Prevention Program Helps Child Witnesses of Domestic Violence

April 19, 2000
News Office: Eve Harris (415) 885-7277

The Violence Prevention Project at UCSF Medical Center at Mount Zion has implemented a program called Living in a Nonviolent Community to treat children who witness domestic violence in their homes, a widespread public health problem that impacts millions of children each year.

The goal is to identify children, infants to age 18, who have witnessed domestic violence and provide counseling.

Norman Fineman, interim director of the Mount Zion Violence Prevention Project , said witnessing violence in the home can cause children to have serious emotional distress, behavioral and learning problems, including low verbal, cognitive and motor skills. It can also lead to suicidal thoughts and gestures, poor school attendance and poor school performance.

Studies show that these children are more likely to become batterers themselves or victims of abuse in their own intimate, adult relationships. One reason for this is children who witness family violence believe violence is normal in domestic relationships. They have no other point of reference, Fineman said.

Domestic violence in the home can be as traumatic for children as being the victim of physical or sexual abuse. Studies also indicate that child abuse occurs in 33 percent to 77 percent of families in which there is abuse of adults.

The program, which received funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation last September, trains school administrators, teachers, students, physicians and others in San Francisco's Western Addition neighborhood to recognize children or teenagers living in violent homes and to take the appropriate steps to help the children and ensure their safety.

In addition, through the Bay Area Legal Aid program, the program provides legal assistance to families who need representation for divorces, restraining orders, custody issues and other services.

As many as 2 million to 4 million women are severely assaulted by their male partners each year, according to the American Medical Association's Council on Scientific Affairs. While there are services for abuse victims, the problem of children who witness domestic violence has received little public attention.

The Mount Zion program coordinators want to raise awareness of the devastating impact domestic violence can have on young people, said Joanne Ruby, program coordinator. "The secrecy of family violence affects kids in so many ways," she said.

As part of this program, program coordinators visit schools to talk to the students about domestic abuse and what they can do if they are living in a violent home, such as talking to a counselor, teacher, school nurse or friend. They can also call child protective services, a youth hotline or 911.

One way to combat domestic abuse is to encourage children and adults to talk about it, Fineman said. "Part of the terror of abuse and neglect is the culture of silence that surrounds it," he said. "This subject is not talked about."

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant is $470,000 over three years. Other organizations that have partnered with the program are the Child Trauma Research Project and Child and Adolescent Services at San Francisco General Hospital Medical Center, UCSF Division of Behavioral and Developmental Pediatrics and Bay Area Legal Aid.

The Mount Zion Violence Prevention Project was founded in 1995 by pediatricians and pediatric social workers in the UCSF's Mount Zion pediatric group. The program works to decrease family and community violence. For more information on the program, please call the Mount Zion Violence Prevention Project at (415) 885-7636.