Q&A: Jessica Nunan of Caminar Latino on Listening to and Empowering Youth Affected by Domestic Violence

Photograph of two young Latina women standing arm in arm

Since its founding more than two decades ago, Atlanta domestic violence support center Caminar Latino has taken its cues from the women who come there for help. For mothers escaping domestic violence, the health and well-being of their children ranks high on the list of priorities. So in 1993, the organization launched comprehensive services for children of survivors. Among the offerings are therapy groups in which young people who’ve witnessed domestic violence can talk about anything on their minds.

Executive Director Jessica Nunan helps facilitate the groups. She talked to us about the roles listening, resilience and youth empowerment play in the therapy sessions.  

NCFY: How does it help these young people to talk in a group of their peers?

Nunan: Especially with the older kids, we want them to understand that this is their space, their place to talk about stuff. It doesn’t even have to be what’s happening at home. And we’re also confidential—what’s said in here stays in here. The kids respond to that but [at the beginning] they don’t know whether they can trust us. For the first week or two they kind of just listen. They see how I or the other facilitators react to the others, and when they see that we listen and want a conversation, they’re more likely to stay engaged. A lot of the kids, no one ever sits down with them and tells them what a healthy relationship is. They may know that their mom being abused is wrong, but they might not have a better model.

NCFY: What do kids with this kind of traumatic experience need from an advocate or therapeutic group?

Nunan: In Latino culture there’s a notion of pobrecito: “You poor thing.” They might hear, “Oh of course you get bad grades because of all you’ve been through.” It sets them up for failure, so we don’t do that. Instead, we focus on resiliency: “Look at how incredible you’ve done, how capable you are in spite of what’s going on at home.” We’ve seen more of a positive response and they feel a lot better about themselves that way.

[Without that], they often have a hard time being able to deal with any kind of conflict, or being able to handle their anger and frustration. Especially the younger kids will start complaining about stomachaches, headaches, inability to sleep. They don’t have a way to deal with the stress that they’re experiencing. And the longer you ignore it, the more susceptible they are to continue the cycle of violence.

We demand a six-month commitment from our volunteer group leaders because the most important thing is that the kids feel comfortable and trust you. That’s when they become much more willing to talk about what’s going on at home.

NCFY: What should youth and family services workers know about this population?

Nunan: The biggest thing is giving the kids credit. We have a group of adolescents who did their own research about the best ways to respond to domestic violence. These were kids who weren’t doing very well in school, but they partnered with a local university and shared their findings at national conferences. Now that research has been incorporated into police trainings and used by interpreters. Don’t shortchange these kids. The more you keep them involved, the more you ask them, “How can we improve this?” the more effective you will be.

Caminar Latino is a member of the National Latin@ Network coordinated by Family and Youth Services Bureau grantee Casa de Esperanza. Read about Caminar Latino’s work with one domestic violence survivor, and learn more about FYSB’s Family Violence Prevention and Services Program.

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