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When Domestic Violence Becomes Child Abuse

Director of Volunteer Services Becca Burns and Health and Wellness Coordinator Sarah McConnell of the Willow converse about ways children can be used as a form of power and control. Conversely they discuss how children in relationships based off of equality are taught and treated. The artwork in the audio player was made by a child in the art therapy program at the Willow. View the transcript at the bottom of this post.

The informative graphic below explains the different ways children might be affected by living in a violent home or experiencing domestic violence. The information was compiled from the Vermont Department of Mental Health.

How Can Domestic Violence Affect Children?

By Terran Smith

“If a woman is being abused by her partner,” the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence says, “there’s a 7 out of 10 chance that any children in the house will also suffer abuse.” Mary Metz, both an advocate for the Willow Domestic Violence Center and a survivor of an 18-year domestically violent relationship, says her and her son embody this statistic all to well.

Metz graduated and married her high school sweetheart at age 18. Three years later, they had a son, James. What many married couples consider a blessing, her abuser considered a burden.

The decision to try for children was Metz’s. Her husband was smug towards the situation. “He didn’t want children, and I really think that’s because he didn’t want to introduce anyone else into the relationship,” Metz said.

Although there was the occasional pushing, shoving and control only three years into the relationship, the violence dissipated into ambivalence during Metz’s pregnancy.

“That was really painful to want to have a child and to be married to a man who wanted nothing to do with children,” Metz said.

After a calm period during pregnancy, Metz’s abuse resumed with a vengeance when her son, James, was just a toddler. By age 3, he began to witness his mother pushed, shoved and abused on a regular basis. As his violent behavior escalated, Metz’s husband physically abused James as well.

Metz says his dad didn’t beat him on a regular basis, but he had a temper. “He couldn’t handle any anger. It always escalated into something huge,” Metz said.

When James fell victim to his father’s abuse, Metz worked hard to mediate the situation, stop her husband and defend her son. She protected James the best she could, but he wasn’t the one her husband wanted ultimate control over.

“From early childhood until age 16, James grew up fearful of his abusive father, not for himself, but for me,” Metz said.

Metz was the person her husband was after. Violence against James was incidental as he was caught in the crossfire at times. James experienced periodic physical abuse, but the violence towards his mother was consistent.

“Children who witness violence at home may display emotional and behavioral disturbances as diverse as withdrawal, low self-esteem, nightmares, and aggression against peers, family members and property,” according to NCDSV.

The unpredictable beatings undoubtedly hurt both physically and emotionally, but the most excruciating experience James dealt with was watching his mother being abused, says Metz.

Metz says pain that children feel is emotional and not so much physical. “And I think people don’t realize they carry it for their entire lifetimes,” Metz said.

The black eyes and bruises inflicted by his late father faded long ago, but the emotional wounds of growing up in a violent household remain a part of James. Metz’s son made a conscious decision to never be an abuser to women, but growing up in an abusive environment left him without example of a healthy family dynamic.

Children model the behavior they see, and learn how to interact in relationships by example. Without a healthy illustration, James struggled with similar anger issues as his father.  “He said at times that he did have to put his fist through a wall just to deal with the anger or anxiety that built up,” Metz said.

James recognized the aggressive emotions he struggled with and grew to understand dynamics of healthy relationships based on equality.

It took time, Metz says, but James grew from experiencing his own relationships and break-ups. “Even though his dad tried really to change him, he didn’t ever lose sense of himself,” Metz said.

Although the abuse occurred more than a decade ago, the healing process for both Mary and her son is far from over. The trauma caused by years of physical, emotional and mental abuse is one scar that will never completely fade.

It takes a lot of time to get to what people would call normal, Metz says, but it never fully goes away. “They say the physical wounds heal but the emotional wounds never do,” Metz said.

Often times, domestic violence includes the children of the family. The focus of these abusive situations can become centered solely around the survivor, the abuser and relationship. Child abuse does not necessarily fall under domestic violence, but when the abuser starts to target the children it does.

Executive Director Joan Shultz says it’s paramount the community doesn’t dismiss the children simply because there isn’t much information seen or heard about them. “There isn’t much talk about the children within the community, yet they’re the most vulnerable persons in the whole relationship,” Schultz said.

James* and Mary Metz shared an experience of victimization that not only impacted their lives forever, but also strengthened their relationship. In 2011, Metz began to volunteer for the Willow as a way to give back and continue to move forward. Before sharing their experience, Metz gained her son’s approval and began to lead the Survivor’s Story training sessions at WDVC.

“I think he’s okay with me telling our story because he wants for me whatever makes me happy,” Metz said. “He knows that this is healing for me to share my story. In some way I think it’s because I’m telling his story too.”

*Note: James is not Mary’s son’s real name; it has been changed for personal reasons.
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Projects made in the Children’s Art Program at the Willow. Click the photo to visit the website.

Audio Transcript:

MS. BECCA BURNS: There are many ways that abusers can use children as tools of manipulation against their partners. So, they may use the children to make the survivor feel guilty, maybe feel guilty about not being a good enough parent.

MS. SARAH MCCONNELL: One way that I’ve noticed abusers might use is to use the children to relay messages, and that’s something that I don’t think most people don’t identify as an abusive tactic, but it most definitely is.

MS. BURNS: A way to harass the person so whether it’s by relaying messages or whether it’s remarks or gestures of some kind during visitation

MS. MCCONNELL: In a really serious way is that they might threaten to take the children away, or they might actually do so via filing a protection from abuse order, protection from stalking order against the stalker or just kidnapping the kids.
MS. BURNS: I feel like we come across a lot of survivors who are threatened to have their children taken away. And that’s one of the reasons why they stay so long is because they either feel like this person will carry through with those threats or has some kind of clout behind them or some kind of power in the community to keep the kids. So then conversely when we’re looking at an equal relationship or a relationship based on equality, here are some things that we consider to be more responsible parenting in a relationship.

MS. MCCONNELL: one big one that’s kind of really difficult to explain exactly what it is. Its kidn of if you see it you know it and it’s being a positive, non-violent role model for the children. SO. Showing the children how to communicate positively by communicating positively with your partner, communicating positively with the kids, not raising your voice, not being physically violent with the parents or the kids.
MS. BURNS: And then sharing those parental responsibilities, making sure it’s equal in terms of what you’re doing with and for the children.

SMITH: This is Terran Smith reporting for Lawrence non-profits

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