October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The US Department of Justice defines domestic violence as “a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.” Domestic violence can be verbal, physical, sexual, or psychological.
More than 15 million children in the United States live in homes in which domestic violence has occurred at least once. Many children exposed to violence in the home are also victims of physical abuse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that in homes where domestic violence occurs, there is a 45%-60% chance of co-occurring child abuse, a rate 15 times higher than average.
The One Place Child Advocacy Center provides services to children from birth through age 17 who have experienced physical abuse, sexual abuse, serious neglect and/or violence. When a child receives services in the CAC for physical or sexual abuse, staff may sometimes determine that there is also domestic violence occurring in the home after speaking with the non-offending caregiver.
“Domestic violence is not a stranger to Onslow County,” said Susan Jensen, Forensic Child Medical Examiner at the CAC.
One of the most difficult parts of the job is hearing the children tell the stories of “their reality”, Jensen said.
“One young girl had tears streaming down her face when she described taking the phone into a closet to call 911 when her parents were fighting because she thought her dad was going to kill her mom,” Jensen said. “These stories can be hard to hear, but these children are living it, and the impact on their life can be devastating.”
Children who witness domestic violence or are victims of abuse are at serious risk for physical and mental health issues. Exposure to domestic violence is an adverse childhood experience (ACE) which can cause long-term impact to brain development, social-emotional skills, and the ability to thrive as an adult.
The term ACEs comes from a landmark 1998 study from the CDC that connected childhood adversity to higher risk for poor physical, mental, behavioral, and social outcomes in life. ACEs can take on various forms, including verbal, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, physical neglect, divorce and separation of parents, physical abuse of a parent, alcohol or drug abuse by a parent, mental illness of a parent, and incarceration of a parent. In North Carolina, 23.3 percent of children have one ACE and 23.6 percent have experienced two or more adverse childhood experiences.
“Parents and families often think that domestic violence has little effect on children. However, the impact of domestic violence on a child’s life can be far-reaching,” Jensen said. “Children who witness violence suffer greater rates of depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcohol and drug abuse, are at a greater risk of entering the juvenile and criminal justice system, and have significantly low academic achievement.”
Even the youngest of children, while resilient, are not immune to the impact of domestic violence.
“People tend to think the younger a child is, the less they will be affected by domestic violence in the home. The opposite is true,” Jensen said. “Children age 0-6 years may be especially traumatized by exposure to domestic violence. They may experience increased aggressiveness, anxiety, and developmental delays.”
Noemi Rivera, assistant director at the CAC noted that one in four women are victims of domestic violence, and encourages parents and caregivers experiencing domestic violence to seek help.
“If parents think (domestic violence) is not affecting their child – it is. Get help … tell someone you trust. A child shouldn’t have to carry that burden.” Rivera said. “Domestic violence is something that escalates. What happened once will not happen again – it will happen worse.”
For domestic violence assistance in Onslow County call the 24-hour crisis line at 910-347-4000 or visit https://www.onslowwc.org/
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