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Shattered Lives

SHATTERED LIVES

Domestic Violence and the Deaf Child

Peggie Reyna
Project Director
Deaf & Disabled Services
Peace Over Violence
605 West Olympic blvd., Suite 400
Los Angeles, California 90015
(213) 955-9090 voice (213) 955-9095 tty
(213) 955-9093 fax e-mail: peggie@peaceoverviolence.org

SHATTERED LIVES
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AND THE DEAF CHILD

Domestic violence shatters families from all walks of life. Victims of domestic violence come from all ethnic, cultural, economic, and educational backgrounds. They experience the same terror, guilt, anger, shame and disbelief at the violence happening in their home.

There is a substantial body of evidence which indicates that children who are exposed to domestic violence suffer immediate and serious psychological harm. Even when they are not targets of the violence themselves, children who witness domestic violence in their homes learn graphically that “this is how families behave”. These children frequently model the behavior of their adult role models.

The children see, feel, and hear the anger and the violence. They may see the batterer slap or punch their mother, or throw her against the wall. They may see her bleeding and hear her crying. Most certainly the child will feel helpless and afraid. The helplessness and terror become a permanent memory which will effect the child for the rest of her/his life.

Many articles have addressed the issue of the effects of domestic violence on our children, heightening our awareness of the inter-generational cycle of violence and the tremendous need for prevention education at a young age. Few have addressed the issues particular to the child who is Deaf.

Approximately 86% of Deaf children are born to hearing parents, many of whom have never met a Deaf person. Few parents of a Deaf child ever learn to communicate with their child through the use of American Sign Language, some never allow their child to use sign language, forcing them to rely on lip reading and oral communication. The Deaf child born into a hearing family often experiences loneliness and isolation from an early age. Add the vibrations and sight of shattered glass, slamming doors, screams of terror, holes punched in the walls, furniture crashing to the floor, and adults raging out of control, and you have set the stage for a silent terror that builds within the child and grows with her/him into adulthood.

Like all children, the child who is Deaf experiences feelings of guilt for not being able to stop the violence against their mother. They fear the violence will be turned against them. They believe the violence is about them, because they are Deaf, because they are unable to speak clearly, because they are handicapped.

Often hearing parents of a child who is Deaf are unable to communicate more than the barest instructional phrases, (time to go to bed, come eat, do your homework, etc.). The cycle of violence leaves mother who is being battered unable to recognize or attend to the child’s emotional needs. The severe lack of communication ability leaves the episodes unexplained, often dismissed with a pat on the head or a shrug of the shoulders. The child’s anxiety and fear increases with each episode of violence.

Violence in the home means keeping guard, walking on thin ice, learning to recognize the warning signs and learning not to antagonize the batterer. But the child who is Deaf may not pick up the cues, does not hear the increased tension in conversation, and may feel a complete sense of powerlessness. The child may become afraid to sleep because the violence comes most often in the night, with vibrating walls shaking the child into fear.
Children who live in violent homes do not develop healthy self-esteem, they do not feel important. Children who are Deaf, living in hearing homes often do not develop healthy self-esteem, do not feel important or special, feel they are a burden and an embarrassment to their parents. Children from violent homes are at high risk for child sexual abuse. Children who are Deaf are at exceptionally high risk of child sexual abuse. Children who grow up in violent homes are at risk for alcohol and drug abuse. Children who are Deaf, growing up in hearing homes, are at high risk for alcohol and drug abuse.

These parallels double the risk for the child who is Deaf and living in a violent home. The child may not develop the ability to recognize or discuss her/his feeling or the feelings of others. She/he may view closeness as inviting emotional or physical devastation. She/he may not learn to interact with others and may become reclusive, withdrawn, suicidal. The increased isolation of deafness and violence can send the child into deep depression resulting in early school dropout, early drug and/or alcohol use, abuse of self or others, flashbacks of the violence, obsession with death.

Of course, living with violence teaches us to be violent. Violence is a learned behavior. The child who is Deaf also learns to perpetuate the cycle of violence in her/his own life. The learns that violence is an acceptable way to settle disagreements, control your girlfriend/boyfriend, or gain control; at least for a short time.

Additionally, the child who is Deaf must cope with a world where she/he is fully dependent on the adults in their life for emotional caretaking and support, for defining the hearing world around them, and for communication, at any level, with that hearing world.

The usual channels by which growing children learn about the values of the world, (listening to adult conversations, television, radio, conversation with other children, etc.) is often not available to the child who is Deaf. Providing school based prevention education and/or intervention counseling for children who are Deaf requires skill in American Sign Language, ability to understand and communicate with those who have low communication skills, and tremendous patience. The presenter must have knowledge of issues particular to the Deaf child as well as issues of domestic violence and child abuse.

Funding for such classes, even for hearing children, is very difficult to get and is usually short term. Yet prevention education for all children, in all schools, in every language, is required if we are to end the epidemic of domestic violence in America.

Domestic violence is the very seed of violence, the home is the breeding ground, and our communities the evidence of unchecked learned behavior. Violence is a learned behavior, it can be unlearned.

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