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Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News
Salt Lake police officer Jennifer Choate takes a domestic violence report at a home where the children, who witnessed the assault, listen.
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."

On this, every child advocate, every domestic violence expert, every law enforcer and most parents agree: It is wrong. Wrong to argue in front of the kids. Wrong to fight where they can see or hear. Wrong for adults to hit or throw or push each other, especially where children might get caught in the fray.

"I see kids every day that have been harmed by domestic violence," says Julie Bradshaw, director of the Center for Safe and Healthy Families at Primary Children's Medical Center.

Mary Davis called police after the fight that night but said later she didn't want to make "a molehill a mountain."

She refused help from a victim advocate and told a detective she didn't want to pursue criminal charges. The Salt Lake City Police Department declined to forward the case to prosecutors.

In an interview with the Deseret Morning News six weeks after the incident, Mary blamed herself. She shouldn't have argued with her fiance, she said. She shouldn't have gotten in the middle of a disagreement between the man and his cousin. She should have just let him go. "It was my fault."

Besides, she says, "It was a one-time thing."

DCFS won't talk about individual cases, but Mary says after three meetings with state child welfare officials and an investigation, her case is closed.

She read the domestic abuse materials left by the victim advocate. The pamphlet is worn. "Most of it was for real domestic violence couples," Mary says.

But she knows the content of its pages: how to overcome domestic violence, how to reduce stress, the "Cycles and Dynamics of Domestic Violence," how domestic violence can impact a child.

She watched for signs of distress in her boys. "They're doing OK. I talked to them." As far as the boys modeling her fiance's bad behavior?

"No," Mary says. "They know better."

But here is the problem:

Children watch. They listen. They learn.

And then, experts say, they grow up to do exactly what they've seen modeled — girls become victims if their mothers were, and boys become aggressive and impulsive, developing inappropriate and violent treatment of women.

Experts say 70 percent of children who grow up in violent homes will end up in violent adult relationships. The National Violence Prevention Center says 70 percent of men in court-ordered treatment for domestic violence witnessed it as children.

"The children today are tomorrow's abusers and victims," says Sgt. Brock Hudson of the West Valley Police Department.

So everyone agrees, this cycle must stop.

But media coverage of national domestic violence data only confuses the severity of the problem.

"Domestic-Partner Violence in U.S. Fell Sharply," states a December 2006 headline in the Washington Post.

But the context is muddy. "'Domestic violence rates in the United States dropped sharply between 1993 and 2004 but showed recent signs of a rebound,' the Justice Department reported yesterday."

National data released this month by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics showed criminal violence against intimate partners has reached "a record low." Nonfatal attacks fell 65 percent from 1993 to 2005, according to data.

But national victim advocates dispute those facts. Victims who fear their abusers, one says, might deny the abuse to outsiders and pollsters.

In Utah, shelter staff and social workers say there is no decline. Rather, they say they're seeing more women and children than ever. They don't know whether having more clients challenges the decline or reflects less tolerance of domestic abuse.

The mixed message contributes to the public's seeming ambivalence to the problem. Because much of it goes unreported, it is difficult to assess how bad it is.

Domestic violence in Utah is getting worse, not better, according to the Governor's Violence Against Women and Families Cabinet Council.

"Domestic violence is so huge. Some days it feels like we're holding back the dam," says Rachelle Hill, West Valley City victim advocate. "Every day we don't have a homicide, I just breathe a sigh of relief."

And children are requiring more services, not fewer. There are myriad coalitions, task forces and scattered projects, but there is no bona fide champion for the cause.

State lawmakers aren't helping, critics say. The meager efforts that make their way to the Legislature get shot down in a hurry. State funding is stagnant.

But what may be most troubling is that children are tacitly ignored as victims in every scenario.

A sobering pattern indeed, say child advocates, especially considering the following:

• Domestic violence is one the fastest-growing violent crimes in Utah. Over the past few years, the frequency and intensity of abuse has increased, according to the 2006 Utah Domestic Violence Report. Victims are enduring more severe beatings and life-threatening situations than in years past. Attacks have become more aggressive and brutal.

• Utah considers domestic violence in the presence of a child — whether the child sees the attack or is in the room when it occurs — child abuse. It is the most prevalent form of child abuse in the state.

• Domestic violence is a factor in one-third of the cases where child abuse or neglect is proven, according to a 2006 report on the state of Utah's domestic violence. This translated to 1,450 cases for DCFS that year, but each case might represent more than one child.

• DCFS also is finding that more and more domestic violence-related child-abuse allegations are valid. The percentage of "supported" cases rose from 47 percent in 2000 to 54.4 percent in 2005. That means the number of children in need of counseling and foster care is on the rise.

• Utah's domestic violence crisis and information line received 2,500 calls in 2005, about the same as it has received the past couple of years. But there was a 61 percent increase in calls requiring law enforcement or emergency services. Requests for housing, food, clothing and medical care nearly doubled. Calls for legal help, principally assistance in obtaining protective orders, rose 24 percent, the report shows.

• According to 2005 data, 5,891 Utahns made their way to local domestic violence shelters that year — 3,173 were children, 2,686 were women and 32 were men. There was no room for thousands of others who were turned away.

The shelters were unable to serve 2,114 requests for help in 2006 due to full houses. The majority of those, 1,820, were at the South Valley Sanctuary and YWCA in Salt Lake County.

"Some of these kids almost don't have a chance," says Kristin Brewer, 3rd District Court guardian ad litem.

"One of the big things is people just need to pull their heads out of the sand and realize this is going on," she says.

Salt Lake police officer Jennifer Choate sighed as she left the Davis house.

"It's just sad when it comes to these kids," she said. "This is the way many of them enter the system, as witnesses or as child victims in cases just like this."

Children watch. They listen. They learn. And when it comes to domestic violence, they all too often grow up to do exactly what they have seen, heard and been taught by their parents — becoming the next generation of abusers and the abused.

In a five-part series beginning today, the Deseret Morning News takes a sobering look at one of the fastest-growing categories of crime in Utah. The series includes:

Today: A cycle of violence

Monday: Children in crisis

Tuesday: The abusers

Wednesday: Falling through the cracks

Thursday: Preventing domestic abuse

E-mail: lucy@desnews.com; romboy@desnews.com