‘Don’t kill her!’ Children who witness domestic violence carry lifelong scars


Erin Curtis is seen with her sons at their home in Fairfax. In November 2008, Curtis's children were witnesses to the attack and repeated stabbing of their mother by her husband. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

The boy hadn’t heard the 911 tape before. But on this day, as he sits at the dining room table in his family’s apartment, he tells his mother he’s ready. He’s 14 now, no longer a terrified 9-year-old, and he wants to hear what he told authorities the night he almost lost her. 

Reluctantly, she pushes play on her laptop. The sound of distant crying and shouting lls the room before a 911 operator ask his name and then, “What’s the problem?”

“This man is trying to kill my mommy,” a small voice replies.

“Does he have any weapons?”

“Yes, he has a knife,” the boy says and then shouts away from the receiver, “PLEASE! Don’t kill her!”

A 9 year old calls 911 after seeing his mother stabbed repeatedly by his stepfather in their Maryland home. EDITOR'S NOTE: Contains disturbing content and has been edited to protect identities. (The Washington Post)

Erin Curtis walks out of the room. She can’t hear any more. Her 14-year-old can’t stop listening. Tears now flow down his face.

In coming weeks, Maryland lawmakers will decide on legislation that calls for increased penalties for violent crimes committed in front of children, part of what some victim advocates consider the latest phase in addressing the nation’s serious domestic violence problem. Advocates, child therapists and survivors like Curtis say if it is approved, Maryland’s new law would mark both a practical and symbolic victory, allowing families to feel safe from abusers longer and recognizing the invisible victims of domestic violence. It would acknowledge, they say, what they’ve seen firsthand: Children don’t have to be touched to be traumatized.

Curtis remembers that night in 2008 in Southern Maryland in flashes, fear mercifully alternating with blackouts. Her children, on the other hand, had to see it all. The youngest, just 2 at the time, stood by his father’s side as he sliced into Curtis with a kitchen knife 27 times. The oldest heard the screams from his bedroom, ran into the kitchen, where he saw the struggle and the blood, and crawled under an end table in the living room. From there, he dialed 911.

“I thought she was dead,” recalls the boy, whom The Washington Post has agreed to identify only as Michael, his middle name, to protect his identity. “I was just like, ‘Now, I don’t have a mom.’ ”

It has been almost six years since Erin Curtis was flown to the hospital. Long enough that the scars on her torso have faded into flesh-colored seams. Long enough that the extensive therapy her sons have received make them appear like most children their age, giggly and unscathed. Long enough that she can describe her ordeal with impressive composure in speeches at domestic violence events and last year in testimony before Maryland lawmakers.

But in November, the sense of safety she has worked to build will be tested, Curtis says. That’s when the man she was married to for three years, the biological father of her youngest child, will be up for parole after serving half of his sentence for attempted murder. Six years, Curtis says — not long enough.

Lifelong impact

Every year, millions of American children witness episodes of domestic violence that can haunt them for the rest of their lives. In 2011, one in 12 children witnessed a family assault, and one in three reported witnessing one in their lifetime, according to the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, a U.S. Justice Department-sponsored study that is considered the most comprehensive on the subject.


In this 2008 drawing, the elder son of Erin Curtis draws what he sees as the two sides of his stepfather, pictured on Feb. 26 in Fairfax. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

“Thirty years ago, we had to really convince the community that domestic violence was not a private matter but a crime,” says Dorothy Lennig, legal clinic director for House of Ruth Maryland, the state’s largest domestic violence program. “The next iteration of that was we had to convince people not to victim blame. And now I feel we’re moving into the next phase of really understanding the impact on the kids.”

Across the nation, 23 states and Puerto Rico have adopted laws addressing violence committed in front of children. In at least five of those states, it is considered a separate crime. Victim advocates in Virginia and the District say discussions have been held about whether to enact similar legislation but that none currently exists.

Some people worry that such laws could expose an abused parent to charges for allowing a child to witness violence. But no one has quantified the effectiveness or the repercussions of the laws, so it’s difficult to gauge their impact.

Still, former prosecutor Jennifer Long describes them as “a very critical piece of a comprehensive response.”

Long, the director of AEquitas, a Washington-based organization that provides resources to prosecutors who handle cases involving violence against women, says judges don’t always recognize the harm done to children and that these laws keep the issue from being minimized.

Experts say the effects of witnessing violence is the same as experiencing it. These children are much more likely to suffer as adults from addiction and other health problems and become victims or perpetrators of violence. In recent research, they are described alongside terms such as “betrayal trauma” and “complex post traumatic stress disorder.”

Paul Berman and Katie Killeen are married psychologists outside Baltimore who have testified in court about children’s memories of abuse. Nightmares, depression, problems concentrating and aggressive behavior are common in children who have witnessed violence, Berman says, and the effects last into adulthood.

“The more unexpected and unanticipated and sudden it is, and the more helpless they feel when it happened,” Killeen says, “the more significant the trauma is.”

‘Like death itself’

Bruce Jamison’s job is to look after children. He is a security guard at a D.C. school and can tell the difference between those who act out because they want attention and those who do so because they need it. He spent his childhood among the latter, searching for a mother figure after his was taken from him.

Jamison was 10 and sitting in the back seat of his mother’s car in Prince George’s County when her ex-boyfriend opened the back door and, as Jamison and his five younger siblings watched, shot her as she sat in the driver’s seat. The man then turned the gun on himself.

“I saw my mother slouched over and blood coming out of her ear,” Jamison, now 29, recalls. He got out of the car, ran to his mother’s side and tried to sit her upright. “I looked in my mother’s eyes and told her it was going to be okay. Then I ran into the house and called 911.”

Jamison and his siblings have not talked much about that day — not to one another, and not even to the therapists they visited afterward. Their grandmother raised them and did the best she could, Jamison says. Still, the loss took a toll on each of them.

Jamison acted out in school until about ninth grade when he realized, he says, “she’s not coming back no matter how I act.”

Tannetta Elliott, who shares a resemblance to her mother, recalls that day vividly, down to the dream she had after falling asleep in the hours that followed. In it, her mother stepped out of the car and was okay.

“Being a child of domestic violence is like a death in itself,” says Elliott, who was 6 and sitting in the front seat. “It’s like your life is being taken. Sometimes I used to say, ‘Maybe I should have taken that bullet.’ ”

Elliott, now 26 and a mother of two, says she has learned enough about PTSD to know how that day altered her. It affected how she views the world — “Sometimes you’re scared to even live in it,” she says — and it left a void during milestones in her life: prom, graduation, the birth of her children.

“He didn’t just take something from my mom,” Elliott says, “he took something from me.”

‘Really, really scared’

When the Maryland House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the child witness legislation, representatives from victim advocacy groups spoke one after another, citing studies and personal stories in support of the law.

Two bills were proposed — one as part of a package backed by Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) and the other put forth by Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery) with support from Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) — that called for giving judges the option of adding five years onto a sentence. Brown and Gansler are both seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, prompting some political sparring around the issue.

Last year, Erin Curtis testified on behalf of the bill that was backed by Gansler. It received support in both the House and Senate but did not come to a vote in time for the legislation to pass.

This year’s legislation has generated little opposition, beyond concerns raised by the Maryland Office of the Public Defender that the proposed bill, as written, could be taken beyond family violence and applied to cases in which “children can see or hear strangers outside the home in violent conflict with each other through a window or door.”

In Maryland as many as 19,000 domestic-related crimes are reported each year. And last year, 50 people in the state died as a result of such crimes, according to the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, which tracks the annual toll.

One memory stands out most to Michael from that night his mother was attacked. He had locked himself in a bedroom at the prompting of the 911 operator but opened the door at one point to let in his brother. When he did, he found the toddler in blood-stained pajamas, asking whether he could watch SpongeBob on TV.

After that, Michael hesitated to unlock the door again — even after the police arrived.

“Wait. May I please wait a few more minutes?” Michael can be heard asking the operator on the recording. “Wait. I’m really, really scared.”

The operator assures him that it will be okay, that no one is going to hurt him, and soon the sound of officers walking into the room can be heard. Also audible: a tiny voice calling out for “Daddy.”

“I’m sorry,” Michael tells his brother. “You’ll never see daddy again.”

Curtis, whose fingers remain permanently curled inward on one hand, says she knows that once her ex-husband is released he will want to see his son. At the advice of a therapist, she has allowed her youngest, now 8, to visit him in prison. Five additional years of jail time doesn’t sound like much, but Curtis says it would have made all the difference. Her youngest would have been at least 13 when his father was released, not a second-grader who, on a recent evening, was chasing his hamster Theodore around the living room.

“He’s not old enough yet to really understand what happened,” Curtis says. “Every so often he’ll take my hand and try to straighten my fingers. He’ll say, ‘Did Daddy do that to you?’ ”

After the incident, Curtis says, her youngest would wake up screaming in the night, saying a man was in his room. He also suffered violent outbursts that required him to be physically restrained. He remembers enough about that night that he once told her, “I told him to stop, but he just wouldn’t listen.”

Curtis, who has the word “survivor” tattooed on her left wrist, says that other than some irrational fears early on, including that her sons were going to stab her in her sleep, she has not experienced many psychological repercussions. She attributes much of that to knowing the whereabouts of her ex-husband, a man she describes as a “good person who did a bad thing,” but still fears enough that she has asked The Post not to publish his name to avoid antagonizing him.

Michael, who keeps a folder of the sketches he drew during his many therapy sessions, says his own nightmares have mostly disappeared. Even so, he recently dreamed that an announcer on the news said his mother had died. When he woke up, he ran to her room, found her bed empty and, not knowing she had left early for a flag football game, thought the worst. When he finally got through to her on her cellphone, he was crying so hysterically she couldn’t understand him.

“Am I psychologically messed up?” Michael asks. “Yes, it affected me, but there are kids who have witnessed domestic violence for years and years and years. The really unfortunate truth is that if a kid has witnessed things like that from a very young age, they may think it’s okay. I feel because of the experience I’ve had, I will never mistreat my partner in any way.”

A similar sentiment dangled above his brother’s bed on a recent evening. On the front of a handmade mobile, in a nod to Martin Luther King Jr., he had listed his dreams for his community, nation and world. On the back was this sentence: “My dream is for everyone to live in peace.”

He proudly pointed it out to a stranger. Then a few weeks later, it was gone. He had torn it down during an outburst.

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

Theresa Vargas is a reporter for the Post’s local enterprise team.
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