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When Children Are Bystanders to Domestic Violence

Photograph by Twenty20

The recent loss of life at North Park Elementary School in San Bernardino was heartbreaking news. Karen Elaine Smith, described as a caring special education teacher, and 8-year-old Jonathan Martinez were both killed, while another child was seriously injured. The shooter was Karen’s husband, Cedric Anderson, who killed himself at the scene. The events took place in a special-needs classroom with 15 children present.

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At one point, San Bernardino police Capt. Harlan "Ron" Maass said, "We believe the two children were the unfortunate recipients of injuries by being in the proximity to the female at the time of the incident."

I’d watched the news with the same horror that every mom feels when she hears of cruel, senseless violence against children. But I’d also watched it from the perspective of a former law clerk at a family violence law center. It’d been years since I’d had the job as a law student, but I remembered the stories well. That’s why I didn’t agree with the police captain’s assessment that the children were merely incidental victims. I’d learned too much about the psychology of domestic violence and the ways abusers seek to hurt their victims.

When a woman has an abusive partner, she is seldom the sole focus of the abuse. Those closest to a woman—her children, other loved ones, pets—can be threatened or hurt as a way to further exert power over and instill fear in her.

Smith was targeted in her classroom, a sacred space for any teacher in which trust and learning are carefully cultivated. Her life was threatened and taken in a place where she and her students were supposed to feel safe. Her killer’s actions forced these children to become bystanders to her murder and they were all hurt as a result. It’s another way to inflict pain on a person. It’s possible that Smith’s husband acted while knowing or intending this, which makes the act that much more callous.

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Soon after we learned of the shooting, familiar details of such stories emerged. The killer had a history of domestic violence. He’d accused her of infidelity and had threatened to kill her. Close relatives to Smith detailed his worrisome behavior while others said they had no idea Smith had problems in her marriage. This too is common; abuse is often concealed.

In my time working on domestic violence cases, I saw many brave clients escape abusive environments. I also saw clients who eventually backed out of the process for fear or hope that their situation might improve. That kind of self-doubt can be a product of the abusive environment. Depression, fear, disbelief and shame were all common experiences. While there, I never heard of an abuser who suddenly reformed their ways and stopped hurting their wife, partner or children.

It won’t get better.

The clients who left their abusers did so carefully, strategically, and with the help of lawyers, advocates and court protections (e.g. a restraining order barring someone from your place of employment). How did the shooter have access to the classroom in the San Bernardino case? School officials said he walked right in because he was her husband and nothing looked out of the ordinary. That’s precisely the danger of domestic violence; it’s shielded by a sense of normalcy.

Domestic violence affects women of all backgrounds, with those who already vulnerable for some other reason—income, immigration status, disability—facing the toughest odds of getting out. Mothers, as guardians of their children, have a unique duty to protect themselves and those who depend on them. This is a hard subject for any woman to encounter, but the risks of not getting help are too great.

For more information on how you can get help or support someone who needs help, check out the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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