By Laura A. Tancredi-Baese
We cannot escape the headlines, and too often, we cannot escape the experience. Far too many women, men and children have had a close connection to an incident, witnessed one, or have fallen victim to domestic violence.
At Home Start, we take domestic violence personally. Since 1972 our nonprofit has dedicated itself to effectively prevent and treat child abuse as an integral part of our overall mission to assure the safety and resiliency of children by strengthening families and their communities.
The prevalence of domestic violence in our region is demonstrated by the number of incidents reported to San Diego County law enforcement. In 2017, a total of 17,306 domestic violence incidents were reported to law enforcement, a 4 percent increase from 2016, according to SANDAG. In a sample study of 100 domestic violence incidents reported to the San Diego Sheriff, children were present in 37 percent of the cases.
The American Journal of Preventative Medicine confirms Home Start’s experience that homelessness and domestic violence are companion problems. Housing instability is four times more likely for women who have experienced domestic violence compared to other women. Many have children, making domestic violence a driving factor of the swelling population of homeless families in our region.
In the past year, 45 children have been referred to Home Start for mental and behavioral health treatment due to the trauma of witnessing domestic violence in the home. That is 34 percent of all referrals made to Home Start’s behavioral health services team.
How deep is this tragedy? According to Every Child Matters and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, five children every day in America die from abuse and neglect, and more than half a million children suffer from it every year. In our collective fight against child abuse, knowledge remains our strongest weapon. The more we know about it, the more we can do to help those who have already been victimized and to prevent it from happening again.
Children from abusive homes can sometimes appear fine to the outside world, but inside they are in terrible pain. Their families are chaotic and in turmoil. Children often blame themselves for the abuse, thinking that if they had not done or said a particular thing, the abuse would not have occurred. They may also become angry at their siblings or their mother for triggering the abuse. They may feel rage, embarrassment and humiliation.
Children exposed to domestic violence feel isolated and vulnerable. They are starved for attention, affection and approval. When mom is struggling to survive, she is often not able to be present for her children. Because dad is so consumed with controlling everyone, he also is not truly present for his children. These children become physically, emotionally and psychologically abandoned.
The emotional responses of children who witness domestic violence often include fear, guilt, shame, sleep disturbances, sadness, depression and anger (at both the abuser for the violence and at the mother for being unable to prevent the violence).
Physical responses may include stomachaches, headaches, bedwetting and loss of ability to concentrate. Some children may also experience physical or sexual abuse or neglect. Others may be injured while trying to intervene on behalf of their mother or a sibling.
Research continues on the long-term effects on children who experience domestic violence as we know this trauma can lead to significant short- and long-term psychological problems, lower IQ scores, premature aging, and greater rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse and violence.
Sometimes you think you see adults abusing children in public and you don’t know whether you should get involved, or how. You may wonder if it is your business when you see parents hitting, slapping or otherwise hurting their children. Can you help? The answer is yes.
You should try to help if, in your evaluation of the situation, the child could be physically hurt, his or her overall well-being is threatened, or you are uncomfortable with a situation involving a child. If you cannot help by talking to the parent, or the situation is more serious than you can handle, then report the incident.
We recognize that deciding what to do when you suspect child abuse or neglect can be a difficult and confusing process. Remember, you do not need to make a decision about whether abuse or neglect occurred; you are just reporting your concerns.
If you think that a child is in immediate danger, you should call your local police or 911. Contact the sheriff’s department at (858) 565-5200. You can remain anonymous by calling San Diego County Crime Stoppers at (888) 580-8477. You can also submit an anonymous tip online at www.sdcrimestoppers.com. Or you can contact the county’s Child Welfare Services hotline at (858) 560-2191 or toll free elsewhere in California at (800) 344-6000.
Child abuse prevention is a community issue. You can make a difference in the life of a child in your community. We can and should be more aware and involved in helping to protect our children and support San Diego families to prevent abuse and neglect before it occurs.
Laura A. Tancredi-Baese is the chief executive officer of Home Start, a nonprofit child abuse prevention and treatment agency in San Diego.