Abuse Doesn’t Take a Holiday

The holiday season is not “the most wonderful time of year” for some Ohio Valley families who live day-in, day-out with domestic violence.

“Over my 22-year career, I have found it to be true that from November to mid-January we do see a spike in domestic violence cases,” said Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger.

One reason, he said, is the colder weather that causes families to be inside together more. A bigger cause, he believes, is the stress that can come with the holidays. Increased alcohol and drug use may also contribute.

While domestic violence may occur more often at this time of year, there may be a drop in reports made to the police. Schwertfeger noted it is, overall, the “primary underreported crime.”

Patricia Flanigan, director of the Family Violence Prevention Program at the YWCA Wheeling, agreed and said the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence reports a drop in calls this time of year.

“People tend to want to get through the holiday season,” she said. “They work to keep their family together and to protect their children and themselves. They just want to hold their family together and make it as peaceful as possible for everyone involved.”

How Children Are Affected

Domestic violence affects the entire family. Children are negatively impacted in a variety of ways by the violence in their homes, said Joyce Yedlosky of the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence. At the annual Ohio County Partners in Prevention conference Dec. 9 in Wheeling, Yedlosky spoke to a group of social workers, law enforcement, educators and others who work with children about the impact of children’s exposure to domestic violence.

“It’s really hard on the kids. They’re confused and they want their life to go on and they probably want to … continue that ongoing relationship” with the abusive parent, she said.

The worst possible case scenario is a child’s death. “Domestic violence is the single major precursor to abuse and neglect fatalities of children,” Yedlosky said. In 19 percent of domestic homicides, at least one child also was killed.

Children could be exposed to a parent’s death. “More adults are killed, but in 70 percent of the cases, (a child) witnessed it or found the body,” Yedlosky said.

Yedlosky listed other ways children are impacted:

– It exposes them to abuse that can cause psychological trauma.

– It opens them up to being used as weapons of manipulation.

– It undermines the victim’s standing as someone having authority.

– It gives them a negative role model for dealing with conflict in relationships.

– It puts them in danger of being physically or sexually abused.

Yedlosky said domestic violence impacts children across the age spectrum differently. When a child is in the womb, extreme stress on the mother can affect the fetus’ development. An infant may be in harm’s way physically because he is being held during the abuse or is being pulled away from the victim. A baby’s needs may not get met because the victim is too injured physically or emotionally to care for the child, or the batterer may keep the victim from responding to the child’s needs.

Not developing “that primal sense of bonding and trust can impact them emotionally, potentially for life, if their needs are not being met,” she said.

Children ages 2-4 are drawn toward the violence instinctively, so they may get physically injured, either accidentally or intentionally. They are sponges and may learn violent behavior from the batterer. They may regress developmentally, such as in the area of potty training. They also are used by the abuser to get information about the other parent.

In the 5-12 range, children may try to intervene in the abuse. Girls tend to try to be “the perfect child” in school and at home, and they internalize their emotions; while boys may act out aggressively. Boys may begin to batter their mothers.

As teens, children who live with domestic abuse at home are more likely to become parents themselves, may engage in or become victims of dating violence and are more likely to be involved in substance abuse and other risky behaviors, Yedlosky said.

How to Help

Not all children are impacted in the same way, Yedlosky said, and several factors contribute to the amount they are impacted, including the frequency, duration and severity of the abuse, their personalities, the opportunities available to them to succeed, and whether they have a loving and supportive adult in their lives.

“One of the things you can do is be that positive role model and teach them that domestic violence is not normal behavior,” she told the Partners in Prevention participants.

To help repair the damage, Yedlosky said children can be given the opportunity to express their feelings, maintain their connection to the adult victim and siblings, and be exposed to resources that will help them heal.

Schwertfeger said “no one is immune” to domestic violence. “It’s a crime that spans all socio-economic boundaries.”

Schwertfeger said he has seen the difference in how children deal with domestic violence. He recalled a set of young twin boys he encountered many times on domestic violence calls to their home when he lived in Virginia. As adults, one twin ended up in prison while the other joined the police force and worked for Schwertfeger. One day Schwertfeger asked the officer if he remembered him coming to their home.

“He said, ‘Yes. You’re the reason I’m here.'”

As people of all walks of life gather for holiday events and celebrations in the coming weeks, Flanigan said “it is always important to listen and not judge a person who may be involved in a violent relationship. Stay in contact with them if you can do so safely. Help them plan for their safety,” she said.

“Domestic violence is a very complex issue and many people do not understand the dynamics involved,” Flanigan continued. “If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the YWCA Family Violence Prevention Program at 304-232-2748 or at 1-800-698-1247.”