Sunday, December 26, 2010

Courts Awarding Custody to Abusers and Domestic Violence Homicides Is There a Connection?


 I've been thinking about starting this blog for some time now.  My counseling experience has been in working with adult survivors of intimate partner violence and with children who have experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.  I don't claim to be an expert, but I have focused on learning everything I can about the dynamics of abuse and the effects of trauma on those who are most vulnerable.  What I have learned concerns me greatly.  However, I have also learned that with support and appropriate treatment, survivors of trauma can heal. 


Domestic violence is defined as a pattern of physically, sexually and/or emotionally abusive behaviors used by one individual who is, was, or wishes to be in an intimate relationship with another, and which are used as a means to maintain power and control over their partner.  Research has taught us that it is not the result of alcohol, substance abuse, stress, or anger. Those are separate issues which often contribute to - but are not the cause of - intimate partner violence.  Statistics and research have also taught us that that the victims of intimate partner violence are most often women and that the most dangerous time for these women and their children is when they try to leave an abusive partner.

Children who live in homes where domestic violence occurs usually know more about the violence than their parents realize.  They are awakened at night by the yelling and screaming that reverberates through their bedroom walls.  They hear the threats and accusations that always accompany the fight. When their parents believe they are sleeping, these children are often lying awake, silently frozen, fearing not only for their mothers’ lives, but also for their own. Some children take action and try to get between the fighting parents, putting themselves in harm’s way in hopes of breaking up the fight. Sometimes the children are also injured. 

Even babies and young children who live in violent homes learn that the world is not safe. To them, life is dangerous and unpredictable because they never know when the next outburst is going to occur.  They remain on edge. They stay alert to signs that someone might be getting agitated.  They might exhibit symptoms of anxiety or sleep disturbances.  They might have difficulty concentrating or sitting still and older children might act out in school. Sometimes their symptoms of post-traumatic stress are misdiagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).   Toddlers and school-aged children might repeatedly demonstrate violence in their play. Worst of all, they learn that they can’t trust anyone.  

Unfortunately, when a mother finds the courage to escape the abusive relationship, the children often become pawns that the abuser uses in his/her most complex strategy to maintain power and control - that of child custody. An abusive partner knows which tactics will work most effectively when his partner tries to leave. This is one of the greatest injustices these children will endure. 

Although many abusers have little to do with the children during the relationship, they may suddenly  focus their attention on the children when their partner decides to leave. He knows that (in most cases) a mother will go to great lengths to protect her children, possibly even choosing to remain in the relationship to ensure their safety.  However, for those who dare to leave, child custody becomes the new battle ground and the one of the abuser’s most effective weapons against his victim.  Whether he vows to gain full custody of the children or worse yet – threatens to harm them – he knows he will gain the upper hand by bringing the children into the fight.

How do we safeguard our children?  How do we fortify and protect a child’s self-esteem and sense of safety when their lives are filled with chaos?  First, it is important for children to have at least one safe, supportive adult who encourages them.  This person might  be a teacher, a grandparent, an older sibling or a neighbor.  Having a safe, reliable adult involved in the child’s life helps to build resilience and preserve self-esteem.

A second strategy for helping children heal from trauma is providing access to a counselor who has experience working with domestic violence and  traumatized children. Counseling allows even young children the opportunity to process their experiences through therapeutic play, where they can learn effective coping strategies and practice these strategies in a safe and neutral environment.    

And finally, we have to build a community that advocates for the safety and rights of children.  It is unfortunate that much too often the complexities of a contentious separation or divorce overshadow the true needs of the children. Anyone who is charged with the responsibility of making decisions that affect a child’s life and who hear allegations of abuse and/or domestic violence in the home, must thoroughly educate themselves about the dynamics and long-term effects of intimate partner violence and abuse on survivors and their children.  Making a life-changing decision that will affect a child's safety and well-being should be considered only after all of the facts of the case have been thoroughly investigated. Further, it is important to learn and understand the difference between an abuser’s public persona and his private behavior. An abuser rarely shows his disdain in public and instead appears to be very calm, collected, and concerned only for the welfare of his children.  

Counseling for survivors of domestic violence and other types of trauma is available from a variety of resources in our community.  Whether or not you have insurance, help  is only a phone call away.  Please reach out and don’t suffer in silence.  Trained professionals can help you and your children heal. For more information, call Cynthia Starnes, LCSW at the Behavioral Wellness Counseling Clinic in Charlottesville, VA  at (434) 202-2477.