Witnessing violence is neither a benign nor passive event. Violence and the misuse of power and control may gradually traumatize even the most resilient hearts and minds among our children. (p. 284)
What happens to the children of battered women? Can such children be considered "abused" if none of the violence is directed at them? Ending the Cycle of Violence
examines these questions by focusing attention on such child witnesses. Peppered with sobering accounts from children, the book is a practitioner's view of the legal and social service frameworks that have been established in Canada and the United States to deal with these overlooked victims of domestic abuse.
The collective voice of the authors paints a bleak picture. They state that children of battered women exist in a North American society that perceives female-headed households to be broken and deficient, but that cannot understand why some women stay with their abusers. Children who witness violence lose their own identities as they are used as pawns by their mothers' abusers. Children of abused women live in a world where their safety is constantly in question and, via the attention of multiple social service organizations, subject to public concern. The authors add that because these children's power to concentrate centers on a daily struggle to move about safely, their ability to focus on their schoolwork or to participate in supportive friendships is diminished, and their future relationships and employment consequently jeopardized.
Yet the authors also speak of empowerment, strength, and change through their case studies of interventions for abused women and their children. Shelters for abused women increasingly target the particular needs of these children. Assessment techniques and psychotherapy groups for children who witness violence against their mothers strive to provide a safe environment for traumatized children to express their confusion and fear. School-based curricula, meanwhile, seek to counter negative patterns of behavior that children who witness violence may exhibit.
Although the book's editors and individual authors continually emphasize the practical nature of the information they provide, each case study or situation is couched in a more philosophical consideration of a larger issue. For example, three authors — Joan Zorza, Martha McMahon, and Ellen Pence — discuss "the best interest of the child" standard used in court proceedings in both Canada and the United States to determine parental custody. Zorza gives a detailed account in her chapter of the nuts and bolts of custody proceedings that many women find overwhelming. The author also points out that the judicial systems of Canada and the United States surreptitiously privilege men, not through the criteria that underlie the best interest standard, but through the courts' interpretations of the different criteria. For example, with regard to economic stability, women who move their residences and families in order to avoid their abusers often leave their place of employment, which results in their having lower paying jobs. Further, many battered women are plagued by harassing telephone calls their abusers make to their place of employment, which can result in job loss for the women. In either case, during custody proceedings, the ostensibly impartial judicial system perceives the mother to be at an economic disadvantage compared with the father. McMahon and Pence augment Zorza's discussion in their chapter by stressing that abusive fathers often find that legal battles provide another opportunity to exert control over the mothers of their children. Rather than assuming responsibility for their violent behavior, abusive fathers argue for their natural right as a parent to their children, a term embraced and readily understood by the political and legal spheres. Far from being an impartial arena for a decision to be made for a child's welfare, custody proceedings are riddled with the politics and rhetoric of gender.
Ending the Cycle of Violence
ultimately calls for a reexamination of the institutions surrounding battered women and their children. According to the editors' final summary, complex social systems — mass media and sports, the judicial and political systems — mirror and reproduce the roots of violence in the cultures of Canada and the United States. The authors point out that any intervention designed to help children who witness battering must also attempt to change society's attitudes toward violence. Unless deep-seated change occurs, many children who witness violence between their parents will continue to be at risk of physical harm, and perhaps even susceptible to perpetrating violence themselves.