Friday, October 18, 2019

Providing kids safe harbor from their stormy homes

I’ve been listening to the police scanner for over 30 years now. Eavesdropping on the dispatching and responses of sheriff’s deputies and volunteers keeps me in the know about things going on in Niagara County.

But, the knowledge gleaned from the scanner is more than where an accident or fire might be, or where the latest speed trap is set-up. Listen long enough and you’ll begin to understand the social conditions in certain parts, certain households of your community.

It can be incredibly uncomfortable and heartbreaking to hear officers being dispatched to broken homes, something that’s too regular of an occurrence. According to the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services, all departments within Niagara County reported a combined 1,233 arrests for domestic violence in 2018. Among them were 1,051 cases of simple assault, 38 sexual offenses against a family member, and 20 violations of protection orders.  

Mind you, those are just the cases recorded as actual arrests. There were thousands of 911 calls and tips about physical domestic situations and intense verbal abuse. The Niagara County Sheriff’s Office alone responds to nearly 4,000 of such calls every year. There are thousands more covered by the city police departments in Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda and Lockport.

And, remember, most victims and witnesses remain silent; there are thousands of situations that go unreported. 

There are the direct victims, those who call 911 looking for help and those who remain silent despite being abused mentally, physically and sexually.

And then there are the indirect victims. They may not have directly been hit or berated, but they saw it. They experienced it. They lived it.

Children are occupants of many of those homes and apartments where hate and discord rule. It could be they were beaten or demeaned. Maybe they their saw dad hit their mom or knock her down. Perhaps they witnessed their mother going on a drunken rage towards their father.

Those are just the tip of the iceberg when you hear some of the calls on the scanner – the level of escalation of some domestic events is frightening.

You have to feel for the kids who grow up in such families. If they aren’t abused, a loved one is and that in itself is a form of abuse towards the child.

Those incidents sear into a child’s memories and behaviors. They could give nightmares, instill fear, plant the seeds for hate, lead to substance abuse, foster depression and suicidal thoughts, lead to lower grades, and make dysfunction a normalcy that the child will carry into his or her relationships one day. Many will rise above their circumstances, some will not, and even if they do the painful memories linger.

I bring all this up to give perspective to those who provide service to children.

Whether you are school teacher, sports coach, club leader, Sunday school instructor, or a Scouting volunteer like me, we all have to understand that these victims – primary and secondary alike - are in our classrooms, on our teams, and in our troops. The sheer volume of dispatches and domestic statistics show us that it’s more than likely that they’re in an extracurricular activity you oversee -- and it’s a certainty in your classroom.  

You likely don’t know who, and in many cases you won’t. That may be from masking of the hurt by the child or the sheer joy he or she has being around you.

Realize that in many cases you are providing a safe place, a good place to a child. Your classroom, baseball field or campout might be the only place they feel happy, loved or safe.

Think about that.

Most of us grew up having loving parents and valuing home above all else. But, that isn’t the case for so many children. They fear home. They don’t what will happen to them. They don’t know what will happen to their mother or father.

Every child we serve has different expectations of us – a boy scout from a well-adjusted home may want the adventure of a camping trip while one from a broken home may only want you to be you, someone for him to strive to be, someone who isn’t his dad.

You may not realize it, and they might never tell you, but to kids from troubled homes you are their hero -- they might see you as the mother or father they always wished they had.

That significance be an overwhelming way to view what we do when doing good for children. But, it’s a necessary view. We have roles in this world, some much bigger than we always assume them to be. Hurt kids are too many, and it’s up to us, as their educators and leaders, to give them the safe harbor they deserve and, from there, the help they need to navigate life.    

From the 21 October Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News   

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