News: Teaching Children to Live Through the Pain

A children's playroom is a vibrant place. This one has a bright orange sun, a yellow sky and colorful butterflies flying amidst the flowers and trees painted on the walls. But the children who play

Jul 27, 2000 at 2:06 pm

A children's playroom is a vibrant place. This one has a bright orange sun, a yellow sky and colorful butterflies flying amidst the flowers and trees painted on the walls.

But the children who play in this beautiful room share an ugly experience: They've all had their lives interrupted by domestic violence.

Women go to the YWCA Battered Women's Shelter to escape abuse, and they usually aren't alone. Today, just over half of the people staying in the shelter are children.

Most of the women there today grew up with violence in their homes, said Theresa Adair, director of the shelter's Continuum Care Services. The services available for children now weren't around for them.

"Hopefully, that will make a difference," Adair said, "(so) that we'll be able to break that cycle."

The shelter's playroom is quiet this morning. Most of its usual guests are off at summer camp, but the scuffmarks on the newly repainted walls show that this emptiness is uncommon.

It's a safe place to play, but the children at shelters like this need more. They have bruises that are less obvious than those on mom.

"They're at higher risk for almost everything bad that can happen to a kid," said Dr. Barbara Boat, psychologist and director of the Childhood Trust at Children's Hospital Medical Center.

The danger to them, she said, goes beyond the physical to difficulty in school, nightmares, sleeplessness, isolation, feelings of guilt and turning to aggression to solve problems. "(Children) are hard-wired to know that their welfare depends on the welfare of their caregiver," she said.

Healing for the child begins when the violence stops and the child feels safe. Boat said that talking about experiences and letting children know what to do when they feel threatened can help as well.

The children at the shelter are put into small groups to help them work through their problems Adair said. Group leaders stress to the children that the violence isn't their fault and that this is a place where they can feel safe to express their feelings.

Another obstacle these children face is schooling. The kids often stop going to their current school upon entering the shelter because abusers can use it to track the children back to their mothers.

This fall, Adair said, the shelter will be starting its own school for kindergarten through eighth graders with the permission of Cincinnati Public Schools. The goal is to use the school to prevent truancy and to help the children maintain their academic credit while in the shelter.

Later in life, children who grow up with domestic violence are prone to other troubles as well. Boat said current research shows children who grow up in the presence of violence are:

· Six times more likely to commit suicide;

· 24 times more likely to be sexually assaulted;

· 60 times more likely to engage in delinquent behavior as an adult; and

· 1,000 times more likely to be abusers themselves.

It's the last statistic that Jim Beiting focuses on. As the director of the Amend Adolescent Program of the YWCA, Beiting stresses education and prevention by working with children at risk for violent behavior and their parents. He believes the "vast majority" of the kids in the program grew up with domestic violence.

Typically, children are referred by juvenile courts to attend the program as part of their sentence or are recommended to it by the Department of Human Services, Beiting said.

The program has just recently taken off since it's inception about six years ago, he said, because "people are recognizing the need to intervene with kids at an earlier age" — not because there's more violence.

This year, about 250 people will go through the program; one-third are parents and the rest are adolescents. Once a week for 15 weeks, the adolescents meet in groups of eight defined by age and gender. Parents meet in a separate group. A facilitator leads the adolescents in role-playing, discussion and film education to teach them to build healthy relationships and ways to solve problems without violence.

Funding from a $40,000 grant from the Butler Foundation last May will bring the Amend Adolescent Program to area high schools. Jewish Family Service, YWCA and Women Helping Women have teamed up to offer teen violence prevention programming in high schools for the 2000-2001 school year, said Kathleen Tamarkin, director of the Family Life Education Department at Jewish Family Service.