She was 5 the first time she heard her mother cry out for help, after a loud verbal tongue lashing by her father. She was 6 the first time her mother fled in the middle of the night to seek safety. She was 7 the first time she observed her mother cower from flying objects being thrown by her father. She was 8 the first time she saw her mom covered in black, blue, green and yellow marks; her mother had arrived home one minute late from a grocery store trip. She was 9 the first time she observed her father hit her mother because his supper was not ready and waiting. She was 11 the first time she asked her mother if they would ever be safe. She was 16 when her mother escaped for the eighth and final time.

She was me.

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Imagine how unsettling it is to see your mommy, the one who gave you life, come so close to losing hers — to watch her cry or be in fear when she is supposed to be your protector.

According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1 out of 9 children have been exposed to intimate partner violence: That’s 8.2 million children across America just last year. Additionally, 90% of those who have witnessed abuse have been physically harmed while trying to stop the violence toward their loved ones

To abuse a spouse is to abuse your child. Multiple studies have been done on the harmful effect to children who witness domestic violence. The results are the same in each study; it changes the child for life. Children experience an array of mental health concerns ranging from anxiety disorders to post traumatic stress disorder. Further, witnessing abuse may lead children to develop physical, emotional or behavioral reactions. The physical response may manifest as body aches or bed wetting. A child’s emotional reaction could include fear, guilt, shame or sadness. A child’s behavior might change in terms of attention, a drop-in school grades and decreased attendance. In the long term, children lack the skills to develop healthy relationships as adults. Additionally, it has been shown that children raised in abusive homes consider violence to be the only way to resolve conflicts. Further, many believe that witnessing domestic violence is a predictor of juvenile delinquency.

In America, only 23 states and Puerto Rico recognize that subjecting children to intimate partner violence is a form of child abuse. Maryland is not one of those states.

In Maryland, there is a lack of resources available for children living among the chaos of domestic violence; this can be attributed to the absence of laws recognizing that children who witness intimate partner violence are being subjected to child abuse. The resources available are for the person being abused, not the child witnessing the abuse. Legislative change is in order. However, like any public policy, change cannot occur until the problem is defined and recognized. Child abuse must be redefined to include witnessing intimate partner violence and the harmful effects that are perpetrated on a child living within an atmosphere plagued by domestic violence.

The bruises inflicted on a child’s psyche are child abuse, plain and simple.

Starling Hathcock (sbhathcock@comcast.net) is a social worker in Maryland.

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