Cindy Edwards knew that the domestic violence shelter she worked at was meant to be a place of peace and respite for those looking to get away from abusive or oppressive home lives. But she could also see how, for some, it could be a place of tension and frustration—in particular for those with children.
With multiple families living under one roof, and each dealing with its own trauma and other issues, parents and staff at Southeastern Family Violence Center often found themselves at odds with each other and feeling overwhelmed by the problems. As at most shelters, the staff's first concern was often helping the adult victims of domestic violence heal and providing for day-to-day needs. What was often lost in the struggle was a focus on the children who accompanied their parents to the shelter.
Tools for Helping Children Overcome Effects of Domestic Violence
A training project funded by The Duke Endowment helped Edwards gain the skills and confidence she needed to help child victims receive specialized care and support to overcome the effects of domestic violence. She was among staff members from six domestic violence shelters in North Carolina who underwent training through the project, which was also supported by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. The Center for Child & Family Health and the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University collaborated in the effort.
The increased focus on meeting the needs of children, which includes teaching constructive parenting techniques, has helped make the shelter a more peaceful, comfortable place for both residents and staff.
"The tools we learned in training really help us get buy-in from parents," said Edwards. "They give us something concrete to show them, that they can look at and see that there are some things going on with their children—and it's not just our staff saying it. It's neutral."
Edwards has incorporated the techniques and tools she learned into the standard procedures at Southeastern Family Violence Center, which she now directs. The shelter is located in Robeson County, North Carolina, which has some of the highest rates of poverty, abuse and neglect, and teen pregnancies — all risk factors for domestic violence — in the state. In 2008, the center served 1,345 people, with about 269 of those under the age of 17.
"It's become a part of the philosophy, of the culture here," said Edwards. "We've become more of a support for parents, and we're working together to do the best for the kids."
Screening Children for Signs of Distress
As a result of the training, staff at Southeastern Family Violence Center screens all children who enter the shelter or whose parents are involved in a support group, looking for signs of distress from their exposure to domestic violence. Because children who experience abuse within families are often likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, aggression and other mental health or developmental issues, it is especially important that shelter staff be able to identify signs of problems. Edwards and others are now better equipped to refer children to counseling and other services for help.
"We see a lot of really fussy babies or children who are easily frustrated, irritable, or really, really hyper. Sometimes they're having problems in school. Some children have developmental problems, either physically or with their speech abilities," said Edwards. "Now, because we do the screening, we're better able to distinguish between normal child development behavior and behavior that is a result from trauma."
That's an important distinction that is often not noticed in domestic violence shelters, said Leslie Starsoneck, who directed the project on behalf of the Center for Child & Family Health.
"The evaluation and assessment by staff at the shelters is really about trying to figure out what's going on with each child and what kind of intervention is most appropriate," said Starsoneck. "It's designed to help make the connection and build trust between the parents and the agencies, so that even after they leave the shelter, their children can get the services they need."
Benefit for Families
Families at the shelter benefit from the training, whether their children receive trauma recovery services or not. One woman was able to use parenting techniques taught by shelter staff to help her children improve their behavior and grades in school. It was a triumph for the woman, who had left an oppressive home environment and who felt the techniques empowered her as a parent and helped her build better relationships with her children.
Edwards' organization now has an in-house counselor on hand to help with children's issues. Using the screening methods Edwards learned, staff at Southeastern Family Violence Center are able to assess which children need help and refer them to either outside services or the in-house expert.
"We call her a ‘children's advocate,'" said Edwards, "because we want people to know that we have someone looking out for our kids. At Southeastern, we are all looking out for the kids."
Phillip H. Redmond Jr.
Director of Child Care