Children are the invisible victims of intimate partner violence.
In Ohio, fifteen-year-old Bresha Meadows, a former honour student, appeared before a judge on May 22. The charge: second degree murder. The victim: her father. Her mother has called her a hero for saving the family from the man she says abused them. The state has elected to see things differently. Since July 2016, Bresha has been incarcerated. As advocates campaigned fervently for her release and her case gained international attention, prosecutors refused to acknowledge the fact that Bresha herself was a victim, one who, at every turn, was denied the support and assistance she had repeatedly sought.
Although children are less likely than women to be direct victims of domestic violence, they are often present when violence occurs. Between 133 and 275 million children in the world are estimated to witness domestic violence annually. In Canada, it is estimated that each year 800,000 children are exposed to a woman being abused, and these figures are on the rise. In the U.S., statistics indicate that one in ten children are exposed to domestic violence. Numbers likely underestimate the magnitude of the issue given the tendency for victims and their children to avoid reporting the traumas they endure. Motivated by fear, shame and other forces, children may feel compelled to keep silent about what they see as ‘secrets’ of their destructive home life.
Antoinette Kerr writes of her experience in Living Domestic Violence: A Child’s Perspective:
‘I closed my eyes, pressing my hands over my ears and humming a song loudly enough to fill my mind. I pretended to melt into the wall. The next day, I sat quietly in my classroom. The teachers knew and…kept asking if I wanted to talk. I remained silent, but this time it was out of shame for wishing I had said something sooner.’
Though often viewed as ‘secondary’ victims, experts say the effect of witnessing violence is the same as experiencing it. Most children will carry lifelong scars, suffering a host of varied psychosomatic symptoms along with behavioural, emotional, and social problems. Witnessing domestic violence is the single best predictor of juvenile delinquency and adult criminality. It is also the number one reason children run away. In fact, children who are raised in the midst of abuse are more likely to become victims or abusers themselves, later replicating the violence they witnessed in their adult relationships and parenting experiences.
Many children who are present during acts of domestic violence try to help. A U.S. study supported by UNICEF found that in up to 15% of cases when children were present, they tried to prevent the violence, another 10% tried actively to intervene to protect the victim.
While parricide, the killing of a parent, is rare, it is commonly a response to abuse in the household. The Bresha Meadows case is one of three recent parricides in the U.S., two of the three are known to have involved domestic abuse. Bresha’s entire young life had been shaped by violence and by fear. By most accounts, her guiding interest was in enduring protection for her mother, her siblings and herself. It is a flawed paradigm that chooses to criminalize the abused over the abuser. For this, for taking action where others would not, the law deems her the violent offender, and her abuser the victim.
If society is to push back against rising rates of domestic violence, it is the children living within its confines who urgently require attention, intervention and support. For, as numbers confirm, it is they who risk repeating the same cycle someday, a cycle that once they may have had little choice but to endure.