When violence occurs on the street or in the home, the impact on child witnesses is often overlooked by busy police, parents and bystanders as they focus on immediate victims and perpetrators. But children who are exposed to violence, whether as victims or as witnesses, can often suffer severe development issues, as well as long-term anxiety. Several programs around the country seek to address the trauma of the youngest and most overlooked victims.
Deborah Huso is a Virginia-based freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Healing the Smallest Victims
Child Witness to Violence Project
Boston Medical Center
The Strategy: Help small children cope with the effects of witnessing or being victims of violence by using individualized therapy for victims and providing training for after-school providers, police forces and other community partners.
Getting Started: The Child Witness to Violence Project (CWVP) started more than 17 years ago at the instigation of Director Betsy Groves and a Boston Medical Center pediatrician who were alarmed by the level of violence young children in Boston were experiencing. A survey of parents of patients showed that one in 10 of the Medical Center’s child patients had witnessed a knifing or shooting in the past year, and many more had witnessed moderate violence. The average age of children in the sampling was 2.7 years. Most lived in areas of Boston wracked by gang and drug-related violence.
“We discovered this was a public health issue,” Groves says. “We were concerned about what this exposure did to early childhood development.” Many of the pediatricians’ patients were experiencing nightmares, anxiety and deep concerns about safety. The Medical Center’s Department of Pediatrics initiated CWVP with the help of a small grant from the Deborah Munroe Noonan Memorial Research Fund.
How It Works: The core of CWVP’s work is providing direct trauma counseling to children and their families, usually counseling the child and parent or parents together. “Our approach to counseling addresses the development needs of young children,” Groves says. “Small children develop in the context of a safe and secure parent relationship.” An experience of violence can damage that feeling of security, so the counseling is geared toward establishing a safe environment for the child to talk, as well as helping both the child and parent address immediate concerns of sleep troubles, aggressive behavior, irrational fear, and anxiety. Children participate in counseling programs for two months to two years, depending on the severity of the issue being addressed.
A unique initiative by CWVP offers training nationwide to after-school programs, police officers, judges, attorneys, elementary school staff and pediatricians on how they can recognize a child who has experienced or witnessed a violent episode, and also how to approach and assist the young person. For example, CWVP trains after-school staff in how to create safe, structured and predictable environments for children as well as how to “check in” with youngsters. “If kids can have a haven where there is a predictable environment, it helps hugely,” Groves says.
CWVP also helps community partners, such as after-school providers, address such children’s disclosures as “my best friend got shot,” teaching staff how not to push these exclamations under the rug, but to ask questions and know when to direct the child to additional resources for help.
Youth Served: CWVP provides direct counseling services to about 150 children a year, as well as telephone triage to about 200 others. They serve children up to age 8, most of whom live in low-income neighborhoods regularly affected by violence. Thirty-five percent of the children served are Latino, 28 percent are African-American, and 18 percent are Caucasian. CWVP offers training services in 38 states, as well as in other countries.
Staff: The project has a staff of seven, all with degrees in mental health.
Cost: CWVP’s annual budget is just under $500,000. Funding comes from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime through the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, Avon Foundation, United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, Weil Foundation (of Boston), and individual donors.
Results: While CWVP does not conduct any longitudinal studies, the project measures each child’s progress through counseling. Groves says CWVP evaluates every training session it provides to community partners, but feedback is limited. During a telephone survey of police officers in Boston who had attended 18 hours of training in what to say to children who have seen a crime, what to do in a domestic violence incident and how to avoid separating young children from their parents, one officer told Groves, “I see children everywhere now, and I remember to look in fridges to make sure kids have food.”
Healing Through Relationship Building
The Strategy: Strengthen the mother-child relationship after a domestic violence situation to re-establish trust, safety and respect.
Getting Started: New Beginnings started more than 30 years ago as an emergency shelter for women who were victims of domestic abuse. Its founders were local women, members of a consortium of local churches that focuses on addressing the city’s social issues. They opened the organization’s first shelter in 1976, funded with private donations and the help of volunteers.
Since then, services have expanded to include counseling services for women and their children and various support groups, transitional housing and programs for both mothers and children.
How It Works: Executive Director Lois Loontjens says New Beginnings is unique among domestic violence programs because of the significant services it offers to children. “The most important thing is to provide a high level of service to the parent,” Loontjens says. “The mother’s standing as parent has been greatly reduced, and we want to strengthen that parent-child relationship.”
For example, staff members often are sought out by children for advice on various everyday problems, from homework to bedtime. Staff members gently and consistently redirect the children to their mothers for answers, reinforcing the mothers’ authority.
Children living with their mothers in New Beginnings’ transitional housing are encouraged to share Family Fun Night, when mothers and children gather to share food and activities like watching a movie together, engaging in tournaments with other families, or participating in crafts. “Moms are so busy trying to find housing and jobs or getting back to school, they have often lost any ability to enjoy their children,” Loontjens says. “And kids have often lost a sense of seeing moms as someone they’d want to have fun with.”
Family Fun Night helps families re-establish bonds. “Parenting support is really fundamental,” Loontjens says, the major reason she considers the parenting group the program offers so important. It teaches parents the effects violence can have on children, how to help kids cope, how to discipline children and how to talk to children.
Youth whose mothers are in transitional housing can also participate in the Kids’ Club, at which they have an opportunity to share their own personal experiences of witnessing violence in the home while counselors lead them in how to create safe environments for themselves, how to establish healthy relationships and how to resolve conflict without violence.
Children with parents being served in any of New Beginnings’ programs are also eligible to participate in CHILL, a six-week winter program where they learn how to snowboard, with a special emphasis on confidence-building and the idea of accomplishing goals through hard work and practice. Youth in the emergency shelter or transitional housing can also participate in a karate program designed to improve their self-esteem and help them overcome feelings of powerlessness.
Youth Served: New Beginnings serves approximately 300 children of all age groups in its youth programs, and 2,500 more adolescents through domestic violence prevention programs in area middle schools and high schools. Loontjens says domestic violence cuts across all social classes, but that most of the families New Beginnings serves in its emergency shelter and transitional housing program are very poor and disproportionately of Hispanic or African-American ethnicity.
Staff: New Beginnings has 40 paid staff members, most of them full-time.
Cost: The program operates on an annual budget of $2.5 million. According to Loontjens, the majority of New Beginnings’ funding comes from government sources, including the City of Seattle, City of Shoreline, King County, City of Seattle Human Services Department Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention program, and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Victims of Crime. It also receives contributions from the United Way of King County and individual donors.
Results: Loontjens declined to provide information about the evaluations that have been carried out.
Regaining Control Through Movement
Hancock Center for Dance/Movement Therapy
The Strategy: Help children express their feelings, work through trauma and regain control through movement and dance.
Getting Started: Established in 1983 by dance and movement therapist Deborah Thomas, the Hancock Center for Dance/Movement Therapy provides therapy for people of all ages suffering from a variety of emotional or social problems. The center got its start providing programming only to adults, but in 1987 Rena Kornblum, the center’s current executive director, joined the organization to develop children’s programming.
Kornblum says the emphasis on addressing violence in children’s therapy evolved on its own out of the most pressing needs of the community. Social services staff often referred children living in domestic violence situations to the Hancock Center because it was one of the few therapy programs in the city that didn’t require clients to pay. Children’s program offerings grew substantially when a local elementary school approached Kornblum with concerns about the number of students who were suffering physical and sexual abuse in the home. The school invited the Hancock Center to provide in-school programs; now the center serves several other area elementary and middle schools each year.
How It Works: Most of the Hancock Center’s work with children is in school settings. The center offers in-school group therapy sessions, as well as violence prevention through movement programs. Children who participate in the therapy groups are usually referred by the school psychologist or social worker. Each child participates in a group of two to eight children for six weeks to a year of weekly sessions of dance and movement therapy. Parents must agree to the therapy.
The sessions take place during regular school hours and generally involve children who are not functioning well in their classrooms after having experienced violence at home. “Kids don’t have to talk about what’s happening in their family to have therapy,” says Kornblum. “It’s about dealing with emotions through movement and interacting with other children in similar situations.”
For example, in one class, a group of boys was talking about anger and how they were not allowed a place to express it at home or at school. When one boy mentioned his anger felt like a ping-pong ball bouncing around inside his body, Kornblum had all the children in the group get inside a stretch cloth with three children and Kornblum supporting the cloth, as each took a turn inside the center of the cloth demonstrating his anger—throwing himself against the cloth. “Each child had a chance to be his anger,” Kornblum says, while at the same time, the other children and Kornblum acted as his support system. “We took their out-of-control experience and put it in a controlled setting.”
Hancock Center also provides a violence prevention through movement curriculum that is offered on a classroom-by-classroom basis either weekly for six to eight weeks, or periodically throughout the school year. The curriculum is designed to teach children how to calm themselves and respond to emotions in nonaggressive ways, as well as how to defuse tension and communicate with kids who have been victims of violence.
Youth Served: The Hancock Center serves approximately 1,000 children a year of all age groups, though its in-school work is centered on elementary and middle school children. Many are children of immigrants, especially of Hispanic and H’mong parents.
Staff: The Hancock Center employs seven dance movement therapists and uses volunteers from dance movement therapy classes at the University of Wisconsin, where Kornblum teaches.
Cost: The center’s annual budget is approximately $250,000; it is funded mainly by the United Way of Dane County, with funding through the Madison Community Foundation and program fees of paying clients and schools.
Results: Kornblum says the Hancock Center conducts pre- and post-group surveys of children as well as of teachers, but there have not been any long-term studies.
For more information on services for children and families affected by violence, visit the National Child Traumatic Stress Network online at www.ntcsnet.org. NCTSN recently released a free resource for youth workers and therapists called The Courage to Remember: Childhood Traumatic Grief Curriculum Guide with CD-ROM, which is available through http://learn.nctsn.org.