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Efforts to End Abuse Open Doors for Troubled Families

Home is not a haven for millions of children. Both domestic violence and child abuse endanger their well-being. Today innovative programs are seeking to stabilize at-risk families by supporting each member. Fathers learn to deal constructively with anger; parents get breathing room during crises; kids find there are nonviolent ways to resolve problems. But sometimes another environment is the only answer, and new standards are making children's welfare the first priority.

Lucretia Silas always wanted her son and daughter to have what she didn't have as a child - a father. Even though her husband beat her regularly, she endured the abuse to keep her family together.

But that tenuous arrangement ended five years ago when Ms. Silas's husband threatened to kill her by putting a garbage bag over her head and tying a rope around her neck. She and her children, then ages 7 and 2, fled with only the clothes on their backs, seeking refuge in a shelter for battered women.

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"Because of the children - that's why I stayed with my husband as long as I did," explains Silas, of Clearwater, Fla., noting that he never harmed the children. "As it turned out, that wasn't the best thing for me to do."

Determining "the best thing to do" to protect children from family violence raises anguished questions not only for mothers, but also for concerned professionals. Even when children are not physically abused, they often become frightened observers of the violence inflicted on a battered parent, nearly always their mother.

"Children witness a great deal of parental violence," says David Finkelhor, co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Research suggests, he adds, that children exposed to domestic violence are more likely to be aggressive with schoolmates and grow up to be abusers or victims in their own relationships. Surveys also show that teenagers themselves say that young people learn violent behavior most often from what they see at home.

The Family Research Laboratory estimates that violent episodes occur in 1 out of 8 marriages in a given year. Experts say that 95 percent of that violence is perpetrated by men.

Children surrounded by domestic violence can be hurt in three ways, according to Janet Carter, managing associate director of the Family Violence Prevention Fund in San Francisco. "They can be physically injured if they get caught in the fray between the parents," she says. "They can be intentionally injured by the perpetrator in his attempt to control the adult victim. He'll say, 'If I can't get to you, I'll get to what you love most.' Finally, even if they're not physically injured, there's a lot of emotional effect."

Silas knows that firsthand. After she left her husband, her son became very angry. His grades plummeted from A's and B's to D's and F's, and she had to seek counseling for him.

Until recently, counselors and social workers have treated child abuse and domestic violence as separate problems, handled by completely different systems - one set up to protect children, the other to protect women. "Child abuse and neglect, when they are reported, are investigated by an official state agency," explains Susan Schechter, a professor at the University of Iowa School of Social Work in Iowa City. "Domestic violence has traditionally been dealt with in small, grass-roots services. Yet in 30 to 50 percent of child abuse cases, there's also domestic violence."

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(While government studies indicate child abuse and neglect cases doubled between 1986 and 1993 [to 2.8 million], researchers say much of the increase likely results from increased reporting.)

Calling the two forms of family violence "inextricably linked," Ms. Carter says, "Until we address both problems together, we're not really addressing the safety of the family." Adds Susan Kelly, director of family preservation services at the Michigan Family Independence Agency in Lansing, "Child-welfare and domestic-violence agencies have the same goals. The first goal is safety, then justice for children and justice for victims, and finally peace - safe homes, safe relationships."

As first steps in collaboration, the Massachusetts Department of Social Services has hired 11 domestic-violence specialists to work alongside child protection workers. Michigan also has a statewide collaborative effort, called Families First.

Two years ago, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges in Reno, Nev., published a "Model State Code on Domestic and Family Violence" to encourage consistency in family-violence legislation. Since then, says Merry Hofford, director of the project, a number of states have done a side-by-side comparison of their statutes with the model code and have made adjustments.

"The way to make a child safe is to make the mom safe, by protecting women through laws, shelters, safe housing, and legal advocacy," says Linda Osmundson, executive director of the Center Against Spouse Abuse in St. Petersburg, Fla. "Very often a mom is accused of failing to protect a child, when she can't even protect herself."

Despite these encouraging signs, some family violence programs face financial challenges that could limit their work. "It's getting really tough these days," says Ms. Osmundson. "Federal and state funding has been pushed down to the local level. That puts us in competition with other programs."

Still, as public awareness of the problem grows, various efforts seek to help victims of abuse, men who batter, and children affected by parental violence. The National Domestic Abuse Hotline (800-799-SAFE) based in Austin, Texas, has provided help and referrals for more than 60,000 callers since opening in February, says supervisor Liz Leslie. The nonprofit Domestic Abuse Project in Minneapolis, which helps youngsters who have witnessed domestic violence, is being replicated elsewhere in the US and in other countries.

Other efforts focus on prevention. A home visitation program sponsored by the Kempe Center in Denver visits 3,000 families a year, offering support after the birth of a baby and before violence can occur. "European countries provide this service routinely," says Susan Hiatt, director. "In this country, we require more training and education to drive a car than we do to have a family." Some schools, both public and private, now include discussions of family and dating violence in health and family life classes.

Religious groups are also active. The World Council of Churches has its new Program to Overcome Violence, aimed at identifying effective church programs. Women in the United Methodist Church are focusing on domestic violence issues. And Jewish Women International in Washington has distributed 3,000 copies of a resource guide for rabbis on domestic violence. On April 7, a conference at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., will address the topic, "The Inside Story of Abuse in the Jewish Home."

"So many efforts are directed to intervention after the fact," says Rabbi Julie Spitzer, director of the UAHC Greater New York Council of Reform Synagogues in New York. "The work we do in prevention is so much more valuable. If we can teach children, for example, that it's not right for the person who says they love you to hit you, or for you to hit the person you love, that has benefits in geometric proportion to saying, after the fact, 'What you did was wrong.'"

As such efforts expand, family-violence professionals hope societal attitudes will change, making tolerance of family violence unacceptable. Meanwhile, women like Silas show the possibilities for building violence-free lives for themselves and their children. Today Silas, an executive secretary, describes her life as "great" and her home as "very peaceful."

"My son understands he's going to grow up respecting women," Silas says. "And my daughter is going to grow up realizing she is not supposed to take abuse from anybody."

Osmundson sums up her hope for change. "We can begin to help people operate in an egalitarian family setting, where there is shared decisionmaking, and where children are disciplined with means other than violence," she says. "If we can teach children that violence is not an option, if we can teach families that there are nonviolent ways to solve problems, we can become models for our neighborhood and our community. We have to start with our families, finding peace at home before we have peace in the world. That's the big vision."

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