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Right and Wrong

By Kristen Selleck, MSW, National Training Director

How many of us have had a conversation with a school age child about right and wrong? The conversation may have included proclamations such as “that’s not fair,” or “because I said so.” These conversations are often an opportunity for children to learn right from wrong; they may be annoying or frustrating but we know they are important to a child’s development and learning. The concepts of right and wrong are invaluable to child development and because of this, I want to consider the consequences of how we talk about domestic violence.

Consider a story:

A seven-year-old has witnessed his father’s abuse of his mother throughout his life. His father has punched his mother, pushed her and called her every conceivable name. When his mother tried to take him and his brother away, his father found them and took the children back home. His mother soon returned and was hit again for leaving. His mother tried to save money but his father took it and lit it on fire. Last month, this boy called the police because his father held his mother against the wall and punched the wall repeatedly.

Now consider two alternative responses to this story:

  1. The police called child protection. The CPS worker talked to the boy’s mother and learned about his father’s violence and controlling behaviors. The CPS worker then told the mother to keep the father out. When the father returned against the mother’s wishes and CPS’ order, CPS removed the children. CPS told the mother she was choosing her husband over her children and that CPS now had to protect them since she would not.
  2. The police called child protection. The CPS worker talked to the boy’s mother and the children to learn about the boy’s father’s violence and controlling behaviors. The CPS worker thanked the children and their mother for talking and stated that it must have been hard to talk about these issues. The CPS worker met with the father and told him to not go back to the home until the investigation could be completed and that CPS was very concerned that his behaviors have harmed his children. When the father returned home against the mother’s wishes and CPS’ order, the CPS worker met with the mother and the children and said, “that must have been very scary. You didn’t do anything wrong.” The CPS worker then proceeded to work with her supervisor and an attorney to bring the father to court to ensure the safety of the children.

In previous blogs and certainly in the discourse of child welfare, domestic violence advocates, law enforcement and others, there have been significant conversations about ways to approach adult victims of domestic violence. However, an important piece of that conversation that can sometimes be missed is how children hear and what they learn from professionals talking to adult victims.

What message is most important for children to learn about right and wrong when there is domestic violence? Children need to learn that violence is wrong, that controlling someone is wrong and harming children is wrong. When children get mixed messages and are told by authority figures that a victim is to blame for violence or the abusive decisions of others, their learning is skewed.

Children need clear messages of accountability and right and wrong to support their healing, their development, the understanding of their own experiences and to support their decision making and their own behaviors. Professionals working with families have an obligation to model right and wrong in their language with adult and child victims of domestic violence.

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