Witness protection

Minnesota Child Response Initiative helps children who witness domestic violence

Domestic violence can be noisy. There are the sounds of physical contact between two people: pushing, falling, household objects crashing and breaking. There's often shouting, and then the wail of a siren, and then more shouting when the police arrive and handcuffs are applied.

Underneath all of those noises there are sometimes lost sounds. Because they present no clear danger to the man or woman or police officers, they're sometimes ignored.

&#8220You go into a domestic situation, and you know, obviously the husband and wife, or boyfriend and girlfriend, were fighting. You paid attention to that because it was the most serious thing. And you didn't really realize it, but here's two or three kids either sitting in the other room or sitting in the corner watching this, and you don't really notice them,” says Sgt. Dean Christensen of the Minneapolis Police Department.

Christensen spent seven years as an investigator in MPD's Domestic Assault Unit, where he says he learned to pay attention to the sounds, and the silence, emanating from children exposed to domestic violence.

Voice of experience

A program by Lyndale's Tubman Family Alliance (TFA) helps families, particularly children, who've been exposed to domestic violence cope with their short- and long-term emotional reactions. The Minnesota Child Response Initiative (MCRI) teams up police officers with mental health care professionals; together, the team visits homes wherein violence has taken place, offering help and support. Primary focus is on the children; the program is aimed at identifying and intervening with kids who've witnessed domestic violence. Naturally enough, helping young witnesses of abuse involves the cooperation of their mothers. The long-term goal of the program is to reduce children's exposure to violence. The MCRI team consists of three psychologists, paired with child advocates.

&#8220Linda” doesn't want her or her 9-year-old daughter's names used, because, she says, she doesn't want more trouble from her husband, a man who inflicted eight years of emotional abuse on her, as well as infrequent physical abuse. The support and therapy she's received from Tubman has been invaluable as she's tried over the past couple of years - since leaving her husband - to put her life back together. (He refuses to divorce, she says.)

Linda says the therapy from Tubman is helping her and her daughter deal with emotional problems that have arisen from the violence that set the tone for their household for years.

&#8220My daughter has anger issues. She's even hit me,” she said. &#8220But she's a really good kid. We're going to get through this.”

Linda defies the stereotypical profile of a victim of abuse: she's educated, articulate, and she and her husband are affluent. She hopes to start her own business after she finally secures a divorce.

&#8220Even though so-called friends may not understand, associates may not understand, the police may not understand, Tubman Family Alliance understands,” Linda said quietly. &#8220They never criticize you, and they're always nurturing.”

TFA and other social service agencies have provided no-cost therapy to her and her daughter; therapy she said might well last for years. It was essential that the help was free because Linda, like so many victims of emotional and physical abuse, was isolated by her husband, cut off from use of a vehicle, from use of credit cards and checks, and often from ties with family and friends.

&#8220Domestic violence cuts across all social and economic lines,” said Mary Jo Avendao, a clinician with TFA. &#8220The difference is that wealthier people have more to lose financially by reporting the abuse.”

How MCRI works

TFA is notified after a 911 call involving domestic violence and children. The TFA sends a clinician to the home, along with a child advocate. Together, they offer help to the woman and her children: shelter, if she needs and wants it, and counseling if she so desires. The emphasis of the MCRI team is to offer assistance to the children; the goal is to lessen the psychological impact on the children of the violence they've witnessed and to try to help break any existing family cycle of abuse.

Avendao says the immediate goal upon entering the home is to try to calm the kids if they're agitated and afraid. After all, she says, it's very likely they saw the violence between their parents, as well as having seen their father arrested and hauled off in handcuffs.

&#8220The police receive the 911 call and they go to the site. Here's Mom, Dad has been arrested, the children are crying, Mom is overwhelmed [and] she needs to go to a shelter. So the police call [us],” she said.

MCRI clinicians aren't there to determine what caused the violence; their objective is to deescalate emotions and point the family in the direction of hk social services agency allies, such as African American Family Services, Centro, CornerHouse and Washburn Child Guidance Center.

In the beginning

When the MCRI program began back in 2003, clinicians rode around with cops assigned to the Domestic Violence Unit. When a 911 call came in, the MCRI unit - consisting of a cop, a clinician and a child advocate - was sent to domestic violence scenes, along with a first-responder squad car. After the first responders were finished with an arrest or other disposition of the incident, the MCRI team would go in.

Funding for the specially targeted MCRI squad car expired at the end of 2004 and hasn't been replaced in the face of citywide budget tightening.

There is good fiscal news for the program, however. Congressman Martin Sabo (DFL-5th district) helped secure $250,000 in federal funds for MCRI.

&#8220It's a discretionary grant,” Sabo said. &#8220It's a one-time funding. This kind of funding is not geared to be ongoing.”

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said he's asking the City Council to approve $60,000 in funding to MCRI.

Rybak's wife, Megan O'Hara, is on Tubman's board of directors.

&#8220I know from my work with the Police Department that domestic violence is too often dealt with downstream. When we address these issues early, we can have a real impact,” he said.

MCRI is having a positive effect on families who experience domestic violence, says Randy Schubring, media coordinator with TFA. One-third of the families contacted by MCRI have not had to call 911 again based on data analyzed from a subset of the roughly 700 cases it has handled since 2003.

He also said TFA appreciates Rybak's proposed budget help, but that $60,000 will only pay for one clinician for one year.

&#8220We'll need about $350,000 to fully fund the [Minneapolis] program,” he said. &#8220That doesn't count police officers or squad cars or anything like it. It's simply Tubman-related expenses.”