October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Domestic violence puts millions of women and their families at risk each year and is one of the single greatest social ills impacting the nation (see ncjfcj.org). Children to whom a CASA volunteer is assigned have very possibly been exposed to domestic violence. The CASA volunteer needs to be aware of characteristics of family violence and the local services available to address it. Domestic violence can manifest not only as physical abuse but also as intimidation, threats, economic control and even rape. Most commonly, men commit acts of family violence against women, although some women do commit such acts against men.
A domestic violence perpetrator can harm children in the following ways:
Abusing or exposing children to abuse, whether children directly observe the violence, overhear it or see the aftermath.
Hurting children during the course of violence or when children try to protect their mothers.
Serving as role models that perpetuate violence.
Using children as a weapon against the adult victim or to manipulate the victim.
Imposing rigid or authoritarian parenting and sowing division within the family.
Undermining the adult victim's parenting efforts, authority or the mother-child bond.
The following are some tips to keep in mind when offering assistance to someone who you suspect is a victim of domestic violence:
1. Be very careful not to blame the victim for the abuse.
Only the batterer is responsible for engaging in abusive behavior. Domestic violence is about a pattern of control and domination of the victim by the abuser.
2. The abuser can be very charming and seem more confident and truthful than the victim.
In contrast, the victim can seem angry and uncooperative. To put these behaviors into perspective, understand that when a victim is leaving an abusive relationship, it can be the most dangerous time for the victim and children.
3. If you see or suspect abuse or an abusive relationship, seek out a domestic violence advocacy center.
Or ask a local domestic violence resource for guidance on appropriate services to make the victim and child safe. In Chautauqua County, the domestic violence hotline number is 1-800-252-8748.
4. Be aware of signals of domestic violence.
Domestic violence can take place in a "conspiracy of silence"-no one talks about the violence, fear or threats. If the victim does not implicate the spouse, be alert to unexplained injuries. The child may allude to incidents of violence, but depending on the age of the child, discussions may range from fully informed knowledge of an incidence of abuse to vague stories of "daddy hurting mommy." The latter will require further exploration. It is important to distinguish domestic violence from a single incident of anger.
If a child discloses that he or she has been exposed to domestic violence, it is important to respond appropriately. The following responses acknowledge and address the child's feelings of confusion, fear and guilt:
"I believe you."
"I'm glad you told me. Sometimes people are afraid to talk about it."
"No one deserves to be hurt."
"The abuse is not your fault."
"Let's talk about what you can do when something happens. Is there a safe place you can go - bedroom, neighbor's house, outside?"
Do not say:
"Your dad shouldn't do things like that. It's not nice."
"What did your mom do before the fight started?"
"Did your dad do something to hurt you?"
"I'll keep your secret."
An abuser weaves a fine web of control and intimidation all around his or her environment. CASA volunteers are in a perfect position to ask questions that bring accountability to the forefront. Advocates must always focus on ending the trauma for children. The goal is to establish a safe and permanent placement for children.
Volunteer opportunities are currently available with CASA of Chautauqua County. For an application, or further information about the Court Appointed Special Advocates program and how you can help a child in need, contact CASA at 753-4123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Volunteer training begins in mid-October.
Excerpts for this article were taken from the Summer 2010 issue of The Connection, a publication of the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association, with special acknowledgment to Elizabeth Whitney Barnes and Z. Ruby White Starr, assistant directors, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.