“Family violence” can include everything from cursing and verbal and emotional abuse to hitting and slapping to more extreme forms of physical and sexual abuse. The term can also refer to physical neglect: a young person left alone in an apartment for days or denied medical care by parents or caregivers.
Experts define the word “family” broadly in this usage. The perpetrator may not necessarily share a biological bond with the young person. Rather, he or she might be someone who lives in the same household with the youth, has a close, familial or dating relationship with him or her, or takes care of the young person.
“Youth workers have to be alert to the diversity of the exposures, and not have a stereotype that family violence is just one thing,” says David Finkelhor, professor of sociology and director of several research centers at the University of New Hampshire. For instance, he says, young people might have witnessed violence or emotional abuse between adults or among siblings, or they may have experienced it themselves.
Victimized youth may also perpetuate a cycle of violence. “Even when youth have been victims or witnesses, they may also be perpetrators,” Finkelhor says.
Among youth served by runaway and homeless youth programs funded by the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB), emotional abuse may be much more common than the physical or sexual kind, says Stan Chappell, FYSB’s director of research and evaluation. Adam Kleinmeulman’s experience backs that up.
Kleinmeulman is a crisis counselor and therapist at Child, Inc., a FYSB grantee in Wilmington, Delaware. “A lot of times it’s not so much physical, but it’s a combination of emotional with a little bit of physical,” he says, describing many of his clients as “emotionally tired.” As examples of emotional abuse, he cites cursing, making degrading remarks, and punishing in passive aggressive ways.
Signs of an Abusive Household
The effects of family violence can be indistinguishable from the markers of mental health issues such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and of common behavioral problems. Every young person reacts differently, experts say. Some display no symptoms at all.
“They may be very upset or act like it’s no big deal,” Finkelhor says. “They may be ashamed or up front.”
“It’s not like a cookie cutter thing,” says Donna Leffew, clinical director at the Life Crisis Center, a domestic violence shelter in Salisbury, Maryland.
That said, there are clues that youth workers can look for to uncover whether a young person has been abused or witnessed violence at home. Signs of physical abuse may include bruises in uncommon places and unusual injuries, such as burns and fractures.
Signs of physical, emotional, and sexual violence might include acting out, aggression, problems at school or bad grades, an inability to concentrate, lack of emotion, depression, speech with a flat affect, low levels of intimacy, low self-esteem, and isolation. A normally outgoing young person might become withdrawn.
Additionally, youth who have suffered sexual abuse may behave in a sexualized way, act promiscuously or seductively, become involved in prostitution, or manifest physical symptoms such as a stomachache or headache, genital pain, difficulty walking or sitting, or eating and sleep disturbance.
Leffew notes that young people who’ve witnessed domestic violence can become just as isolated as those who’ve experienced abuse, or even more so.
“There’s no one to console them,” she says.
An Issue Among up to 30 Percent of Youth
Youth-serving agencies funded through the Basic Center Program, FYSB’s short-term shelter system, reported abuse and neglect as an issue in 25 percent of runaway and homeless youth cases in fiscal year 2006. Among youth in the longer-term Transitional Living Program, the rate was about 30 percent. The data comes from the Runaway and Homeless Youth Management Information System, or RHYMIS, used by FYSB to collect information about youth in its programs.
“Abuse and neglect,” as defined by RHYMIS, is broader than physical or sexual abuse, Chappell explains. “Abuse” refers to physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse; “neglect” could mean not being physically cared for or feeling ignored. (Though feeling ignored or rejected may be subjective on the part of the youth, it can contribute to the youth’s reason for being out of the home.)
Chappell adds that information about abuse and neglect, as well as other issues youth have faced, is entered into RHYMIS at the end of a young person’s case, “when youth have developed enough trust to disclose hidden issues.”