Preventing Intergenerational Transmission of Domestic Violence
Michelle Batista, MS, remembers her last meeting with her clients vividly: She walked across the wood floors of the small conference room promptly at 5 pm on an October evening. It was time for the monthly meeting at the Violence Intervention Program at a confidential location in Queens, New York, and Batista was ready to introduce the discussion topic of the day: dating abuse.
Seated in a circle in front of her were five junior high school and high school students, backpacks lying on the ground at their feet. These five, aged 13 to 17, were not chosen at random. Each had experienced some level of domestic violence in their households, and all of them were Batista’s clients in a previous individual counseling session.
The meeting started with Batista distributing a handout describing a story in which a couple quarreled as the boyfriend was driving. Nick threatened to drive the car into the water as the pair traveled along a long two-lane bridge. His girlfriend, Caitlin, panicked and tried to grab the steering wheel. Nick then hit Caitlin and then tried to apologize with sweet talk and kisses. Nick’s strategy worked. By the end of the story, Caitlin is asleep on Nick’s shoulder as they drive home.
“What would you do if you were in Nick and Caitlin’s position?” Batista asked the group.
The goal for Batista and others working with the children of domestic violence is to get teens to draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors between intimate partners, even if that line has been all but erased in the relationships they have witnessed in their own homes.
Breaking the Cycle
“Some of the teenagers we see who are enrolled in abusive teen relationships are also the children who grew up in a household of domestic violence,” says Beth Silverman-Yam, DSW, LCSW, clinical director at Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit based in New York that assists victims of domestic violence and their children. “There is intergenerational transfer, but early intervention helps children understand what a healthy relationship is and helps them gain a mastery of the environment because, ultimately, domestic violence is about loss of power.”
That is exactly what Batista hoped for when she started a teen therapy group in June 2012. Her goal is not only to let children open up to her and understand her perspective but also to allow them to learn about other teens’ experiences and give each other suggestions so they don’t feel alone in their situation.
“The purpose of doing that is to give them a little bit of empowerment,” Batista says, “let them know they also have a voice and they can do something.”
During the discussion about the fictional Nick and Caitlin, Luis Campos was the first to offer a solution. “I would push her away and pull over. I wouldn’t use violence,” said Luis, a junior at Aviation High School in Long Island City. “We are going to talk it out.”
Luis recalled another member of the group took the boyfriend’s side and tried to justify the violence. The group then debated over whether the boyfriend should resort to violence, even in an emergency situation.
Case discussions like this are a critical part of the teen group meeting, Batista says. Derived from real-life scenarios, the discussions help teenagers identify the warning signs of potential violence and the type of abusive behavior—physical, emotional, and financial—that are common in relationships. For teenagers who grew up witnessing family violence, the borderline between love and abuse is often blurred, Batista says.
“For girls who grew up in an abusive environment who didn’t have education about domestic violence, they will think that’s how Daddy shows love to Mom,” Batista explains. “So when they grow up and find someone in the same situation, they will think, ‘Oh, this is normal.’ She won’t see anything wrong with it.”
A 2009 paper by the Family Violence Prevention Fund illustrated the absence of recognition of violence from the boy’s side: “Adolescent boys may identify with their abusive father or father figure, tell themselves that their mother provoked or deserved the violence, and therefore display aggression in their relationships.”
Luis’ experience was not far from that description. He was born to an unmarried couple in El Salvador and was a frequent witness to his father beating his mother. During one of the fights, Luis tried to intervene and broke his arm in the scuffle. But what really alarmed him was as a teenager, Luis found his attitude toward his girlfriend slowly worsening.
“Things with my dad was making me [want] control over the relationship,” Luis said at the group meeting following the case discussion. “My girlfriend used to do things that I wanted when I wanted them. I used to be a jealous guy, and I could get mad at any little thing. We had fights, and we curse out each other. There was no physical abuse but emotional abuse.”
The connections made between a child’s own romantic relationship and the ones he has witnessed are only recently coming to light.
Evidence-Based Early Intervention
“Young boys who saw their mothers being abused could become abusers,” says Silverman-Yam, who has been counseling both children and teenagers for nearly 20 years at Sanctuary for Families. “They are hyperagitated, aggressive, assertive.”
To curb that cyclical violence, Pamela Krasner, LCSW, director of the children’s program at Sanctuary for Families, argues the best treatment is early intervention. “You’re trying to prevent the cycle from repeating,” Krasner says, “and you’re getting in with the case right after the abuses happen. When the kids are really young and you are really working with them to build their relationship with the other parent and other safe supports in their life, they really grow and get better and heal.”
In New York, experts are increasingly offering therapies for the younger generation, including individual counseling, support groups, and even therapeutic recreational activities for victims as young as 1.
The children’s program at Sanctuary—one of the first of its kind devoted to the emotional needs of child victims and witnesses of domestic violence, according to its website—offers client services ranging from an evidence-based model and child-parent cycle therapy to playroom therapy.
The evidence-based model, as Silverman-Yam explains, is to treat children who have been exposed to a particular kind of trauma. Therapists will observe and evaluate a child’s behavior and talk him or her through the trauma. Silverman-Yam offers this example: A 9-year-old boy, as he was leaving the bathroom, saw his father almost kill his mother by hitting her with heavy objects. The boy then developed a tendency to avoid going to the bathroom on his own, let alone going to school, because he connected the experience of going to the bathroom to his mother’s near death. After repeatedly talking through the experience as well as other therapies, the boy made a breakthrough in his behaviors.
“If children are exposed to trauma,” Silverman-Yam says, “they need intervention.”
For Luis, the first violence in his household occurred in 2008, one year after his little sister joined the rest of the family in New York from El Salvador. Luis’s father, Herberth Campos, was a soldier in the Salvadorian military, and he immigrated to the United States under political asylum in the late 1990s.
In 2000, Luis, then 4, and his mother, Rosaura Marisol Gonzalez, crossed the border, too, though illegally. While Luis’ parents later married in New York, Gonzalez was unable to obtain a legal status because her entry to the United States was illegal, according to U.S. immigration laws at the time, even though her spouse was legal. The lack of legitimate identity later became what the husband used to threaten Gonzalez when she tried to seek help from the police.
What upset Luis the most was how his mother would justify his father’s repetitive rage and violence. “She would say Dad was in military, and he still had that trauma,” Luis recalled. “But sometimes she gave us another reason: Dad said he could report us to the authority, and we could all have been deported.”
Luis, his sisters, and their mother didn’t file their application for permanent residency until 2011 when a lawyer helped them put together the materials under the Violence Against Women Act, a federal law that allows battered immigrants to apply for a green card via self-petition without the abuser’s help and without the abuser knowing. At present, they are still in the application process.
Gonzalez says she finally divorced her husband in 2011, and at the same time she and her son were both referred to the Violence Intervention Program by a family court in Queens for therapy. The youngest daughter was referred to another program for more intense intervention.
When reflecting on the impact those years had on him, Luis now feels that the emotional punishments were more frightening and humiliating than the physical violence. He recalled laughing with his mother and sisters over a movie and having his father scream at them to keep quiet. “We didn’t do anything wrong,” Luis murmured.
This makes an impact on a child, Batista says. “If they didn’t do anything wrong and their dad got angry, they would feel it’s their fault,” explains Batista, who started working with Luis in 2011. “They put that in their mind and carry that for a long time. We try to change that mindset; we try not to let them become aggressive.”
The effect on Luis manifested itself in a way that was difficult to ignore after years of both physical and emotional repression. “It became easy for me to get angry,” he said, lowering his voice again. “If I came home and saw everything was messy, I would scream at my mom and sisters. I would tell them to do things.”
Many times, Luis felt his life had lost meaning and he cried about it. “I was frustrated to see I was turning into the same person that my dad was,” Luis says now.
Luis said he considers Batista, who worked with Luis once a week in individual counseling sessions, to be someone who could lend some concrete help when he was uncomfortable talking to friends and families about his experience. But he admits that, at times, her questions struck to the core.
“She asked me, ‘How do you feel toward your father?’’’ Luis said, “I was really happy that day, but the way she asked me, she brought me down. I didn’t feel anything toward him other than hatred and anger.”
According to Batista, she now counsels about 20 children and two teenagers in addition to supervising the monthly teen group meeting. She said the program is constantly receiving new clients.
One year after Luis finished his counseling, he says he has changed the way he sees and deals with the world. In two separate, nearly hour-long interviews for this story, he displayed surprising calmness and gentleness, even when recalling the most violent moments in his life.
“He now tries to talk things out instead of acting violently,” says Luis’s 12-year-old little sister, Rosaura Campos, in Spanish, via Luis’ interpretation.
One of the most important lessons that he learned is to “turn the bad things I have been through as my maturity and to my advantage.”
— Angela BeiBei Bao is a graduate student at Columbia Journalism School. She was a researcher for The New York Times in China and a contributor to The Lancet.