Domestic violence causes direct, collateral damage to children
PHOTO: Domestic violence expert Mark Wynn talks with Mooresville Police Department Crime Analyst Dan Miglin.
BY DEBBIE PAGE
Mark Wynn’s passion for sharing his knowledge of domestic violence comes from a deeply personal source -- his experiences as a child seeing his stepfather abuse and nearly kill his mother.
Wynn, who shared his experiences during the 2017 Iredell Symposium on Domestic Violence, comes from a long line of police officers. His father served as an officer and judge in Wynn’s native Tennessee. His odyssey with domestic abuse began when his mother, after divorcing his father, remarried after a whirlwind romance.
His stepfather moved Wynn, his brother, and sisters to Texas, where his verbal abuse of his mother soon escalated to physical violence and worsening alcoholism. After he lost his pilot’s license and job as a crop duster after a drunken flight, his stepfather intensified his abusive behavior, eventually pushing his mother from a moving car and nearly killing her.
After years of abuse and a nomadic existence, with his stepfather frequently jailed for his domestic abuse and skirmishes with police, Wynn and his family finally escaped the brutality and verbal abuse with only the clothes on their backs.
Determined to be a force for change as an adult, Wynn followed in the family tradition, pursuing a career in law enforcement. However, when he went on a domestic violence call with his training officer early in his career, Wynn was shocked to see a woman, who looked much like his mother, on the front steps, announcing her abuser was asleep and the officers were not needed.
Flashing back to his own youth, Wynn refused to leave until he talked with the woman, urging her to protect herself and leave, thus beginning his quest to raise law enforcement’s awareness and understanding of domestic violence and its harrowing damage to all members of the family.
“I never stopped until my police department caught up with me, and we created the largest domestic violence police unit in U.S. history,” added Wynn.
“I walked into a system that did not understand anything about the story I just told you, even though policing is filled with domestic violence survivors," he explained. “I promise you that. And I didn’t tell anybody about my domestic violence history then. I didn’t want anyone to think less of me.”
Wynn is now an internationally renowned lecturer, investigator, and police trainer who serves advises state, national and world leaders on domestic abuse, sexual assault and child abuse.
CHILDREN AND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
Wynn said 15.5 million children in the U.S. live in a family in which partner violence has occurred at least once in the past year. Seven million live in homes with severe partner abuse. Children are present in 40 to 55 percent of homes that police visit during domestic violence calls, he said.
Wynn also cited researcher T.K. Logan, who studied the effect of protection orders on children. She found that children under 18 witnessed violence in their homes an average of 32 days in the six months before the order was issued, dropping to only one day in the six months after the order was issued.
The long-term effects of living in this violent atmosphere are numerous. These children are 53 percent more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, 38 percent more likely to be arrested as an adult, and 38 prcent more likely to commit a violent crime.
Children’s behavior consequences include anxiety about being hurt or killed, fighting with others, tantrums, hyper-vigilance, substance abuse, eating disorders, bed-wetting, regressing to an earlier developmental stage, and suicide attempts.
They may also engage in stealing or other petty crimes, begin identifying with the batterer, withdraw from people or activities, deny the violence exists, or disassociate themselves to ignore it.
Other health issues include medical problems such as ulcers, headaches and stomach aches, and sleeplessness.
Studies have revealed that younger children, even infants, in abusive domestic situations are more damaged by exposure to violence than older children. Brain research reveals that babies and toddlers are constantly storing new experiences, creating a blueprint through touch, sight and sound.
Even though they have no conscious memory of infancy, their sponge-like brains are soaking up experiences and creating the brain’s building blocks, which facilitate the first three years of incredible learning that children undergo as they develop language and motor skills, Wynn explained.
“However, that same sponginess to soak up experience also makes younger children more vulnerable to damage from being in a domestic violence situation,” said Wynn.
Older children tend to zone out or blame themselves for the violence.
Children do not have to actually see the violence to be emotionally harmed; just hearing the violence is enough. Wynn remembered hiding as a small child when his stepfather went on a rampage, a behavior he has seen repeated by children in domestic violence situations during his career.
Children are negatively impacted by seeing the continual cycle of violence and the aftermath of apologies and promises. If they attempt to intervene, children can be injured or be killed by the abusers. They become part of the violent power dynamic.
Wynn also noted that offenders, being narcissistic, often attack their pregnant victims because they are angry at the loss of attention and experience resentment of the unborn child.
REACHING THE YOUNGEST VICTIMS
Officers face many obstacles when children are involved in a domestic abuse investigation. Parents sometimes teach children that police will shoot them or take them to jail for bad behavior. They may also fear the large officer covered in equipment, carrying a gun, and asking questions that they fear to answer.
Wynn said children’s art therapy often reveals their pain and suffering in ways they cannot otherwise express. “They feel they have no voice, that they cannot speak because they are afraid to tell all that they have seen and experienced.”
“The batterer may also threaten or abuse children to control them or the victim. Abused children may be silent to protect their parents, themselves, or their siblings,” explained Wynn.
Therapists ask children to draw a picture of the family while a fight is occurring, of the worst fight that has occurred, or of the way they the child wishes the fight would have ended to gain insight into the child’s thoughts and feelings.
Police also have to consider the child’s age, gender and stage of development as they begin to interview a child. Cultural and language differences are also considerations. Wynn discourages officers “using children to translate for a [non-English speaking] victim, which places a burden on them in domestic violence situations.”
Officers must carefully assess and document the children as they check for signs of physical harm while minimizing the impact and possible repercussions by the offender on them. Their goals are to empower the child, maintain a safe environment, and hold the offender accountable.
Police need to imprint a favorable impression on the children by repeatedly assuring them the violence is not their fault. Officers need to explain their presence is to help, protect and listen. They should kneel or sit down at the child’s level, use the child’s name often, and conduct interviews of children away from the parents to reduce their fear of speaking.
Officers should also empower children by telling them to get out and go to a neighbor’s home if violence occurs again. They can also teach them how to call 911 to get help.
Law enforcement’s goals are to keep victims and children safe and to make them less vulnerable to an abuser. However, leaving all that is familiar is difficult for children, especially if pets must be left behind that may fall victim to the abuser’s violence in the family’s absence.
Wynn said many domestic violence shelters are now adding kennels because they found victims and children may stay in an abusive situation because they will not leave their pets, creating a weak spot that abusers exploit to control their victims.
Though domestic violence is no longer swept under the rug as it was when he began his career, Wynn said a lot of work to stamp out this issue remains. His Nashville, Tennessee, police department found success in combatting domestic violence "by working with our community, working with our advocates, working with our prosecutors and judges and making sure everybody knew their responsibility and everybody worked together because we’ve got work to do.”
“We got a couple more generations to change,” Wynn told the audience at the symposium. “I think if we do that, there’s a damn good chance we won’t have this crime to deal with. But we’re not there yet, folks. We’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure families are safe so we don’t have to see a homicide tomorrow.”