Thinking about domestic violence, child witness to violence and social justice

“To reach real peace in the world, we shall have to begin with the children.”    …Mahatma Ghandi

By Lysetta Hurge-Putnam, MSW, LICSW (LHP), Executive Director

Domestic violence is documented as far back as 753 BC. Its history and prevalence are long, and the effects on victims from birth, to the end of life, are serious, well documented and wide ranging. These effects negatively impact agency, well-being, physical, mental and emotional health, financial status, and presents an existential crisis for some survivors.   Although domestic violence has been woven through the fabric of the U.S. and globally, actual recognition and response to victims/survivors began only in the 1950’s and 1960’s when the civil rights, anti-war and black liberation movements challenged the country, laying a foundation for the feminist movement. Between 1950-2005 activists, survivors/victims, domestic violence coalitions and sexual assault coalitions have worked together and separately to assure that victims of domestic violence and sexual assault are treated with dignity and respect and receive the support they are deserving of. The work has expanded over time to bring together, federal and state government, law enforcement, prosecution and concerned communities and individuals to further assure these rights.

Domestic violence victims/survivors who come to Independence House reflect our communities. They are both the beneficiaries and drivers of change. They demand and deserve responsive systems and organizations that take into account their individual experiences and reactions. To address domestic violence through a social justice lens, and to effectively support survivors, our responses are grounded in attentiveness to the social and personal experiences of survivors’ identities as defined by race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, language, abilities, and gender identification. We strive to understand, empathize and accept the realities of discrimination and oppression. We know that individualized responses must acknowledge how these experiences affect every aspect of a survivor’s healing, starting with safety planning. In the same way that survivors are shaped by the ways in which society views and treats their communities of identification, so are we shaped by our own communities and we bring these experiences to the table when we work with survivors, sometimes assuming we all experience the world in the same way! Of course, this approach may have unintended consequences and ramifications for safety and healing. Social justice requires us to be as intentional as possible!

Our entire organization is committed to assuring that our work on behalf of survivors is applied through these lens.  We are committed to attending to the unique and specific needs of survivors who belong to these groups who have historically experienced oppression and discrimination if this is not work you are already engaged in. We invite our colleagues and community to join us in applying these lens as we honor survivors and their varied and unique life experiences.

Because our community breakfast this year is focused on children who witness, it seems timely to discuss social justice as it applies to children who witness domestic violence. This means we acknowledge and respect their individual experiences and circumstances of (class, race, culture, family make-up, socioeconomic status); that we listen to them and strive to understand the totality of their experiences as child witnesses, and appropriately for their developmental stage consult with them, recognizing how differently each may react and respond because of these variables.  Applying a social justice lens also means that we challenge institutions and institutional practices (including our own) which do not treat adult and child witnesses with this dignity and respect. Social justice means that we respect the ways in which these circumstances shape each child and act accordingly. Survivors must essentially be in the driver’s seat of any help and support they are participating in and they must know that they are seen and heard.

Specific needs of children who witness domestic violence

  • A safe home environment where they do not worry about safety and security. They need to know that the violence in their homes will not continue. They need to know that their non-offending parent/guardian is protected.
  • A sense of normalcy and predictability. This means they should be able to continue going to school safely, and participate in activities which are normal for children such as play, sports, having friendships, etc.
  • Representations and reflections of themselves in the settings where they are participating in help (staff, artwork, books, etc.)
  • Comprehensive intervention which address both the effects of witnessing domestic violence and repair of any fractured parent child relationships. This means work that includes working with both the child witness and non-offending parent, while attending to the individual and unique needs of each. Participating in these comprehensive interventions in a safe, culturally and linguistically competent non-threatening environment is essential.
  • Children who witness violence at home need validation that domestic violence is wrong. They need to see and experience alternative to violence in personal relationships. They need to be imbued with hope for the future that their lives can be different.