By Ariel Zwang
September 19, 2017
“He intimidated me with a gun. I was terrified,” says Jessica (name changed for confidentiality), a resident at one of Safe Horizon’s domestic violence shelters. “I called my mother and she said, ‘You have to get out. You’re all alone out there!’ My mom didn’t have a lot of money, but she booked a one-way train ticket to New York City for me and my two boys.”
On the train ride from Florida to New York City, Jessica had mixed feelings. She was relieved that the abuse would finally stop, but as a mom she was worried about her sons’ happiness. “I was thinking about the smallest things, like, ‘They have their room. They are going to miss their room.’”
Even though she feared for her life, she felt that her husband would never hurt his own sons, so why was she leaving?
As our conversation continues, I see that Jessica has become quiet. I ask if she’s OK. She begins to tear up as she continues, “With my children I felt conflicted. I knew that for my safety I shouldn’t be there, but for my kids, I felt like they needed a father. I didn’t grow up with a father. So I remember always wishing he was around. I felt guilty. I felt like I was taking something away from them for my own selfish reasons: my safety.”
Children don’t have to be physically harmed to be traumatized. More than three million U.S. children witness domestic violence in the home every year. The harm of witnessing violence doesn’t come in the form of a black eye or a bruise. The effects show up in other ways.
At Safe Horizon, we’ve come to understand that seeing your caregiver hurt, terrified and demeaned — even if you’re never physically hurt yourself — has a significant impact on kids. A UNICEF report summarizes the research this way:
“Behavior changes [due to witnessing domestic violence] can include excessive irritability, sleep problems, emotional distress, fear of being alone … school-age children may have more trouble with school work, and show poor concentration and focus … Others feel socially isolated, unable to make friends as easily due to social discomfort or confusion over what is acceptable.”
Jessica reports that her sons had become soft spoken and shy as a result of the abuse. Anytime anyone would argue around them, they would tense up and get nervous. When her older son would get scared, he would tap her arm and say “Mama, I have to vomit.”
Jessica’s younger son had become afraid of the police. “He viewed the worst thing that could happen to his father as going to jail and being taken away.”
She can trace her son’s fear back to one terrible night when her ex-husband punched her in the face and she called 911 for help. “Great. Now I am going to get arrested,” was his response. Her boys heard him.
Her youngest son begged, “Please, mommy, don’t call the police!”
When the officers arrived, Jessica—like so many victims of domestic violence—was overwhelmed by fear for her sons and remorse about reporting her abuser, and so she changed her story. This incident also made Jessica hesitant to call the police again. She says: “My sons are two black boys. I want to limit their experience with the police. I don’t want them to ever have to get involved with law enforcement or be fearful.”
This is one reason why it’s so important to offer programs such as the Child Trauma Response Team, a partnership between Safe Horizon and NYPD, in which social workers go into homes to offer counseling services immediately after a serious incident of violence. We’ve seen that just five therapy sessions after a traumatic experience can make an enormous difference in a child’s healing process.
After fleeing to New York City, Jessica thought about returning to her sons’ father many times. “I knew for my own safety, I couldn’t go back. But my kids needed their dad.” And so Jessica allowed calls between her sons and their father until she started to notice that he was beginning to ask more targeted questions of their sons in an attempt to locate them.
She decided to limit the contact.
Jessica came to a realization about how her ex had been shaping her and her sons’ lives. “I couldn’t go out to certain places or make calls past 10 p.m. when I was with my ex. Being in shelter, gaining freedom and finally being able to do all the things I always wanted to do with my boys, I realized that his controlling me actually controlled the boys too.”
Shelters are a true refuge for families like Jessica’s. The addresses are confidential and unlisted, and staff help residents develop thorough safety plans. This allows survivors and their children a chance to focus on rebuilding their lives away from the threat of violence and abuse.
An 8-year-old girl (and friend of Jessica’s two sons) draws her family. She also resides at the shelter.
More than half the residents of our shelters are children. For what is often the first time ever, they are able to experience a life without abuse.
Jessica has seen a marked change in her sons’ behavior. They used to be shy, fearful to leave her side and unwilling to socialize. “Now, every day they beg me to go to childcare because there are all these games and toys there. And they are opening up more, playing with other kids. They are doing amazing.”
In the third year of our anti-domestic violence campaign #PutTheNailinIt, we’re focusing on the impact of witnessing violence on children. Visit the #PutTheNailinit website to learn more, and join the national movement to help end domestic violence today.
Whether you paint your ring fingernail purple to signify your vow against domestic violence, or donate to support services for victims, your action is needed.