As a change agency, we strive to break barriers in the lives of our clients. However, one barrier presents a unique and significant challenge. As we approach the end of Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, we believe a timely reminder about an ongoing, unresolved issue is appropriate. Domestic violence, while not a consequence of poverty, produces the same feelings of stress, helplessness, and social isolation. Combined with poverty, its effects can be devastating.

71.1% of female victims experience intimate partner violence before they are 25 years old, according to the Center for Disease Control. 58.2% of male victims experience intimate partner violence before the age of 25. According to the US Census Bureau in 2016, 14% of women in the United States are below the poverty line, compared to 11.3% for men. Domestic violence is an underlying issue in the communities we serve. We want to draw your attention to how abuse affects our clients, a couple of unique types of abuse that can slip under the radar for the average person, and what we do to help them.

While all staff members at Blueprints who work with children, infants, and mothers are mandated reporters, it can be difficult for victims of domestic violence to admit that they are being abused. People come to us at different stages. “A lot of times, we get clients after they’ve received help. Many of our clients are already in shelters,” said Amanda Stincic, Health Professional in our WIC program. “We have a lot of clients from other counties who move into shelters here, too. Most of them didn’t qualify for WIC beforehand due to income guidelines. We have a mental health questionnaire and we always go back and ask if something seems off, but some might tell you and some might not.”

“It’s rare for people to check the box for domestic violence unless it’s a family with a foster child or the mother is in the shelter,” Kathy Catalano, Associate Director of Family Services, agreed. “However, we do have a category for physical/emotional/mental trauma that many people check and parents usually disclose their PFAs when we evaluate them for eligibility. We’ve also noticed that while people won’t personally disclose abuse, substance abuse, or violence, they will disclose that for a spouse, a boyfriend, or a family member.”

“When we get a call, a very high percent of the calls are kids being removed from their homes due to domestic violence and drug use,” said Denise McGinty, Foster Care Homefinder/Recruiter in Fairmont, West Virginia. “When I first entered this field 17 years ago, it was usually one or the other, but now, they tend to go hand in hand. We deal more with overdoses now and the drugs are harder than they used to be.”

“What they’re going through might not be labeled as domestic violence in their head,” said Alissa Hildebrand, Head Start Caseworker. “But the more they talk about it and the comments they make give us a vibe. We can gently point out behavior that isn’t good, but we try not to ask until they’re sick of it because we don’t want to alienate them. We can see the signs if someone is controlling or if the abuse is financial, but it might fly under the radar for them.”

Financial abuse often goes hand in hand with emotional and mental abuse because it gives the abuser control over the victim. Denying access to credit cards or bank accounts, not letting the victim work or sabotaging them at work, and forcing them to sign financial documents without knowing what they are make it difficult, if not impossible, for the victim to leave. “A lot of times, women wanted control of their finances, but the men weren’t interested,” said Laura Eckel, Caseworker. “They wanted to keep spending and overspending, even though it didn’t help their situation. The men were the primary earners, but the women usually managed the spending and did the bulk of the organizational work.” Laura also confirmed that in this particular case she encountered, these clients had children who were enrolled in the Head Start program.

Part of the difficulty along with getting the victim to open up can be getting the victim away from the abuser. “Sometimes there are other children and we can send them away with the other person to get a chance to talk to the mother,” said Amanda. “We did have one case where the mom came in for counseling and the boyfriend stayed in the waiting room while we called the police. Some people just tend to focus on the children.”

Another type of abuse that can go unnoticed is reproductive coercion. Reproductive coercion can involve forcing a partner to get pregnant, purposely not using a condom during sex, tampering with or destroying birth control, forcing someone to have an abortion or miscarry, or purposely giving your partner a sexually transmitted disease. “It’s rare, but it does happen,” said Amanda. “We had a client who had to file for separation to have her tubes tied. When clients do tell us that they’re being abused, we give them whatever resources we possibly can.”

“That’s why parent engagement is so important,” said Kathy. “We focus on the family and it’s what sets us apart from other preschool programs. A lot of parents having trouble handling their child at home are offered opportunities to volunteer in the classroom because they see a good structure and how the teachers teach kids how to interact with one another. We can see how they respond to their child. Moms can be in survival mode or they might lack coping skills of their own. If they open up, we provide them with all the options we can. They don’t always take the bait, but they’ll remember it and know that we’re here for them.”

“A lot of behavioral problems stem from abuse,” said Vicky Payton, Caseworker. “If a child’s behavior drastically changes, that’s usually why. Sometimes they completely withdraw, sometimes they become hypersensitive, or sometimes they start bullying everyone in the classroom. Some kids are just afraid to go home. Separation can be difficult and abusive parents will try to spoil the kids to keep them on their side.”

“When kids come into care, they often can’t express their feelings,” said Denise McGinty.  “So they hit or model behavior they’ve seen from their parents because they haven’t been taught how to cope with or handle their feelings. Depending on their age, it can be like reprogramming their brain to teach them healthy ways to communicate.”

Not only does domestic violence affect mental health, but it affects physical health as well. “Because we’re seeing drug abuse with domestic violence, kids are more susceptible to the dangers of drugs,” said Denise. “The parents are leaving drugs and contaminated needles around. If you grow up in a meth house, the fumes are very dangerous and affect your respiratory health. Kids are growing up in a house that is literally toxic to them. Many parents are being incarcerated because the crimes are more severe, so they don’t have a chance to get better. Families will try to step up, but even the family members are having trouble with drugs or letting inappropriate people be around their children. That’s not something we used to see.”

Parent engagement is a big part of breaking the cycle of abuse. “We have the Happy Hearts, Healthy Hands program that Jamie Giovianali, our Behavior Intervention Specialist, runs,” said Kathy. “Jamie will also work with families who are struggling on modeling behaviors through home visits. We also have a family engagement activity once a month so we can see how the kids are interacting with their family. Many of our families are always working and it can be therapeutic for adults to have time to socialize with other families while their kids play. They get to see how their kids interact with other kids and other families and see positive examples. We also get to watch how they respond to their child and track their progress.”

Having a positive adult connection who listens to them and can be a role model makes a huge difference. “All of our teens are in therapy,” said Denise. “They all learn how to cope with their feelings with the help of a therapist. They also learn how to have healthy relationships. They’re actually doing really well.”

Blueprints has a strong relationship with the Domestic Violence Services of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Not only do we collaborate with them, but also our Vice President of Human Resources, Trenna Passalacqua, is a member of their board of directors. In addition to their Fresh Start program, they offer subsidized housing, legal advocacy, and a 24-hour hotline among other valuable services. “Tragically, domestic violence crosses all sectors of our community. I’m so grateful to those that dedicate their lives to helping others in need,” said Trenna. “I’m proud to work and serve alongside two amazing organizations that truly put forth the compassion and commitment towards breaking barriers so many of our neighbors face on a daily basis.”

We also collaborate with the Community Resource Forum to help survivors when they come through our doors. We are committed to building their futures and we will be with them every step of the way.   If you have read anything here today that raises questions in your personal life, please reach out today. We will be here to listen. Please remember this Valentine’s Day that love should not hurt. Love is respect, plain and simple—and your imprint on someone else’s life can make all the difference.