Leaders in law enforcement, education and domestic violence research gathered Wednesday at VFW Post 3838 in Cape Girardeau where they focused on how violence affects children and developing strategies in prevention.
The leaders, part of a Domestic Violence Community Response Task Force, meet quarterly for a panel discussion, sponsored by Safe House for Women.
Mindy Sanders, a Safe House for Women outreach coordinator, spoke to the panel and around 20 attendees. She said she gives surveys to students from fifth-grade through college level. The students' answers show that more than half of them have witnessed, or experienced, domestic violence.
The number, she added, is almost always consistent with the national average, which says around 60 percent have experienced or seen domestic violence or sexual assault.
Each member of the panel first spoke of how, in their line of work, they see domestic violence affect children.
Debi Oliver, a detective with the Cape Girardeau Police Department specializing in crimes against women, said the primary focus when responding to a domestic violence incident is to stop the fighting.
"If we can stop the fighting, we can protect the children," she said.
While being trained, officers are often reminded that children sometimes take responsibility for the abuse, which can take a toll on their sleeping patterns or manifest as bad behavior in the classroom.
When she responds to a domestic violence incident, Oliver often sees children stressed with guilt or acting withdrawn.
"The younger children do not lie to us, primarily," Oliver said. "About age 9 or so we start seeing the children defend the parents. ... By the time they're teenagers, we can't trust them to tell the truth at all."
Safe House director Linda Garner said that too often, children live out what they see and hear at home.
"We understand that children learn from others, that's just how it happens," Garner said. She said unless the effect on children can be countered with positive behaviors, the children will grow up having learned to use violence to deal with problems.
At the Safe House, Garner said, the group is trying to build awareness of the effects of growing up in a home with domestic violence, and that people should realize it isn't the child's fault.
At Southeast Missouri State University, Randy Carter, assistant dean of student conduct, said in the last year a couple who had a child together were ordered to have no contact with each other after a domestic violence incident.
"That had definite ramifications for their young child," Carter said.
Concluding the panel discussion, task force members spoke of ways they and the rest of the community can work to end domestic violence.
The panel agreed that education is the key and, according to Garner, sending the message on prevention should start at a young age.
"We have excellent resources here in Cape Girardeau, but we've got to get the word out," Oliver said. "[Violence] isn't stopping, it isn't slowing down."
If more children learned to turn away from violence, the next generations could be healthier ones, Garner added.
"It seems like as a society we've gotten so wrapped up in intervention. I think prevention is really where it's at," she said.
At Central High School, guidance counselor Katie Anderson said the goal is to build trust with students and be nonjudgmental if they seek help. In addition, the school actively promotes its guidance service and makes it clear help is available.
Carter said his office often refers students to the counseling center and also offers outreach sessions on campus focused on making responsible choices with alcohol and in relationships.
"If we can prevent one situation from happening, I think that's a plus," he said.
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