How children are affected by violence involving their parents


When Rodney Peterson, a high school headmaster in Boston, assaulted his wife five weeks after she gave birth, it seemed a textbook example of the way abusive partners exploit new mothers’ vulnerability. Women are more likely to be assaulted or killed by partners while pregnant or after recently giving birth, research shows.

Traditionally, children were regarded as accidental bystanders to violence involving their parents – a view that is now being challenged. A recent study, “Everyday terrorism: How fear works in domestic abuse,” is among the latest to show that children are central to the experiences and fears of adult victims. Whether or not the abuse involves the children directly, their existence is often a means to terrorize and trap the other parent. “In behaving abusively around the children, the father seems to give up his own responsibilities as a parent while exploiting the mother’s obligations,” said Rachel Pain, lead investigator in the study, in an interview.

Every year, 3 to 10 million U.S. children see or overhear domestic abuse or its effects (including injuries and fear), according to studies. These children are likely to suffer psychological, behavioral and health consequences comparable to the effects of direct abuse and often continuing into adulthood. “Recent data drive home the longer lasting impact of exposure to violence, particularly chronic exposure,” said Betsy McAlister Groves, founding director of the Child Witness to Violence Project at Boston Medical Center, which provides early mental health intervention, in an interview. Unpublished data from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network involving thousands of children nationwide places exposure to domestic violence as the second most frequently cited trauma, marginally behind bereavement and ahead of physical abuse.

Mothers’ fears for children exposed to domestic abuse can be, paradoxically, both a reason for leaving and a reason for not leaving. “Leaving can expose the children as well as the mothers to greater risk,” said Pain, who is professor of geography at Durham University, U.K. The study, based on interviews with survivors, was published in August.

Domestic abuse forces victims to turn to public programs, particularly in a floundering economy when they have fewer private resources. On a single day last September, domestic violence programs in Massachusetts provided services to 1,799 women and children (and in rarer cases, men), according to the 24-hour census by the National Network to End Domestic Violence based in Washington, D.C.

Sandy, 43, a teacher in the Greater Boston area, spent much of her married life trying to quiet her children so their noise did not agitate her violent husband. She never left them alone with him. Neither did she report the abuse – which was aimed at her – for fear that the children would be taken into care by social services. When she left her husband in 2006, the children were 15, 10 and 6; Sandy’s husband broke her nose when she told him she was pregnant again. Now an advocate for abused women, she spent four months moving between refuges, going out of state when there was no spot available in Massachusetts. She has since struggled with poverty and post-traumatic stress disorder, and her husband has used her insecure housing situation to get temporary custody of their four children. “They are now living with his abuse,” Sandy said in an interview for this report: “My youngest daughter can’t bear loud noises and has bedwetting and night terrors.”

The benefits and cost-effectiveness of domestic abuse prevention and support services have been well established by research. Nevertheless, Massachusetts state funding was significantly reduced in 2010. In 2013, it will remain about 10 per cent lower than in 2009, despite increased demand. The effects of these cuts are aggravated by reduced resources for homelessness, poverty and health services. “The whole safety net is going away at the same time,” says Maureen Gallagher, policy director at Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts coalition against sexual assault and domestic violence, based in Boston. Ominously, on the day of the census last September, Massachusetts programs reported 479 unmet requests for services, mostly – as in all the New England states – for emergency housing. In addition, “Economic pressure has caused the attrition of child mental health services, longer waiting lists and probably more untreated, traumatized children,” said McAlister Groves.

Rodney Peterson’s attack on his wife last year made news primarily for the lack of disciplinary action against him by Boston Public Schools. That he continued in his post as a head teacher – implicitly a role model within the community, with a duty of care for children – illustrates how lightly society regards his transgressions as a husband and father, and their reverberations.

Lucy Berrington is a journalist and a candidate in the Health Communication MS program at Tufts Medical School.


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