Behind closed doors: Violence at home
Beth is the central Ohio mother of two young teens, has been married to her husband for nearly 20 years and enjoys a successful career in the arts. But as a child, Beth experienced both physical and emotional abuse in an alcoholic home.
"I think it was when I left home for college and felt such a sense of relief to be out of there that I first realized that how I had grown up wasn't right," said Beth, 42, who lives in a Columbus suburb. "Eventually, I got into therapy and I joined a 12-step group for children of alcoholics."
Within those settings, Beth said she began to understand that the beatings and other forms of discipline that she and her siblings had endured went far beyond the "spare the rod and spoil the child" Biblical edict which her parents used as a rationale for their behavior.
While domestic violence knows few boundaries, it's most typical victims are women of child-bearing age. A 2007 national survey of domestic violence by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that children lived in more than a third of the households where abuse was reported. In Ohio in 2007, researchers found that 58,000 children lived in homes where domestic violence was occurring.
In Franklin County, children were present in more than two-thirds of the homes where the county's most frequently-arrested batterers live, according to a Columbus Dispatch investigation that will be published starting Nov. 15. The abusers, all men, were identified through domestic violence-related bookings into the Franklin County Jail. Each had been charged with domestic abuse at least five times since 2000.
One man, who has faced seven abuse-related charges since 2004, was arrested after an altercation involving his girlfriend, the mother of his 5-year-old. According to court records, he hit the woman as she held the girl, pushed her into a wall and kicked her. He then struck his child. When police arrived, the mother had a cut lip and the girl had bruises from where her father had hit her. The case was dismissed for lack of evidence.
Advocates say that the shrinking state budget has adversely affected services for victims of domestic violence, especially children.
Fortunately for Beth and her children, she found a way to safety. "Beginning with college, I never lived near their home again," she said, "but it wasn't until I became a parent myself that I ever confronted them about what they did."
After a visit several years ago, when Beth's mother "started playing mind games" to discipline and intimidate one of Beth's two children, now ages 12 and 15, Beth said she moved swiftly, with her husband's approval, to set boundaries that her mother has never violated since.
"It's weird," Beth said, "but it was like it had been okay all those years that she abused me, but the minute she went after my child, it wasn't. That's when I realized that I hadn't become an abuser like her or my father; that I had turned out to be a good parent."
Beth's fears about becoming an abuser aren't unusual, but some therapists and researchers who study childhood-abuse survivors say that Beth can cut herself some slack. Research shows that most individuals who experience physical, emotional and even sexual abuse in their youth do not grow up to revisit those behaviors on others, much less on their own children.
"This is exactly what we see in practice," said Shari Uncapher, a clinical therapist and program manager at Nationwide Children's Hospital's Center for Child and Family Advocacy. "Horrible things can happen to people, but it doesn't have to permanently affect them for life. Many are doing a fine job of parenting."
Uncapher added, "There are clear environmental factors that affect whether someone will experience significant impairment from abuse - things like how long did they feel threatened, how supportive is (the rest of) their environment, and how resilient are they?"
One of the most comprehensive reviews of existing research on childhood-abuse survivors was conducted by the U.S. General Accounting Office in 1996. In that review, 23 studies had asked known adult sex offenders who abused children if they themselves had been sexually abused in their youth.
The percentages of those saying they had been abused ranged from none to 79 percent. But in the two studies in which survivors of childhood sexual abuse were asked if they had become abusers, the percentages of "yes" answers were 7 percent and 26 percent, not even close to a majority.
Though researchers acknowledge that the effects of childhood abuse are difficult to study, let alone find accurate data about, those who work with abuse survivors say they think it's true that the majority do not become abusers.
Nancy Neylon, executive director of the Ohio Domestic Violence Network, said she feels strongly that abuse does not have to be a life sentence for its victims. "There are protective factors that mitigate the damage," Neylon said. "An intelligent person is going to figure out this is not normal, and that can protect you. Having adult figures in your life who give you another way of looking at things, that's another key protective factor."
Sue Ware, the Children Services Administrator for Delaware County Job and Family Services, often works with abuse survivors and said that honesty is a key quality in those who have moved on from abuse in a healthy manner. "They're being honest with themselves about what happened to them in the past, but they're also being open minded about wanting change," Ware said.
Uncapher said that having safe people to talk to, whether they are friends, family or mental-health professionals, is another common theme with those who recover well from abuse. "You have to continue to create a support system for yourself," Uncapher said.
Ware said that parent-education classes also help adults develop "realistic expectations of children at specific ages," which is something they might not have developed during their own upbringings.
And there are other risks for which any abuse survivor must be remain vigilant: Research indicates that abuse survivors can develop depression and substance-abuse issues at a higher rate than the population at large. "You have to develop good coping mechanisms," Uncapher said, "which is not just a matter of not doing bad things but also doing good things to nurture yourself."
But more often, it's the little things that abuse survivors have to learn to navigate in their healthy adult lives. "Don't expect that every parenting decision you make will be perfect," Uncapher said. "And recognize there's also an element of overreacting to the bad things that will happen in life."
Beth said she's still working on that one. "I learned early on that I had to be careful if I did playground duty at my kids' school," she said. "I can't deal with seeing any kid getting bullied, but somehow I'd like to think that's okay, that they have someone looking out for them."
Delaware County journalist Jan Hawes regularly writes for The Columbus Dispatch.
Resources for childhood-abuse survivors:
- Individual therapy: If you have insurance, consult with your provider to see what's available. Uncapher also said not to be afraid to ask about a referred therapist's experience or education in abuse issues. "You wouldn't go to an orthopedist for a sore throat." If your insurance won't cover therapy visits, contact the Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health (ADAMH) Board in your county for suggestions. In Franklin County, the ADAMH Board's website is www.adamhfranklin.org. Many therapists provide services on a sliding scale, depending on your income.
- Support groups: A wide variety of groups, many of them structured around the principles of "12-Step," self-help recovery, are available. But they are not a substitute for professional therapy. Contact your local ADAMH Board for more information about group meetings in your area.
- Family resource: The Center for Child and Family Advocacy at Nationwide Children's Hospital, 655 E. Livingston Ave., Columbus, (614) 722-8200. Its mission is "to foster a safe community by breaking the cycle of violence through coordinated, comprehensive services in the treatment and prevention of child abuse and domestic violence." The center is a partnership between Nationwide Children's Hospital and the Columbus Coalition Against Family Violence. For more information, go to www.ccafv.org.