane, & Menard, 2008)

Domestic violence programs can help children and youth heal by helping to create supportive, safe, and stable environments that provide opportunities for counseling and creative expression, guidance in planning for safety and navigating legal protection options, and other resources to support a healthy and happy family system. Honor Our Voices is a unique online learning program that promotes a multi-pronged response for shelter advocates and other social service providers to the needs of children exposed to domestic violence. One helpful resource from this project by the Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse (MINCAVA) and the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare (CASCW) is a guide for practice when responding to children exposed to domestic violence. And thanks to demonstration projects funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, we now have helpful national guidance on promising practices for enhancing services for children exposed to domestic violence.

The counselor helped me talk to my mom about how scared I was and how my tummy hurt. I didn’t want to bother mom because she had all that stuff with dad to worry about. But now I feel so much better. And me and mom are going to be all right. – 9-year-old boy (Futures Without Violence, 2012)

At the core of providing services that are helpful to children is listening to and understanding their experiences of abuse. Children can offer their unique perspectives, influenced by their age, family structure, cultural background, and other factors. It is our job to listen to and honor their voices so that we can best identify and respond to their various needs.

Promising Futures: Best Practices for Serving Children, Youth, and Parents Experiencing Domestic Violence is a new website from Futures Without Violence that provides information on program development, implementation of specific intervention models, and building community connections. There is solid research available that explores emerging responses to children exposed and provides helpful recommendations. In fact, the Safe Start Center provides access to the latest data on children’s exposure to violence from the U.S. Department of Justice and offers an online toolkit with resources to support parents, agencies, and shelters in using this evidence to best respond to the needs of children exposed to domestic violence. For more information and advocacy tools, you can order an information packet from the Resource Center on Domestic Violence: Child Protection and Custody of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

There are a variety of ways that both individuals and organizations can work to enhance their support of children exposed to domestic violence. We all have a part to play in honoring their stories, validating their feelings, respecting their choices, and modeling healthy relationships to help ensure a resilient future free from violence and abuse.

What are some strategies that you have used to help support children exposed to domestic violence? Share your experiences!

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