As leaders of agencies that work directly with abused children and mothers, Abbie Newman and Beth Sturman see the bruises, the black eyes, and the broken bones.
But it’s what they can’t see that is a focus of their attention these days: The children trapped in homes where dad beats mom. The kids that no doctor, teacher, or social worker knows about. The ones being traumatized for quite possibly a lifetime by exposure to family violence.
It’s why Newman and Sturman, who run Montgomery County’s most prominent child-abuse and domestic-abuse support agencies, are skipping town Monday — and taking a detective, a prosecutor, and a leader in child and family services with them.
They are on the hunt for ways to pull from the shadows children who are witnesses to toxic abusive behavior in the home.
It’s a tall order.
Abused wives or domestic partners are typically loath to tell anyone about the horror unfolding behind closed doors, even if it’s also affecting children in the home. There’s that much fear and shame associated with it.
But the notion of trying to find and extract these children some other way may be catching on. Newman, Sturman, and their gang of five wouldn’t be traveling to Texas for a conference if this weren’t among the topics planned for workshops.
A potentially staggering number of children are suffering in these homes. Let’s hope this suburban Philadelphia group come back with ideas they can implement and share more broadly.
“We know that 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce,” is how Newman, chief executive of the nonprofit Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center of Montgomery County, explains her back-of-the-napkin tabulation.
But agencies such as hers and the domestic-abuse nonprofit Laurel House, which are in adjacent offices in East Norriton, don’t often think about such children as core to their missions. That is, both agencies often are grappling with cases so severe, they can be consuming.
I first talked to Newman a few years ago, for instance, as she unsuccessfully advocated for a change in state law to allow adult victims of child sexual abuse to sue private institutions for abuse they’d suffered in some cases several decades earlier.
Then in 2017 came along a particularly awful case of domestic violence. One that involved an extraordinary amount of care by members of both agencies’ staff as it turned into a full-blown criminal prosecution.
Mission Kids and Laurel House caseworkers and counselors helped the wife and children of a Collegeville man who had been beating his wife for years and sadistically abusing his son and daughter, too.
Joseph Myhre had used even an electric dog collar to shock his son and daughter. Authorities found out about the atrocities only after the 45-year-old man fractured his wife’s skull — and she mustered the courage to surreptitiously call Laurel House’s domestic-violence hotline, 800-642-3150.
A volunteer operator who had been trained to identify traumatic brain injury persuaded the wounded woman to go the hospital, which then set in motion Myhre’s long-overdue prosecution and conviction earlier this year to 20 to 40 years in prison.
As this horrific situation shows, even battered and terrified mothers are reluctant to tell authorities. This has the unintended consequence of further harming their children.
“When someone has been abused physically and emotionally for years, the trauma they’ve experienced, they’re more afraid of the abuser,” says Sturman, who runs Laurel House. “By the time you’re in that deep, you don’t even realize you’re that deep in.”
Newman’s idea to start focusing on kids trapped in these situations came after traveling to the Netherlands for a conference last year. She’d been asked to share with her European peers how U.S. agencies like Mission Kids and Laurel House work jointly with others on family violence cases.
What she came home with was an even more acute sense of the damage being inflicted on children merely exposed to family violence. She already knew that kids who go through an ugly divorce, are sexually abused, or are raised by alcoholic parents suffer profoundly damaging trauma that has consequences when they become adults.
“In the Netherlands,” Newman tells me while raising an eyebrow, “they’ve defined contentious divorce as a form of child abuse.”
Imagine that: A divorce that drags on with rancor for some two years past the date of separation is deemed, by society, a form of abuse. That sure sounds like common sense on the most basic level.
This is one reason why Newman is zeroing in on attending the International Family Justice Conference this coming week in Fort Worth, Texas. One panel deals exclusively with children exposed to domestic violence in the home — what they so rightly refer to as “hidden victims.”
The team, which also includes Assistant District Attorney Alexandria MacMaster and Sandy Beren of the Office of Children and Youth, hope to learn, for instance, what more police can do to flag kids who are in danger. After all, police often are called to houses to investigate domestic-violence complaints.
What’s clear is that the less anyone talks about this as a problem, the more that innocent, traumatized kids remain invisible.
We know they’re out there. Let’s go find them. They need us.