Sunday, May 2, 2010


I volunteer at a domestic violence shelter, providing small groups to kids from age 3 to teens. Six months ago, I shared a picture book, "Something's Wrong at My House," with each group. The book is about violence in the home and I was disappointed at the kids' and teens' responses. They were mostly short, quite superficial,and guarded.

At that time, my groups were conducted in a large, brightly-lit room because the shelter, its space 100% utilized, couldn't find a smaller, more private area for me. Confidentiality (always explained before group starts) is a significant issue for these kids. They have to hide what happens at home from so many people, it becomes a habit. They don't want anyone outside the family "to know."

Unfortunately, the large room we were using had a door on one side that lead outside to a play space, and a door on the other side that led to the bathroom. Each group, especially when kids were playing outside, experienced several interruptions during which talk stopped and trust diminished.

Finally, a caring administrator squeezed out a small space for my groups which is dimly lit, cozy, and PRIVATE. It's great for one-on-one interviews or the "work" part of group when everyone sits quietly and takes part or listens to "stories", problem solving, safety plans, or general discussions.

Unfortunately, this new space isn't large enough for the "free time/play" part of group that follows. For that, we recently returned to the large room, where there's a dollhouse, plenty of room for drawing,coloring,and playing with games and toys.

Given this change, I decided to try "Something's Wrong At My House" again--in the small, private space. That week, kids were aged 3-12 and lived both "outside" or in the shelter. Some were new to my groups; a few were "veterans" who'd been coming each week for 3 to 28 months. Typically, different races and social classes were represented.

I read the whole book to older kids, a couple pages to the younger ones. Then I asked, "Is your family anything like this one?"

And this time, they talked, demonstrated, argued about all kinds of violence. Of attempts at or actual rescues of mothers in danger for their lives. In fact, they talked so much that I stopped trying to "get through" the book and said we'd read more next time.

I thanked them for their honesty, reassured them I would not tell their moms what they had said. I also warned them they might feel sad, guilty, or confused about all they'd said and heard. "If this happens, talk to the people you're near," I told them. We discussed whom they could talk to. Almost all said they could tell Mom or a brother or sister.

Because I know they often protect Mom from their real feelings,I also suggested an aunt, grandmother, neighbor they can trust. I did not suggest a school social worker (which I have been), a teacher, a police officer, a minister or a priest. Not because I'm against them, but because they must report what they've heard.

However, I've learned from the mothers at the shelter and extensive research about what can happen when violence in a home is investigated. Abusers can be charming, creative liars,and expert manipulators. The result may be that the woman's part in the problem (as others see it), adds up to serious neglect. Her daily care of the children may, in fact, be compromised by fear, depression, and a lack of resources. And the part she plays in the problem can easily be distorted.

As a result, her kids may end up in foster care or with her abuser who then holds visitation rights and further abuse over her head.

Every layer of society needs education about the complicated social/emotional beliefs that infiltrate and prejudice our understanding of domestic and dating violence. The judicial system is struggling with this and probably always will.

But lately I have seen signs that some women are getting a slightly better shake from some courts and police departments. We need to improve this gain exponentially for the sake of kids from violent homes. They are not as resilient as you may believe. They are already imprinted with beliefs and behaviors that will probably affect their future, their intimate relationships and their children.

What can you do, especially if you are a man?

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