The money will allow the Alliance, which has worked since 1998 to fund resources for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, to expand its focus to children living in homes affected by those crimes. The grant dollars will allow the Alliance to keep its existing programs in place while also addressing the problem of children who are exposed to violence in their home.
“That we feel is a game changer in that we really can’t wait until the multiple exposures [to violence] have occurred,” said Sue Fowler, the Alliance’s executive director. “We need to help the kids early on and make the message clear that exposure to violence, whether they see it or hear it, has an impact on them.”
Research shows that children who are repeatedly exposed to violence are more likely to become depressed or suicidal, develop health issues, do poorly in school, to struggle socially and fall into alcohol and drug abuse. The Alliance’s goal is to intervene before the effects pile up.
The new program will begin with law enforcement. Often, officers respond to domestic violence-related calls in homes where children live, but there’s no reason to remove the children from the home. There’s no weapon present, the children aren’t being physically hurt and there’s no reason to arrest the parent causing the violence.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no risk to children. Now, officers responding to these kinds of calls will be able to call back to dispatch with a CEV Alert, which stands for “children exposed to violence.” That alert will be sent to the Department of Social Services, who will do a follow-up visit to make sure the children are OK.
“Our hope is to interrupt the cycle of abuse and create more positive family experiences for children as they develop into young adults, “ said Donna Lupton, Social Work Services Director for the Haywood County Health and Human Services Agency. The agency has been a partner in the project since 2011.
A good chunk of the grant dollars will go toward offering services to children and families to deal with the effects of exposure to violence. Children will have access to counseling, offered through Haywood Psychological Services, and animal-assisted therapy. The dollars will support an additional clinician in the Alliance’s office who will support anybody who is working with children identified as needing help. The program will also include a parent education component for the non-abusing parent, offered through the KARE House.
“That parent can have parent education access so that they understand better how to work with their children who have the violence exposure,” Fowler said. “They might say, ‘Oh my child’s been having nightmares. I don’t know how to handle it.’ Well, KARE can help them with that.”
Fowler is also excited that the grant will fund a partnership with the schools. The Alliance will be able to provide counseling services stationed in Haywood County Schools, specifically Waynesville Middle School and Central Elementary School, and at the Pigeon Community Center. The Alliance will provide staff development training with school employees, teaching them what to look for when identifying children exposed to violence.
“Kids typically feel really safe at school,” Fowler said. “They go there every day. They get support. They’ll talk to their teachers and they’ll say things to their teachers.”
“I am very excited about this grant because the project will provide a continuum of prevention, intervention, treatment and response services for our students who have been exposed to violence,” agreed Anne Garrett, superintendent of Haywood Schools. “This is a great opportunity for our students, parents and community. We are very fortunate to be involved in this project.”
By involving schools, law enforcement and the families themselves, the Alliance hopes to provide a spectrum of services that will quell the effects of exposure to violence before they manifest.
“Every child responds differently, so you don’t know who will be able to handle it, deal with it and move on and be OK, or who will end up absorbing all that violence and not being able to cope,” Fowler said.
Amy Jicha, a domestic violence investigator whose position the Alliance funds as part of its existing program, is excited about the strength the new focus on children affected by domestic violence will lend her position.
In North Carolina, she explained, victims can fill out a warrant for an abuser’s arrest themselves. But if the victim decides to drop the charges, there’s nothing the courts can do because there was never any police investigation and never any evidence gathered. Often, children are caught in the middle of the decision to drop charges.
“A lot of times the offending parent will use kids as leverage, like, ‘If you tell the [District Attorney] it didn’t happen, then I’ll come home and be a good dad,” Jicha said.
Jicha’s hope is that the grant will help educate parents on how witnessing domestic violence affects their children and therefore make them less likely to think that dropping charges will benefit their children.
“I’m hoping this grant will help educate parents and give them new opportunities when it comes to things like child care and support,” Jicha said, adding that she’s also thankful that the grant has extended her own job, allowing her to give domestic violence cases the extra attention they demand.
“Conviction rates are lower in counties that don’t have a dedicated domestic team,” she said.
Fowler hopes that through this grant, Haywood County will not only see more convictions for people who abuse their spouses but stymie the long-term effects that violence can cause.
“We didn’t change our focus,” she said. “We expanded our focus.”