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Watch for signs of abuse as students return to school this fall

It’s hard to believe that another summer has come and gone, but it’s that time to prepare the classrooms, stock up on school supplies and add a few new pieces to the back-to-school wardrobe.

There’s something else we should all be aware of as children head back to school – signs that one of them may be living in a home where the dinner conversation isn’t about his or her day at camp, summer job or trip to France.

Some students returning from summer vacation may have had very little in the way of “vacation.” They will have spent their days hiding in their bedroom, or afraid to go home at all, walking on eggshells, speaking in whispers, wondering what mood they would find their parent in that day.

In our affluent area, it’s hard to reach out for support when things go wrong. Sometimes a parent suffers in silence for years – along with the children – before gathering the strength, courage and information he or she needs to break the silence. A child can go for years – decades even – living in pain and silence, waiting until the lights go out and everyone’s gone to bed to let the tears out.

Yet by day, who would ever know? Some children are better actors than others. They do their homework, play the piano, join the soccer team, babysit – all the things others do by day. Who would guess they were leading a double life, living like prisoners in their own homes?

Just because children exhibit problem behavior doesn’t mean they are being abused. And just because they are performing well in school doesn’t mean they are not being abused.

That’s what makes it difficult to help the ones who are living in homes with domestic violence. Like their abused parent, children are used to covering things up, pretending everything is all right, keeping up appearances. They have learned that adults, even the ones closest to them, can’t always be trusted to keep them safe.

Signs of abuse

What can we do when it’s so hard to figure out the truth, and they are so afraid to share it?

• Look for signs of suffering. We can ask children if something is going on at home. Are they worried or scared? Would they like to talk about it? We can let them know we are there to help.

• Is a child having trouble out on the playground? Is it hard to socialize? Does he or she seem to be a frequent target of bullying? Is he or she the bully? Sometimes behavior problems are a result of learning disabilities, emotional problems or peer influences, but sometimes children are imitating behavior they have witnessed at home.

• Does the child have trouble concentrating in class or sitting still? Is he or she quiet but prone to daydreaming or disruptive and acting out in class?

Therapists report that some of the symptoms of trauma can resemble those of Attention Deficit Disorder. For example, some children may have trouble concentrating, appear to “space out,” are irritable and struggle with impulse control, moodiness and school and/or peer problems. Sometimes children have trouble concentrating not because they suffer from ADD, but because they are being distracted by thoughts, memories and flashbacks of trauma and chaos in the home. Children can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, too, just like war veterans and adult victims of domestic violence.

• Are there signs that a child is engaging in self-destructive behaviors like cutting? Is he or she wearing long-sleeved shirts in hot weather? Are there unexplained bruises? Is he or she accident prone? Sometimes there is a story behind the story.

• Is the child experimenting with drugs or alcohol? Sometimes he or she is just experimenting, falling in with the wrong crowd or dealing with a personal issue or loss. Other times he or she may be self-medicating to soften the impact of life at home.

• Is the child dressing in an unusual way? Sometimes he or she is simply expressing him- or herself or trying out new things, but other times clothing or hairstyle is a way of expressing what he or she cannot or dare not say.

Reporting abuse

Once you suspect abuse in the home, what can the average adult, teacher, school staff member, coach or minister do to help when families fall apart and the very people who should most protect their children don’t – or can’t?

A child expressing symptoms is usually not enough to report suspected abuse. Usually something more concrete is required, like a bruise, mark, statement or clear sexual acting out that appears to be highly indicative of sexual abuse.

• The Community Health Awareness Council in Mountain View and the Bill Wilson Center and YWCA domestic violence program in San Jose provide counseling services for children, teens and families.

• If you see a bruise or clear evidence that the child is directly experiencing abuse, call the police or Child Protective Services – anonymously, if you prefer.

If you are a mandated reporter, you must report your suspicions. Failure to report is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine or greater. There may also be civil liability.

• Talk with the child and let him or her know that you are there and that you care. Validate his or her experience. Sometimes it only takes one person to bear witness and help a child understand that what he or she is experiencing is not normal. Discuss what healthy love looks like. Do some simple breathing or relaxation exercises with the child to teach him or her how to calm down when his or her world seems to be falling apart.

When you ask if something is going on at home, children may not tell you the truth, but somewhere inside, they will know that someone has heard them, seen them and validated them and that they are no longer alone.

And that can make all the difference.

Ruth Patrick is a domestic violence consultant with the Los Altos Community Foundation’s nonprofit Women-of-Means Support Network, Silicon Valley. For more information, call 996-2200 or visit losaltoscf.org/womensv.

Reporting abuse

If you suspect a child is being abused, call:

• Child Protective Services: 493-1186

• Los Altos Police Department: 947-2770

• Childhelp National Abuse Hotline: (800) 442-4453

If the signs are more subtle but you suspect that a child is in emotional distress and may benefit from counseling, free and sliding-scale-cost services are available for children, teens and families:

• Bill Wilson Center: (408) 243-0222

• Community Health Awareness Council: 965-2020

• YWCA: (800) 572-2782

Other resources:

• YWCA’s Domestic Violence Support Network: (800) 572-2782

• Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence: (408) 279-2962

• Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse: (800) 300-1080

• Teen 24-7 Line: (888) 247-7717

• Teen Domestic Violence Hotline: (866) 331-9474

• WomenSV: 996-2200

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