To support National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Connatser Family Law attorney Abby Gregory and Jan Langbein, CEO of Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support, shine a spotlight on the littlest victims of family violence and discuss how we all can play a role in ending the cycle of abuse.
According to estimates reported in a United Nations Secretary-General’s study, as many as 2.7 million children are exposed to domestic violence in the U.S. every year. As a family law attorney in Dallas, this sadly comes as no surprise to me. In our practice, we regularly see the horrific impact family violence has on children.
Children are the silent victims of family violence
Jan Langbein has been on the front lines in the fight against domestic violence for 30 years. In her role as CEO at Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support, she witnesses the heartbreaking impact that family violence has on children every day.
According to Jan, “When we look at domestic violence, we typically think of a perpetrator and a victim, but in my professional opinion, the true victims of violence in the home are kids who watch and listen when dad is ‘terrifying’ and mom is ‘terrified.’
“The trauma children experience is as real as a returning war vet, yet they are often the silent victims in my book. People think the kids were asleep or out of earshot in the other room when the fighting was going on, but I absolutely disagree with that. I’ve also read that 75 percent of men who beat their wives also beat their children. Kids get caught in the crossfire, whether it’s a fist or a bullet.”
From a legal perspective, there are steps battered women can take to protect themselves and their children from an abuser (I cover these in this complementary post, How to Leave an Abusive Relationship and Protect Your Kids). However, the most difficult step for many women is making the decision to leave the abusive relationship in the first place.
Leaving an abusive relationship is more difficult than you may realize
Abusers are typically controlling by nature, which means they almost always control the family finances (cash, checking accounts, savings accounts, etc.). Consequently, many battered women have limited financial resources, which makes it difficult to pack up their kids and leave.
In my experience as a family law attorney in Dallas, I find abusers generally are very charming likable, affable guys. The reason the victim didn’t leave in the first place is because of the abuser’s ability to win her over by saying “I’ll never do it again, please forgive me.”
When kids are involved, it can be really hard to close that person off, and get the abuser out of your life. In addition, children are often used as pawns, either to give the abuser a reason to communicate with the battered woman, or worse, to terrorize the woman by threatening to harm her children.
Safe havens and resources are available for battered women and their kids
Another huge roadblock for battered women is the fear of the unknown. Many women wonder, “Where can I go to escape, keep my children safe and get back on my feet again?”
Surprisingly, many people are unaware of the great resources available from women’s shelters in Dallas. Organizations such as The Family Place and Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support provide not only a safe place to stay, they help women and children begin the healing process and pave the way for a safe, stable and independent future.
End the cycle of abuse, remove children from abusive environments a.s.a.p.
People often talk about the cycle of abuse, but many don’t understand the short- and long-term ramifications that result when children witness or are victims of family violence. In fact, men exposed to physical abuse, sexual abuse and/or domestic violence as children are almost four times more likely to perpetrate domestic violence as adults.
At Genesis, Jan sees first hand how family violence affects her youngest clients. As she explains, “I distinctly remember one little guy who at 4 years old wanted to kill himself. His father is accused of both physical and sexual assault. He wouldn’t go into our play therapy room. When someone says let’s go shut the door, and we’ll talk in private, that’s not a good thing to him, because someone hurt him in an unthinkable way.
“This little guy was scared to be trapped in a room, so he ran and grabbed all the toy weapons to arm the therapist with plastic knives and guns, he put on a helmet and a breastplate and ran up and down the hall and yelled, ‘Run for your life we’re going to die. There are monsters out there and I have to save you!’”
Helping children heal to end the cycle of abuse
While Jan sees children at their lowest points, she also gets to see those same children come out the other side. However, kids typically can only heal if they receive the right kind of therapy and support.
“People say kids are resilient, but I don’t exactly think so. I think kids stuff it, stuff it and stuff it, and without help, many will become perpetrators themselves. Through art and play, Genesis helps them begin to tell about those unthinkable things they don’t even have words to describe.
“Once they have the opportunity to tell their words, they begin to heal as well. So will that trauma always be a part of these kids’ lives? Of course. But with therapy, organizations like Genesis can help them feel safe again, teach them that family violence is unacceptable and in many cases put an end to the cycle of abuse for those families,” Jan says.
Together we can do this!
The longer a woman remains in an abusive relationship, the greater the emotional and physical distress her children will endure. While it may seem like there is nowhere to turn, help is available – and we all need to spread the word. A family law attorney experienced with family violence cases and shelters like Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support and The Family Place provide battered women with the tools they and their children need to survive and thrive.
Jan believes, “It’s going to take a societal paradigm shift for us to help these kiddos and protect our next generation, a shift where we all roll up our sleeves and say, I have zero tolerance for that rapist and abuser. Men have to be involved in this, not just those guys who aren’t abusers. We need to raise these young boys to be gentle men and raise young girls to protect themselves physically, financially and emotionally.”
As a complement to this post, I assembled a guide to help women leave abusive relationships. To learn more, you can read How to Leave an Abusive Relationship and Protect Your Kids here.
Abby Gregory is a compassionate Dallas attorney with a substantial record in litigation, collaboration and Texas family law. A graduate of Fordham University College of Law, Abby committed herself to community service during her tenure at Fordham and received the Archibald R. Murray Public Service Award, summa cum laude, based on her extensive pro bono and community work for Lawyers for Children, the Innocence Project and others.