Opinion: Commentary: Helping Child Witnesses of Domestic Violence

Step Up 4 Kids seeks to break the cycle of abuse and address the needs of children.

Domestic Violence harms everyone in a family, directly and indirectly. When children are exposed to domestic violence, the trauma they experience can have damaging effects. That is why the Domestic Violence Prevention, Policy, and Coordinating Council is expanding its efforts to serve children who witness this crime in their own homes.

The County’s Step Up 4 Kids initiative will work to improve the short-term and long-term outcomes in the lives of children who have witnessed domestic violence by improving the government and community response, enhancing clinical intervention services, and providing opportunities for individual impact.

Nearly 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience severe intimate partner violence in their lifetime. These sobering numbers are followed by the reports that 1 in 4 children witness domestic violence in their homes. It is easy to think that because a child does not see a parent assaulted that they are not aware of the violence. The reality is that children are much more aware of the violence, fear, and manipulation that occurs in an abusive relationship between their parents than we realize.

Following a violent or scary incident, or even days and months after, children may experience anxiety, fear of their parent being hurt, increased aggression, or symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The long term effects are even more damaging.

Children who witness domestic violence are more likely to experience mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and the increased chance of suicidal ideation, and substance use. Worst of all, these children are much more likely to be involved in abusive relationships. Boys who witnessed domestic violence are 10 time more likely to abuse a partner as an adult, which girls who witnessed it are 6 times more likely to enter an abusive relationship.

Step Up 4 Kids seeks to break the cycle of abuse and address the unique needs of children by engaging individuals, systems, and mental health professionals. This three-pronged approach is only possible with an enhanced response and coordination from government and the community. Step Up 4 Kids will work to improve coordination between Fairfax County Public Schools, County agencies, and nonprofit partners. This will facilitate communication and information sharing among all parties involved in assisting child witnesses and will improve practices across the system. The community will also play an important part in Step Up 4 Kids. The initiative will enact campaigns and programs to teach groups in the community about how children are impacted by domestic violence.

The final, and perhaps most important, piece of the Step Up 4 Kids puzzle is you, the individual. One of the most important messages of the Step Up 4 Kids Initiative is that you can make the difference in the life a child who has witnessed or experienced domestic violence, regardless of your role in a child’s life. You may be a teacher, daycare provider, sports coach, neighbor, extended family member, or friend. You can make a difference by letting a child know it is okay to talk about the scary things that might be happening in their home, you can encourage a child in something they are good at, and remind a child that violence is never their fault or their problem to fix. The Step Up 4 Kids Initiative will work with organizations and community groups across the county to recognize ways they can make a difference for some of our most vulnerable children.

The good news is that while children can be very vulnerable, they can also be incredibly resilient, and their ability to grow in their resiliency is dependent on the adults in their life. The presence of a safe, caring, adult in a child’s life, whether a parent, teacher, friend, or coach, is the most significant factor in a child’s ability to overcome any type of adversity. And the more adults surround and support a child, the more those chances increase.

If you have questions or concerns about how to help a child or possible survivor you are concerned about, or you are a survivor yourself, please call the Fairfax County 24-Hour Domestic and Sexual Violence Hotline at 703-360-7273 to speak to a trained hotline volunteer who can provide support, crisis intervention, and resources for services.

If you would like to learn more about the Step Up 4 Kids Initiative and how you can get involved, please visit fairfaxcounty.gov and search “Step Up 4 Kids.”

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