When I arrived as Director of Renewal House, I had a lot of preconceptions that were incorrect about this work and the reality of life in a domestic violence shelter. One of the things that caught me off guard the most was the lack of services and support for children. For the most part, the model of domestic violence programs is based on providing support and services to adult victims and expecting them to either secure services for their children separately, or serve as the sole counselors for their children through this transition.
As a parent myself, I knew this was not helpful, so I began seeking resources that we could provide to the children of our guests. For children are, in fact, victims/survivors of domestic violence as well. They witness abuse and, whether it is physical, mental, emotional or financial, they are aware of the pain and dysfunction it causes in their life. Perhaps children are not aware of the subtler forms of abuse as much as adults are, but the repercussions are great and children are much more perceptive than we imagine. They are like sponges that soak up everything around them. But when children or young people are soaking up the nuances of an abusive relationship, their understanding of what is good and healthy is often skewed.
Renewal House is pleased to have received funding from a private donor to establish an art therapy program here at the shelter for the children who are living here. Thanks to Jim and Susan Shumaker, we have had this programming in place for three years now and it has been a great benefit to our children and to the parents. Our art therapist, Daniela, does an amazing job of getting the children to enjoy themselves while they are exploring their feelings. They are allowed to show their joy as well as their anger. And Daniela provides space for them to be themselves completely.
The other amazing benefit of the art therapy program is the connection that develops between parent and child. Often, the relationship between parent and child has been fractured as a result of living in an abusive environment. There is a lack of trust, connection and confidence within the relationship. The art therapy program gives parent and children the chance to strengthen their relationships through play. It happens organically, and it is a wonder to watch.
Renewal House now has a part-time Children’s Advocate, Alex Kamin, who coordinates children’s activities in the shelter and supervises the volunteers who spend time with the children. Additionally, Renewal House is pleased to have Carmen Rojas as our contract therapist. Carmen brings a wealth of experience working with both adult and child survivors of domestic violence. Her attention to individuals and families, as well as to Renewal House staff, makes a real difference.
Breaking the cycle of domestic violence includes caring for the youngest witnesses, because today’s children are tomorrow’s adults. They will bring about transformation in their own lives and in the world if we can help them embrace the vision of whole and right relationship in a context of safety and hope.