"I hate you!!!!"
The three little words can be devastating, especially to a child who witnesses the people he loves exchanging those words between blows on a regular basis.
Helping children cope with and overcome the impact of being a witness to domestic violence is a goal of the U.S. attorney's office and the Washington-based Center for Child Protection and Family Support Inc.
"Studies have shown that in most cases, children who witness domestic violence grow up to perpetrate violence," said Joyce Thomas, co-founder and president of the center. "So what we're trying to do is stop that on the front end."
On a recent sunny afternoon at Bolling Air Force Base, the "Children Who Witness Domestic Violence: Implications for Law Enforcement" workshop was underway. More than 60 officers from the D.C. police department were there to learn about the impact domestic violence has on children.
An estimated 10 million children across the country witness domestic violence every year.
In the District, there are more than 6,000 cases of someone seeking a civil protection order attributed to domestic violence. But what you don't hear about are the children who watch it all happen.
Thomas, a former director of the child abuse center at Children's Hospital, said her heart grew heavy seeing the purple marks and charred skin of abused children who came to the hospital for treatment.
"Having to see kids that had been burned and beaten--it was just too overwhelming to see that kind of abuse," she said.
Thomas wanted to provide child protection agencies, both public and private, with training and consulting and to get more information to the community about abuse. So the center, in conjunction with the U.S. attorney's office, hosted the day-long workshop.
"We wanted to focus on increasing the sensitivity and understanding the dynamics when dealing with children who witness domestic violence," said Julie Breslow, chief of victim assistance at the U.S. attorney's office. Lawyers in the U.S. attorney's office are the local prosecutors for most domestic violence cases. "There are a lot of programs that help the victims but none for the children."
The workshop was broken into 11 sessions, with each part focusing on specific topics. The activities ranged from question-and-answer periods hosted by domestic violence psychologists to sessions in which the officers were placed into groups with work sheets containing different scenarios and they had to determine whether the situation was abuse or an isolated incident.
All that the police officers learned in this one day of activities is not to be lost. They were assigned homework: Take what you learned and teach it to other officers.
"It is paramount that all parties involved are on the same page," said Howard Mabry, a child psychologist at Resilience Works Inc. Mabry works closely with children who have been exposed to domestic violence. Some of the symptoms that he has noticed in the children are uncontrolled outbursts of anger, trouble concentrating in school and post-traumatic stress syndrome--the same symptoms that are present in children who actually have been hit.
"Domestic violence is a cycle that affects all involved. If the police don't have the proper information to make the correct decision, then they may never file a referral, and without that we may never know what these children are going through," Mabry said.
Detective Karen Moss, who conducted the "How to do a good child-on-the-scene interview" portion of the workshop, said she'd love to give the class to every officer who joins the force.
Moss prepared a skit with other officers in which she had the officers act as a family having a domestic dispute in front of a child. It was an attempt to show the officers in the audience exactly what a child witnesses when his parents argue.
After the shouting match--complete with profanity, insults and the threat of violence--grew heated, Moss stopped the skit and turned to the audience.
"How would you conduct the interview?" Moss asked. Most of the officers never addressed the child in the scene. "And that is why this workshop is so important. . . . Children see more than you can imagine, and they're ready to talk. You just have to get down on their level and ask some simple questions, like: What happened?"
As the workshop ended and the officers made their way to the exits, Moss overheard one of her fellow officers say: "I didn't realize how much these children see."
And she couldn't help but think that they had only scratched the surface.