Everybody knows child abuse has negative effects that can last a lifetime, sometimes playing out in emotional or behavioral problems that can span generations. What not everyone knows, says Exchange Club Family Center’s Barbara King, is that domestic violence can have a similar impact on a child, even if the child isn’t directly involved.
“Domestic violence is just as destructive if these children are forced to witness it,” says King, the center’s executive director. “It can bring about just as much or more post-traumatic stress.”
A parent might think, “We don’t fight in front of her,” or, “He’s never been hit.” But walls are thin, and any parent knows that a kid hears everything – especially things parents don’t want him or her to hear.
“I think people would be astounded that it impresses these children in so many ways,” King continues. “The guilt, shame and fear are enormous, and the anger. We’re seeing that being acted out as older teens. And depression, lots of depression.”
The good news is that many organizations in Memphis and the Mid-South are addressing these serious issues, building awareness and providing families with counseling, shelter, protection and access to key services that can help them escape violent situations and curb the cycle of abuse.
Olliette Murry-Drobot, executive director of the Family Safety Center, shares one huge success story that came from the organization’s work with families traumatized by violence. A wife and mother showed up at the center in fear because her husband was making threats toward her and her two daughters.
Like King, Stallworth believes awareness is a key facet of the fight against domestic violence, child abuse and sexual abuse. In 2011 her organization set an aggressive goal: to train 5% of Shelby County’s adult population through the organization’s Stewards of Children program by 2019.
Stewards of Children, a two and a half-hour, interactive workshop on child/sexual abuse prevention and response training, equips adults across the community – parents, people who work with kids and others – to prevent abuse by recognizing the danger signs and learning how to report suspicious situations to law enforcement or child protection agencies. Memphis Child Advocacy Center teaches the session on-site at local venues and also holds twice-monthly open-enrollment sessions.
So far, more than 15,000 community members have undergone the training. Memphis Child Advocacy Center’s goal is to train 35,000 adults in Shelby County by 2019 –a key percentage of the population that could incite real change.
“Malcolm Gladwell wrote that if you can reach 5% of the population, you can see a real tipping point begin,” Stallworth explains. “In this case we’re talking about social behavior. What we think it looks like is the beginning of a real change in the norms of child protection around our community.”
It’s already working, she adds. A program evaluator recently compiled a report based on four years of data that shows that a rise in the number of adults trained in recognizing the signs of abuse has resulted in a corresponding rise in reporting in Shelby County.
“If we’re successful in prevention, two things happen,” Stallworth says. “One is that we prevent kids from being hurt. Secondly, more kids who need us are discovered and get to us for help.”
Murry-Drobot thinks of these trained citizens as ambassadors for the families affected by violence. “A lot of people don’t know Memphis and Shelby County are struggling with domestic violence issues,” she says. “We talk a lot about crime, about public safety. A lot of that is domestic violence. It’s going on in the home.”
And along with donations of money and time to these entities working directly with families, citizens can join the fight against domestic violence simply by spreading word and increasing awareness of the issue, she adds.
Meanwhile, the goal of Family Safety Center is to direct victims to the help they need.
“Her girls were struggling, hearing the fighting, the shouts and screams,” Murry-Drobot says. “At the time that she came in we were very focused on her safety – getting her safe housing and working with her on safety planning. Eventually she was in a stable place and able to start looking at the long term.”
The woman, who hadn’t finished high school, earned her GED and then enrolled in Southwest Tennessee Community College. Her daughters, who’d been acting out in school and seeing their grades slip as they dealt with the violence at home, were able to turn their lives around, too.
“Now the girls are honor students,” Murry-Drobot says. “One is involved in dance and the other is playing sports. They have a stable home now.”
And the mother, for her part, is now a full-time staff member at Family Safety Center, serving as a victims advocate and helping other families overcome terrible situations like the one she survived herself.
Virginia Stallworth, executive director of the Memphis Child Advocacy Center, works with her staff to produce more stories like these – stories of victims who are able to escape the cycle of abuse. Her organization’s mission is two-fold: preventing sexual abuse through awareness, and helping children who’ve been victimized become children again.
“What we know is that when kids get the right kind of support and treatment, they can be and are very resilient,” Stallworth says. “They can go on to live happy and fulfilling lives.” But before that can happen, she adds, “We’ve got to get them to the door. Somebody has to make that report.”
“The core of what we do is navigation,” Murry-Drobot says. “We coordinate with all our partners, work closely with law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office. We navigate victims through understanding what’s going on when they encounter domestic violence. Often times, believe it or not, victims may not realize they’re in a domestic violence situation. They may think it’s an isolated incidence.”
And one fact is solidly backed up by evidence: Domestic violence and child abuse aren’t isolated crimes, because abuse often doesn’t stop with the abuser.
“Statistics show that about 50% of girls who grow up in a home where there’s domestic violence will end up as victims as adults,” Murry-Drobot says. “That’s the same for boys growing up as perpetrators.”
There are many ways to help curb the cycle, King points out. And because the issue is so private, so personal, the most direct opportunity to help comes from simply being there for someone who has experienced or may be experiencing abuse.
“If you think someone is being abused, talk to that person. Be there for that person,” King says. “These people feel so isolated. The offender has made them feel that way in a lot of cases. And if you suspect child abuse, please report it. It can be done anonymously. We’d far rather have it reported and proven negative than not reported at all. It’s everybody’s responsibility to raise a child, it really is.”