Family war zones: Research shows increasing physical and psychological impacts on kids

Published: Sunday, March 18 2007 12:00 a.m. MDT

Salt Lake police officer Jennifer Choate takes a domestic violence report at a home where the children, who witnessed the assault, listen.

Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News

First in a five-part series

Mary Davis is wide-eyed as she opens the door for a police officer one Saturday night. Her fiance is gone, she explains to the officer. He left after the fight but tried to take one last punch at her as he stepped out the door.

Inside her tidy Central City home, Mary lifts up her shirt. This is where he punched her, she shows the officer. This is how he jerked her off the ground and threw her across the couch. This is how her fiance's cousin kicked her when she was on the floor.

"He was drunk," she tells the officer. "He's fine when he's not drinking."

Three little boys are watching their mom describe the violence. Nine-year-old Jacob is holding 2-year-old Matthew tight. Mary answers the officer's questions. "Yes, it's happened before." The older boy's eyes drop to the floor.

Jacob and Matthew represent thousands of Utah children who witness violence in their homes and are left essentially on their own to deal with the aftermath — all while research shows increasing physical and psychological impacts on kids who witness domestic abuse.

"If people realized what this does to children ...," says Samantha Nolan, director of South Valley Sanctuary. Day after day she sees the vacant eyes of children in her domestic violence refuge — one of 16 sanctuaries in Utah and one of two in the Salt Lake Valley. "The children you see in our shelter look the same as those you'd see in a war zone."

Indeed, thousands of Utah children are living in loud, chaotic, violent battle zones called homes.

Last year, the state Division of Child and Family Services identified 12,000 children who were victims of abuse and domestic violence.

Like 11-year-old Bobby, who often got hit defending his mother from his drunken father.

Like Ma'i, 4, and Patrick, 5, who are in therapy after watching their dad pummel their mother and their grandfather beat their grandmother.

Like 9-year-old Ryan, who watched his mother's boyfriend fire two bullets into her back, then smash his mother's face with the butt of a shotgun.

There are thousands more who hear screaming and fighting, punching and slapping behind closed doors, who live with anxiety and fear, who don't feel safe, and indeed, they are not.

The Deseret Morning News spent four months investigating the state of children in Utah who live in these family war zones.

Reporters interviewed dozens of victims, perpetrators, children, judges, police and child and victim advocates. They also talked to state officials, child-welfare workers, prosecutors and shelter workers to determine how the state, the system and the adults who care for them are failing these children.

The five-day series examines these issues within the context of Utah's domestic abuse epidemic. It explores the effort — or lack of effort — by officials to prevent the next generation of abusers and victims, and the implications this may have for the state.

On that Saturday night in January, the police officer is talking to the Mary Davis' boys.

"Do you have someone to talk to? Do you know how to call 9-1-1?"

The older boys say yes.

An uncle whispers to 11-year-old Brian. He is small for his age, pale.

"You OK?"

Brian nods.

"You shouldn't have to see that," the uncle says. "You shouldn't. It's wrong."

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