Children’s exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV) in the United States is significant. A recent national study indicates that 17.9% of children have witnessed physical IPV between their caregivers in their lifetime, or about 13.6 million children. And while this circumstance offers immense challenges to policymakers, advocates, educators, healthcare providers and others, there is opportunity to work more fully within established systems to understand how our developed interventions extend hope and resiliency to this fragile population.
Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence (CCADV) and its 18 member organizations offer a systemic statewide approach to addressing domestic violence within communities. Of the nearly 40,000 victims served annually in Connecticut, approximately 1,200 adult victims and 1,000 children reside in emergency domestic violence shelters. In 2016, 69% of children in shelter were six years old or younger. Coupled with this circumstance is the fact that Connecticut domestic violence shelters currently function at 125% capacity with victims and families staying, on average, for 46 days, which is a 77% increase over the past eight years. Shelter service providers are in a unique position to help identify when children may be exhibiting signs of traumatic stress. Most children have the capacity to be resilient after a traumatic event if given the proper supports. Given this opportunity, CCADV set out to view the shelter experience through the eyes of a child to see what it is like for them to live, albeit temporarily, in this environment.
As part of this process, children were given a disposable camera to photograph anything in the shelter they wanted, but specifically asked to take pictures of what they “liked” and “disliked” about their stay. From these images, individual scrapbooks were created to include the child’s explanation of the photographs they took.
Through this project some major themes were identified. These themes focus on hope, community, advantages and difficulties of communal living, the importance of play as a therapeutic tool and developmental stages. In particular, we learned that although shelter living can be difficult and children are only within shelter for a brief time, positive outlooks and memories can be achieved. Children captured the happiness that they felt being in the shelter, citing that shelters showed optimism during a transitional time. Interwoven was the consistent portrayal of feeling safe and secure. Children specifically photographed alarm systems, door locks and a positive interaction during a visit from an emergency responder. Photographs did sometimes convey a feeling of isolation from their previous life and areas where children did not feel hopeful. One album reflected a family’s long stay over three different holidays. Photos also captured those things which did not offer hope. The wear and tear that toys, furniture and outdoor playgrounds endure from multiple users with rusty bikes and broken swings make kids sad.
In closing, we know that resiliency in children is strengthened if given the proper support following traumatic events. Research shows that the support of family and community are key to increasing children’s capacity for resilience and in helping them to recover and thrive. The more resilience factors a child possesses, the greater the likelihood of positive outcomes in the child’s life. Therefore, child-friendly spaces are important to recovery and should be maintained in shelters. Crucial to a child’s resiliency is the presence of a positive, caring, and protective adult. Although a long-term relationship with a caregiver is best, even a brief relationship with one caring adult—a mentor, teacher, daycare provider, an advocate in domestic violence shelter—can make an important difference.