“My dad was always angry,” says 40-year-old Taketha Wilkins when she describes her childhood. “I remember my mom and dad arguing and my mom being on the ground. I don’t remember my father beating her. But I do remember that she’d be so hurt from the beating, she’d barely be able to walk. And I’d have to clean up the blood.”
Though family violence shattered Taketha’s world, she never let that secret leave her home. She never told a friend or a teacher. The secret never passed her lips. It wasn’t until prison, where she’s serving 30 months for robbery, that she finally spoke the truth. During the 3 R Project (Rehabilitate, Renew, Reconnect) at Shelby County Corrections, she finally told about the physical and emotional abuse she endured at the hands of her father. She was 5 years old, and her brother was 4, when it started.
“My daddy wouldn’t whup me, but he would my little brother,” she says during an interview at the Regional West Tennessee Reentry Center. “I would tell my brother he was whuppin’ him to help him become more of a man. My father would hit him for just the smallest thing, like leaving something on the floor. But really, he was whuppin’ him for nothing.”
One scene in particular remains etched in her mind. Her father, in a fit of rage, grabbed both her and her brother by the neck, and jerked them up suddenly off the ground, their thin legs dangling in the air like rag dolls. “He was choking us. I couldn’t breathe,” Taketha says quietly.
Looking on in terror, their mother became frantic, shrieking, begging for him to stop. “Don’t hurt the children. Lord, please, stop! Hit me instead, hit me,” she screamed.” Suddenly, he released them and they collapsed into a heap on the floor, crying, gasping. Then he turned his fury onto their mother and the beating continued until his anger was spent.
The effects of trauma on children
Experts say children are present in about half of the reported cases of domestic violence that take place each year. Witnessing such violence can dramatically shake a child’s sense of security and well-being. Research indicates it affects cognitive and emotional development in children. And the impact isn’t just felt by those who are older. Young children, even tots 1 or 2 years of age, can be negatively impacted from the stress of a family member being threatened or beaten. What’s more, children under the age of 6 are at a higher risk of witnessing violence, since they are more likely to be at home when it occurs.
“There’s a general belief that older kids are more affected by domestic violence than those children who are 3 or 4, but we have documented evidence that it effects these, and babies too; young children are as traumatized if not more so than older kids,” says Marc Goodman-Bryan, research associate for The Urban Child Institute. “Children don’t have to be direct victims but rather in the next room to see the bruises or hear the violence.”
“Children exposed to violence can be just as traumatized as the victims and they’re often not treated,” says Julie Coffee, the former head of Shelby County’s Office of Early Childhood and Youth. “We typically have ignored children in the home and they often exhibit post-traumatic stress but can be mislabeled as kids with emotional disorders when the original cause is trauma.”
Children can also wind up experiencing long-term consequences of trauma, with psychological and physical problems surfacing later in life if the root cause goes undetected.
Domestic violence in Memphis is high
Domestic violence rates for Memphis and Tennessee are high, according to a report by The Urban Child Institute. Tennessee’s rate is 1,323 per 100,000 people; and in Memphis, that number soars to 2,949 per 100,000 people. Here, both victims and offenders tend to be younger, between 18 and 34 years of age. Authorities say domestic violence accounts for more than 55 percent of violent crimes in Shelby County, including about 15 percent of all homicides.
Angela Hamblin, director of bereavement at Baptist Trinity Home Care and Hospice, counsels children who’ve been exposed to traumatic events. She tells of working with one 4-year-old boy who watched his mother get shot to death by a boyfriend. In helping the child come to terms with what he witnessed, she encouraged him to reenact the event.
“And every time he would reenact this step-by-step, a new piece would come out: the fighting that took place beforehand, the fact that he knew a lot about guns. He felt brave to have run away [when the gun was pointed at him] but he was still confused as to why this man would shoot his mother,” says Hamblin, since the boyfriend was someone the boy knew and trusted.
Once a child’s trust has been shattered, it takes time to rebuild. That’s why counseling is so crucial, to help children deal with the many feelings that accompany trauma. “People don’t give kids credit that they can be impacted by what goes on around them. Even if it’s in a bedroom and they can’t see it, they can hear what’s going on and they don’t have the cognitive ability to process it,” says Hamblin.
If children can’t manage those feelings in a healthy way, then they develop other, less constructive coping skills, such as avoidance, depression, anger, or withdrawl. Taketha says she couldn’t focus in school because she often worried about her mother. She eventually dropped out. But her secret remained safe.
So where and how can you get help? The Exchange Club is one organization in Memphis that’s working with families of domestic violence to help children and parents learn better coping skills. Through the Children’s Domestic Violence Program, families meet in groups to talk about their feelings and learn positive parenting skills, anger management, and family safety. Other social service agencies also offer counseling, as do most public and private schools, if the secret is allowed to be told.
Finally, there is a new 24-hour hotline: call4kids (274-7477), that anyone can call to report concerns about a child’s welfare. If you think a child is being hurt or neglected, make the call. You will be put in touch with an agency that can provide help. The important thing is to not let the secret continue. Reach out today, for your child, for your future.