If you need help, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1–800–799–7233 or the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition at 1-800-897-5465.

Utah often prides itself on being one of the most loving and family-friendly places to live. However, behind closed doors, many families throughout our state struggle with the horrific reality of domestic violence. While the impact of domestic violence on direct victims is well known and acknowledged, another group of victims often go unseen in the aftermath of an incident: the children who witness this violence.

In Utah, there is a cultural stigma that domestic violence is a private, family matter. This secrecy, combined with the idea that victims should simply “leave” their abusers, is a pervasive and harmful thought process. This mindset not only discourages victims from seeking help but also reinforces the idea that domestic violence is acceptable and normal.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, each year approximately 80 children in Utah witness the murder or attempted murder of their mother, and it is estimated that in the U.S., 1 in 3 children lives in a violent home. Children in these situations are not just unaffected innocent bystanders and are deeply impacted by what they see, hear and perceive from violence.

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The emotional turmoil of witnessing domestic violence can be overwhelming for a child. They may feel scared, helpless and confused. We often see these children blame themselves for the violence or try to protect their loved ones by staying quiet. The emotional reactions that children experience can lead to various behavioral problems, including aggression, self-isolating and acting out in school.

When we look at the research, it shows that children who witness domestic violence are at an increased risk for a plethora of long-term adverse outcomes. For example, these children face emotional and behavioral issues, developmental delays and even long-term physical health problems such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, as reported by the Office on Women’s Health. Additionally, these children are more likely to become victims or perpetrators of domestic violence in their future relationships.

So what can we do to help children who are the indirect victims of domestic violence in Utah?

First and foremost, we must recognize that children who witness domestic violence are victims in their own right, and we must provide them with the support and resources they need to heal and thrive from their experiences.

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One way we can do this is by supporting organizations that provide services specifically for children who have witnessed domestic violence. Safe Harbor Crisis Center is one such organization that provides counseling, safety planning, education groups and other services that can help children process their experiences and move forward. By supporting organizations that accommodate families with children, we ensure that there are safe places for victims to flee from abuse without leaving their children behind and can access continued services for everyone.

Another way to support these children is by educating the public about the impact of domestic violence on children. Many people are unaware of the long-term effects that being a witness to domestic violence can bring. Raising awareness can help ensure that these children don’t go unnoticed and can get the support they need. Community awareness also means more people recognizing the signs and being able to intervene on behalf of children sooner.

A final thought on a solution is to create specific provisions in Utah law to protect children who witness domestic violence. When we see charges such as domestic violence in the presence of a child, this should include counseling for children these charges are about. Some states require people who engage in domestic violence to pay for counseling that a child victim needs. Additionally, some states require offenders to undergo counseling and require that noncustodial parents convicted of domestic violence in the presence of a child be supervised during parenting time, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway.

By protecting children who witness domestic violence, we can help break the cycle of abuse and give these children the support they need to continue developing in a healthy environment.

Samantha Hutchinson is a therapist intern for GMS Counseling LLC and a master of social work student at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas.