When Home is Not a Safe Haven for Children

By Pooja Garg

This article was originally published in the January 2022 issue of Khabar Magazine

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  • Names have been changed to protect the identity of the survivors.
  • Content Warning/Trigger Warning: domestic violence, violent imagery, language, abandonment, mental and physical health, depression, anxiety, trauma.

When Home is Not a Safe Haven for Children

A staggering 25 percent of all children worldwide witness domestic violence even before they have turned five, according to WHO. Almost half of those get directly abused. As we estimate the high number of domestic abuse in the South Asian community, there is a pertinent need for attention towards these silent sufferers: the children who have also been let down by the justice system. Besides the devastating long-term effects on the physical and mental health of these children, it also keeps the cycle of intergenerational abuse turning in the community.

The breeze whispers to the lotus,

“What is thy secret?”

“It is myself,” says the lotus,

“Steal it and I disappear!”

(From Rabindranath Tagore’s Fireflies)

In an Atlanta suburb, seven-year-old Varun hid in the closet as the room around him exploded with the whimpering of his mother. Before Varun had run into the closet with his puppy, he had seen his father shout at his mother before kicking her to the floor. Later, when his mother opened the door to the closet, she found him holding his hands to his puppy’s ears. “I didn’t want him to be scared,” Varun said as he held back his own tears. Now 15, Varun still has difficulty expressing his fears. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he is scared of abrupt sounds, loud noises, and closed spaces. Even after a decade, he is still trying to break out of the shell that he had withdrawn into as a child.

On the opposite side of the city, staying with her parents and an elder sister, five-year-old Naina had been waiting eagerly for her mother. She was extremely hungry by the time she heard her mother come in from her visit to the doctor. She didn’t know what cancer was, but she knew her mother was suffering. Often, she had seen her mother cry. Sometimes it was pain from cancer that was ravaging her body. Other times, it was the pain Naina’s father had inflicted. She had seen her mom being pushed and held captive against the wall. Often there were bruises.

Sometimes, Naina and her elder sister were the ones being pushed against the wall. When their father said he would hit them, they believed him. Their mother’s bruises were imprinted in their memory. Now 13, Naina still has nightmares about her mother’s bruises.

Twenty-five percent of all children witness domestic violence

The rose is a great deal more

Than a blushing apology for the thorn.

(From Rabindranath Tagore’s Fireflies)

Varun and Naina are among the 275 million children worldwide who witness domestic violence, according to UNICEF. One in four children under the age of five lives with a mother who is a victim of intimate partner violence according to WHO’s Global Status Report 2020 on preventing violence against children.

The UN’s World Report in 2005 on Violence Against Children put South Asia as the region where the maximum number of children—a staggering estimate of 88 million—witness violence at home annually. 

For South Asian children whose parents have moved to the U.S., things haven’t changed. According to community-based surveys conducted by Anita Raj of the University of Wyoming in 2002 and Neely Mahapatra of the University of California, 40 percent of South Asian women in the U.S. experience intimate partner violence (IPV). With Indians making up 80 percent of South Asian community in the U.S., this data could well apply to them. Says Aparna Bhattacharya, Director, Raksha, a nonprofit that supports victims of domestic violence in the South Asian community, “So many mothers in the community stay on because they want children to have a family. But mostly they also leave because of children—when they realize that children are being harmed by staying in an abusive environment. It takes time to realize that and we support them during this process.”   

Almost half of children in DV homes become victims

The tyrant claims freedom to kill freedom

And yet to keep it for himself.

(From Rabindranath Tagore’s Fireflies)

Often, these children are not just witnesses to domestic violence, but end up being directly abused themselves like Naina and her elder sister. Says Jessica Hines, Victim Advocate, Special Victim’s Unit at Cobb County District Attorney’s Office in Georgia, “Of the child abuse cases that we see in our work, many of them are victims of domestic violence. We provide guidance through the court process for children in case of assault.”

According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute, 30 to 60 percent of intimate partner violence (IPV) cases include child abuse. The Duluth Model categorizes child abuse as physical and mental abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, intimidation, isolation, and threats. Says Swati Bakre, a clinical psychologist specializing in helping children affected by trauma, “Child abuse can take so many forms, especially in domestic violence cases, since a parent is a natural authority figure for the child.” Humiliation, verbal abuse, putting them down, threatening to leave, controlling who they talk to, and destroying things are some of the patterns that are indicative of abuse besides physical and sexual violence.

​​

Says Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, Expert for the United Nations Secretary General’s Study on Violence Against Children, “Our failure to listen to children has resulted in a failure to respond to their needs. It is hard to understand why and how adults can continue to argue that children should have less protection from violence than adults do: in law, in policy, and in practice.”

At the Federal level, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) has defined child abuse and neglect as “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caregiver that results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation, or an act or failure to act that presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”

Abuse heard but not seen: How the court system has failed the child victims

The wind tries to take the flame by storm

Only to blow it out.

(From Rabindranath Tagore’s Fireflies)

With only serious cases of assault provoking court action, a vast majority of children are left unprotected. Naina’s mother, Uma, who went through divorce to provide a safe environment for herself and her children, is devastated. The courts have granted joint custody to both parents and the children are forced to divide their time between the two parents. “Every week they are on visitation and are dragged into that same toxic environment. They don’t want to visit, and yet I am forced to send them,” she says.

Often, her children have come back and reported being slapped or pushed. For Uma, it brings back all the pain and helplessness that she went through during her marriage. But her numerous attempts to bring it to the court’s notice have failed. “Every time their dad says that he was trying to discipline the children and he is forgiven for hurting them,” she says. Despite the reports from the children’s psychological evaluation which show how this has impacted the children, the courts have refused to modify the custody.

As per the Children’s Bureau, Office of the Administration for Children & Families, there are permissible disciplinary actions in most state statutes even in 2022. The definition of domestic violence, as defined in Domestic Violence Civil Laws in Georgia explains that the term ‘family violence’ shall not be deemed to include reasonable discipline administered by a parent to a child in the form of corporal punishment, restraint, or detention.

Says Marian Weeks, Ad Litem in Cobb County in Georgia, “My effort is to protect the child in all cases. It depends on the severity of the case that access to any of the parents is restricted by the court. The first approach is to offer counseling on parenting.”

Uma says the process can be easily manipulated. “Their father skipped counseling by mouthing standard explanations about being busy with work and was let off,” says Uma who believes Naina and her sister are still at risk despite her trying everything to bring them out of the abuse cycle. Her plea for shorter visitation time with the father was also dismissed by the court.

Says Varada Divgi, pediatrician and ex-Board Member, Childhood Domestic Violence Association, “We are mandatory reporters if we notice child abuse. But physical abuse like slapping, shoving, and pushing often goes physically unmarked and children often don’t have the language to explain what has happened to them. We do see other signs like unexplained headaches, stomach aches, asthma attacks, vomiting, weight gain, or lack of interest in any activity. But there are no guidelines provided to us by law to report such cases. Our systems give attention to physical trauma, but no scar is visible for emotional trauma. So, it goes unnoticed. Any conversation on mental health is stigmatized.”

While Varun’s mother, Leela, was able to press home her son’s mental state, it did not change the court’s verdict in any way. “Through the evidence I had, I was able to get the court to understand the trauma my child went through. But the father was still given joint custody,” she says.

Post separation abuse

They expect thanks for the banished nest

Because their cage is shapely and secure.

(From Rabindranath Tagore’s Fireflies)

When Uma and Leela stepped out of their marriage, they broke the cycle of abuse and wanted to give their children a safe environment. But all progress or the well-being of the children has been nullified as they struggle with the challenges of sharing custody with the abusive parent. “I am out of my marriage and safe, but my child has to endure all this throughout their childhood till they turn 18,” says Leela.

Subjected to stark dual parenting mode, children end up becoming pawns in the cycle of abuse and control. “We see instances of counter parenting as one of the ways the abusive parent tries to control and continues the post-separation abuse. Financial abuse is very common. One of the ways, for example, may be where the abusive parent may decide not to have children access to therapy. They may also be worried about what children may say,” says Aisha Chowdhary, Child Psychologist, Raksha.

Immigration becomes another tool in the hands of the abusive parent to exercise control. When Leela wanted to move back to India after her divorce, she could not. “I was threatened with charges of kidnapping my own children if I left,” says she. Says Sirpa Vigdorov, Chairperson of Cobb County Domestic Violence Taskforce and Head of Victim Witness Unit, Cobb Judicial Circuit, “We offer help and support to anyone being victimized, irrespective of their nationality or immigration status.”

When Nalini, another Atlanta-based mother who stepped out of an abusive marriage, moved away with her kids, she was able to snap off ties with her ex-husband and bring up her children in a safe environment. Her children have now grown up to be successful adults. “It helped a lot to have a single parent guiding them. Now when they meet their father and he gets abusive, they know when to move away,” says Nalini.

Living in the same city and under court orders, Uma feels helpless “If I try to seek therapy for the kids, their father refuses to pay his share of the expenses. Worse, he says that it is no use and tries to stop the process. Every step I try to take to move myself and the children forward, he pulls us back two steps.” She recalls how she often found Naina shivering in a corner. Even at school, Naina was easily startled by loud noises. Many days, she came home bullied on the playground. She began to recede. Naina’s elder sister, on the other hand, opted to drown out the chaos in the house by listening to loud music. Says Uma, “The more chaotic it became, the more she tried to control it. When she couldn’t, she turned resentful, angry, aggressive.”

Explains Dr. La Tonya Wood, Director of Clinic Training at Pepperdine, “Children model what they have seen: that problems are solved through aggression, emotions are expressed through aggression, and needs are met through aggression.”

Intergenerational cycle of domestic violence

My flower, seek not thy paradise

In a fool’s buttonhole.

(From Rabindranath Tagore’s Fireflies)

Naina’s father learned this lesson early in his life when he saw his own father become abusive with his mother. As he saw his mother accept the abuse, it became significant in perpetuating the generational cycle of abuse which continued in his relationship with his wife. Recalls Uma, “I saw my mother-in-law face abuse from the very first day of walking into my marital home. She had learned to accept it in all the years of her marriage, and her advice to me was also to be the dutiful wife and bear it.” So ingrained was the gender role stereotyping in Uma’s husband that when she told him he was being abusive, he casually dismissed it. “He didn’t think of what he was doing to me as abuse.”

Varun’s father had been a victim of domestic violence as a child and he had learned to repeat that cycle into adulthood. Recalls Leela, “He often talked of being badly hit during his childhood. My heart went out to him every time I heard that. But instead of realizing that he should not do the same to us, he continued the same pattern of abuse. He felt that as the man of the house, he needed to control everything through violence—just as he had seen his father do.”

Studies show that children who have been victimized are at a greater risk of repeating the cycle as adults by entering into abusive relationships or becoming abusers themselves. According to researchers Aparna Mukherjee and Sulabha Parasuraman of the International Institute for Population Sciences, “Witnessing violence between one’s parents while growing up is an important risk factor for the perpetration of partner violence in adulthood. Women become more accepting of violence. For men, the risk of perpetrating spousal violence increases. Men usually tend to take up the stereotyped gender roles of domination and control, whereas women grow up to follow the path of submission, dependence, and respect for the authority throughout their life.” This has set a pattern that continues through generations.

Effects of witnessing domestic violence

With the ruins of terror’s triumph

Children build their doll’s house.

(From Rabindranath Tagore’s Fireflies)

It is only now that the effect on children who witness domestic violence is being understood. Says Dr. Wood, “We have previously considered children and adolescents as simply witnesses to domestic violence, and not victims as well. But we do know that domestic violence occurs within a close family system affecting all of those within the system.”

Depending on their age, witnessing violence—seeing violence, hearing violence, seeing the aftermath of violence—may lead them to hide, escape, or try to distract the abusive parent. Sometimes they may try to intervene and protect the non-abusive parent. Often, they take on the role of being confidant and caretaker of the non-abusive parent by listening to violent adult content or taking on adult responsibilities.

In Georgia alone, over 21,000 children on average each year have been documented to have witnessed domestic violence, according to Georgia Bureau of Investigation. But not all domestic abuse is reported, so this is an undercount, as per Georgia Fatality Review. These children are 15 times more likely to be physically or sexually assaulted than the national average.

As the effect of witnessing domestic violence is being understood more, it features prominently as one of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)—a set of potentially traumatic events that may occur in childhood (0-17 years)—according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Besides experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect, ACEs includes other traumatic events such as the divorce of parents or death of a loved one. While a list of ten traumatic events is included in ACEs assessment, many other traumatic experiences could impact health and wellbeing.

Says Gabrielle Green, Child & Youth Project Director at Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence (GCADV), “Children who have been exposed to domestic violence and other ACEs have a higher risk of long-term mental and physical health issues, suicide ideation and attempts, anti-social behavior, experiencing or perpetrating domestic violence.”

Echoes Dr. Wood, “These kids show PTSD symptoms that are congruent with their age and stage of development.”

Children are affected even before their birth if the mother experiences abuse. During pregnancy, domestic violence affects childhood development due to poor pre-natal care and inadequate nutrition, emotional distress, increased harm due to domestic violence, and increased stress.

In the early toddler years, exposure to domestic violence can cause interruption in learning language, disinterest in being curious and exploring, confusion about who to go for security and comfort, intense separation anxiety, and apprehension. As a preschooler, the child may bring on trauma by re-experiencing or re-enacting the event. There is trouble concentrating and increase in aggression or withdrawal.

During early school years, the child continues to face difficulty with concentration and task completion in school, acts younger or older than chronological age, and adopts attention-seeking behavior. In teens, it escalates to difficulty in school, depression, anxiety, social isolation, difficulty imagining or planning for the future, and anti-social behavior.

There is a higher risk of engaging in impulsive, reckless, or self-destructive behavior such as truancy at school, substance abuse, running away, involvement in violent or abusive dating relationships, inappropriate aggression or significant withdrawal, over or underestimating danger. self-harm, and suicidal ideation. 

Says Green, “As they are growing, children are particularly vulnerable because they are unable to anticipate or prepare for danger. They have no control over trauma from occurring and they have fewer coping skills.” They also have confusing and conflicting feelings as they don’t fully understand what has happened. They may not trust any of their parents as they don’t know what to believe.

Studies show that ACEs can have lasting negative effects on health, wellbeing, as well as life opportunities and job potential. Confirms Dr. Wood, “The earlier the children are exposed to DV and the longer it occurs, they tend to have more poor outcomes and much more long-term difficulties.”

Toxic stress from ACEs can negatively affect children’s brain development, immune systems, and stress-responses systems. These changes can affect children’s attention, decision-making, and learning. Children growing up with toxic stress may have difficulty forming healthy and stable relationships.

Says Susan Kerley, Director, Marietta Counseling, “Trauma can be debilitating for a child. Violence at home, especially, leaves a child very traumatized and it comes up in many ways.”

More recent studies show that by witnessing domestic violence, children are affected not just emotionally, behaviorally, socially, and academically but also cognitively and physically. Says Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, ex-Surgeon General of  California, “When kids are exposed to chronic stress, particularly traumatic stress, it activates the stress response system—what we call the fight-or-flight system. We see changes in brain function and structure—what we call brain architecture—and hormones and the immune system. They run the risk of chronic pulmonary and heart diseases in adulthood. In fact, children with ACEs score of 6 and more have been found to have a twenty-year difference in life expectancy.”

Healing through Positive Childhood Experiences

My fancies are fireflies—

Specks of living light

Twinkling in the dark.

(From Rabindranath Tagore’s Fireflies)

There is a ray of hope, however, according to Dr. Harris. “While the trauma is intense and hard to understand as a child, it is also possible to overcome the trauma as the brain and the body is still developing. This is the promise and the hope that when we intervene early with the kids, with brain development still happening, we can still do healing work,” she says.

Often, children’s responses are highly dependent on how adults around them react, and that holds the key to protecting children from lasting negative effects. Says Green, “The single most critical factor in how children weather exposure to domestic violence is the presence of at least one loving and supportive adult in their life.” For many children, that loving and supportive adult is their mother. Other adults can take this role: grandparents, foster parents, teachers, etc.

Through responsive and sensitive caregiving, it is possible to develop resilience in the child. A very important aspect is restoring a sense of safety and protection within a consistently nurturing and trustworthy relationship A strong secure attachment relationship will help the child carry this security into future relationships and help learn self-regulation. This also helps to develop children’s other adaptive systems such as cognitive development, problem solving, skills mastery, and learning to deal with challenges.

In her HOPE (Health Outcomes from Positive Experiences) Project, Dr. Christine Bethell of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, discusses the powerful effect of Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) in countering the effect of ACEs.

These PCEs include nurturing and supportive relationships where caregivers are attuned and responsive to a child’s needs. This includes positive relationships with peers and also with adults outside of the family that show genuine care and interest in the child.

Also required is a safe, stable, protective, and equitable home environment in which children can develop, play, and learn. This also includes spaces where children have various opportunities to learn and play.

The fourth building block is developing the child’s ability to understand emotions, practice self-regulation, and move past challenges in a productive manner. This also includes learning socially and culturally appropriate interpersonal skills.

Dr. Bethell also emphasizes constructive social engagement and connectedness. This may stem from participation in sports, music groups, or engagement in different community projects, service opportunities, or participation in cultural or spiritual traditions with family.

Cultural connections are also Leiana Kinnicutt, Program Director of the children and youth program at Futures Without Violence, wants to focus on. “All children impacted by domestic violence can heal within the context of their relationships with caregivers, family, community, and very importantly, their culture. There’s a national shortage of trained and culturally-sensitive staff—folks who are bilingual from the community and Covid only exacerbated that. A real call to action to social work programs and educational higher institutions is to open up more doors for folks from the community,” says she.

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Need for Community Intervention

The world knows that the few

Are more than the many.

(From Rabindranath Tagore’s Fireflies)

Discussing the need for community intervention, Bhattacharya shares, “Once they are able to break the cycle of abuse, I see mothers work hard to provide the children with the support that they need. Our community should also step up to help them. Instead, they often go through isolation.” It takes a village to raise a child and fostering that connectedness with the larger community and traditions is especially important for single immigrant mothers. “When mothers feel isolated, they often start talking and sharing their challenges with their children. It ends up retraumatizing the children. Mothers in our community need their own support groups and friends,” says Bakre.  

The stigma attached to mental health in Indian American community is another challenge that mothers have to contend with. Says Chowdhary, “The community is slowly coming around to therapy. But they don’t realize that there is improvement work involved outside—you can’t leave it at the door. They also don’t realize that often it may require combining it with medication. Often, they resist medication because log kya kahenge? What will people say?” As individuals and as a community, there is a need for intervention to have more conversations about these topics and to be more inclusive and accepting. “We try and help them through various modes of therapy such as DBT, dialectical behavior therapy, somatic experiencing. Often, we combine play therapy with DBT or somatic experiencing. Children don’t want to express, or they are scared, or don’t have the tools to express. They haven’t seen good examples. We can help them regulate their emotions while playing.”

By empowering and creating support structures, we have examples of the difference it has made to these families and how they have been able to break the generational cycle of abuse. “In my years at Raksha, I have seen kids who came from abusive environments now grown up to be healthy secure adults,” says Bhattacharya. By continuing the healing work, they have been able to overturn the intergenerational cycle of abuse.  Echoes Crystal Gossett, Victim Advocate, Special Victim’s Unit at Cobb County District Attorney’s Office in Georgia, “We see children who were victims come back after years to see the records. As adults, they want to learn the history and understand what happened.”

In a community where children are considered so precious, how is it that we have become aggressors instead of compassionate parents?

“Let me light my lamp,” says the star,

“And never debate

If it will help remove the darkness.”

(From Rabindranath Tagore’s Fireflies)

​​​Pooja Garg is City Editor & Community Engagement Editor of Khabar magazine. Member of Cobb County Domestic Taskforce, she is Founder Chief Editor of The Woman Inc., an advocacy and literary nonprofit magazine. To connect with her: linktr.ee/poojagarg .

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