Trauma therapy for children is crucial to lowering domestic violence rates

South Carolina News

McGuffy (courtesy: The CARE House of the Pee Dee)

The following is part of a multi-week series on domestic violence in South Carolina.

FLORENCE, S.C. (WBTW) – Preventing domestic violence in the future starts with intervening with children who have witnessed abuse firsthand.

“Growing up in a violent home does not mean you are going to be an abuser or a victim, but there is an increased chance of that happening because you have grown up watching behavior, you’ve grown up watching people who love each other who are violent to each other, and that is what you think is normal, so I think that increases the propensity for that to happen through generations,” said Sara Barber, the executive director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, or SCCADVASA. 

Survivors of domestic violence commonly say that their children sleep through the abuse. However, Barber said that isn’t true. They hear. They see. And they may go on to repeat that behavior. 

This can lead to immediate impacts. Children might be unable to sleep, which will then interfere with how well they do in school. They can also side with the abuser because they view that parent as being strong and in control.

But studies also heavily point to impacts that happen later in light.

Adverse Child Experiences, also known as ACES, have a “tremendous impact” on if a child will go on to be a perpetrator or be abused later in life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Those traumas include a plethora of events, which include witnessing or experiencing abuse or neglect, or having a family member in jail. Growing up in a home with substance abuse or if a family member dies by suicide also add to ACE scores. 

“Children growing up with toxic stress may have difficulty forming healthy and stable relationships,” according to the CDC, and can lead to chronic health issues, mental illness and substance abuse problems. The agency estimates that 21 million cases of depression could have been avoided by lowering ACE scores.

Those impacts are why early intervention is so key. 

At The CARE House of the Pee Dee, a child abuse advocacy center, staff use evidence-based treatments to try and ease the affects of trauma. 

The center is able to track how severe trauma is by using a system that assigns a number to symptoms, which is then used for trauma-based cognitive behavioral therapy, the “gold standard” for treating children, according to Meg Temple, the organization’s executive director.

“It really allows us to give kids the skills to deal with the symptoms, and so that the symptoms aren’t overwhelming and don’t flood the body,” Temple said. “And, after, they have those skills, and they’ve worked through those skills, and they’ve learned about emotions, and problems, and connect those two together, then we can actually process the trauma.”

The treatment desensitizes the child so that they can work with a professional through what happened. Temple said it can help abused children who aren’t able to sleep at night, or who are afraid of things like using a bathroom because they were abused in one. 

“It also helps for kids to be able to take better care of themselves, because they can say, ‘I feel this way because this happened,’” Temple said. 

The hope is that the center can help stop cycles of abuse before the behavior they’ve witnessed becomes ingrained in them.

That early intervention is important, Temple said, to help as soon as possible.

Treatment has evolved in the last decade. A change in law a few years ago now recognizes children as victims of domestic violence, which opens them up to services. There’s also been an increase in the number of evidence-based treatments available.

“We are seeing more options, which is amazing, and we are seeing more people geared towards this is what we should be doing,” Temple said. 

The center, which opened in 2005, and also aids police in forensic interviews and offers a therapy dog to help support children, serves between 600 to 700 children a year. This year, it’s seen 59 referrals that have come in for domestic violence, and 98 children disclose that they’ve witnessed it. 

Still, they know that’s only a fraction of what’s happening.

“I think it shows how rampant that is,” Temple said.

She said a child’s chance that they will be abused increases if there’s domestic violence in a home. If there’s an arrest and a divorce, that also adds to that critical ACE score.

Funding treatments, she said, will help save money long term. 

Domestic violence costs the nation about $8 billion a year due to lost work, lower productivity, medical costs, judicial costs and incarceration. 

At first, Mary Jenerett’s abuser never attacked her when her children were home. Years later, when they say how they remember how their window got broken, she recognizes the impact domestic violence had on them.

“Emotionally and mentally, it takes a toll – school work, attitudes, it takes a toll on those kids real bad, and a lot of people will say ‘I stuck around because I wanted my children to have a father,’” she said. “What you just did is you distilled in your child that no matter what, you deal with the person, and that’s not good.”

A Father’s Place in Horry County teaches a curriculum to adult men that includes learning about healthy relationships and how to be a positive role model. Most of the students have volunteered to be there and have undergone a background check. Certain charges ban them from participating, according to Wallace Evans Jr., the organization’s CEO. 

Most of the men who attend programs do not have any domestic violence charges on their record.

Evans said most participants have come from broken homes and never had positive role models. 

“We train folks about healthy relationships, because so many people missed that model of good, healthy manhood and womanhood and really understanding how to cooperate,” Evans said.  

The classes include a section about the different communication styles between men and women, and how it can impact a relationship.

When Evans teaches in schools, he asks two questions – Who wants to have children? And, then, who wants to be married? More hands always go up for the first one, showing him that even in middle school, children want to be parents, but don’t necessarily want to be married. 

“That breakdown in a two-parent home is driving a lot of the negative outcomes that we see,” he said. 

A Father’s Place wants men to view marriage in a more positive light and understand that there’s more to being a parent than paying child support. The men, Evans said, have been stereotyped as violent perpetrators, or deadbeat, when it’s more like they’re “dead broke.”

Rewriting narratives and creating strong, healthy families, he said, is crucial for the future.

“The family is the foundation for our society, and if we want to have great communities, if we want to have a great nation and a great world, I believe that working with families is paramount, and helping parents navigate through the challenges of parenting, the challenges of broken relationships, is what is necessary to ensure that young people can have an opportunity to thrive,” Evans said.

If you or someone you know are experiencing domestic violence, the following resources are available:

To access services with The CARE House of the Pee Dee, call (843) 629-0236 or visit TheCareHouse.com

To enroll in A Father’s Place programming, visit AFathersPlace.org/enroll.

Domestic Violence Resources
If you or someone you know are experiencing domestic violence, the following resources are available.
Family Justice Center
Crisis line: 844-208-0161
Website
Pee Dee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Assault
Crisis line: 800-273-1820
Website

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