Patrick Perion is a child abuse investigator in Illinois.
Due to the Ray Rice case, domestic violence has been featured prominently in the news this week. It has been the topic of many columns and editorials, but even though it’s seeing its 15 minutes of infamy, the reality is that domestic violence has been and is an epidemic in America. It is a daily fact of life for millions of people.
Sadly far too many of them are children. In the field of Child Protection domestic violence is is something that we are very familiar with. Fully 50% of child abuse and neglect cases either directly involve domestic violence or after digging into the case it’s found there was a history of domestic violence.
Domestic violence that children witness stays with them. Not only is this a verifiable fact, I can personally attest to it, albeit in a small way.
When I was 8 years old there was huge family argument at my grandfather’s house, there was yelling, some shoving and at least one person got slapped. Cooler heads prevailed and everyone calmed down and apologized, but even though it was 38 years ago, the memory is still with me.
It’s safe to say that a child who witnesses more extreme acts of violence over a sustained period of time (their parent being hit, or punched, spit on or choked) will take the memories with them. The trauma of seeing a parent abused often takes years to overcome, and people who have experienced this often need professional counseling to work through it.
Witnessing domestic violence also breeds more domestic violence. Statistics show that many women who are battered as adults witnessed domestic violence as children. Men who witnessed domestic violence as are twice as likely to batter a partner or child as an adult. That stat may sound hard to believe, but even when I started as an investigator 20 years ago, I too didn’t understand domestic violence. I, like most people, thought the decision for a battered partner was a simple one: Leave. Take your kids and go.
I remember cases in which I was so frustrated with the mother, I threatened her with taking her kids. That was the paradigm back then. Re-victimize the victim. I was young and thought I knew everything. The years and extensive training around domestic violence have taught me otherwise.
As was brilliantly and painfully depicted on Twitter by the Hashtags #WhyIStayed and #WhenILeft, the decisions by victims of violence aren’t always easy. The reasons for staying the reasons for leaving are complex. Often victims and their children are financially dependent on the batterer. Victims also express that they think it will end or that they can fix the batterer. Reasons for leaving range from realizing the abuse would never stop to wanting to show their kids that abuse wasn’t normal.
It should be noted that while the majority of cases I investigate involve heterosexual couples, domestic violence is prevalent in the LGBT community as well. Some studies show it may be more prevalent as a percentage of the population than heterosexual couples (we just don’t see it as much in child abuse and neglect cases because there aren’t as many same sex couples with children).
And while we must always focus on supporting the victims and keeping them safe, I think we also need more focus on helping those who batter. As a profession we tend to label the batterer, and not really focus on helping them learn and grow. We as a nation do a woefully inadequate job of teaching young people (mostly young men) how to check their impulses.
We set up the expectation that men are tough, machismo is to be lauded and we reinforce it by rewarding young men for their macho behavior. It is imperative that more focus be placed on educating that a fist a club or a gun isn’t the answer when things don’t go their way. I have jokingly said it’s simple “don’t hit a woman” but the pathology that creates these situations isn’t simple.
As mentioned earlier, many male batterers were abused themselves or witnessed abuse. I’ve spoken to thousands of batterers in the last twenty years. Over half of them related that they were abused, or they witnessed their mother getting abused, often saying “that’s just the way we were raised”. It is incredibly challenging to make a breakthrough with someone who was conditioned from a young age to solve problems by lashing out. Sadly, I’ve seen far too many of these men more than one time.
Domestic violence isn’t going away because Ray Rice can’t run with a football for money, or Roger Goodell golden parachutes into obscurity. Domestic violence isn’t going away because we publicly humiliate abusers, but let’s hope that the awareness spurred on by this week’s events doesn’t go away either. It is at least a start.