By Fred Hapner, Guardian ad Litem Director for the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit, serving Bay, Calhoun, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson and Washington Counties
Each year, thousands of Florida children enter foster care due to domestic violence.
And each October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, children’s advocates like me remind the public that this scourge devastates children, families and communities – and we must respond.
For children, witnessing intimate partner violence can cause lifetime harm. It makes them more prone to addiction and at greater risk for dating violence, academic problems, post-traumatic stress disorder, aggression, and chronic physical health and developmental problems. They find it harder to interact well with peers, partners and, ultimately, with their own children.
They worry about the safety of their parents – which no child should have to do. Yet millions of children witness the abuse of a parent or caregiver each year. And males who batter their wives batter their children 30 to 60 percent of the time.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement data for 2019 show 105,298 domestic violence incidences and 66,069 domestic violence arrests. That year, according to the Department of Children and Families, there were 87,546 allegations of household violence or intimate partner violence received by the Florida Abuse Hotline.
In the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit, which serves Bay, Calhoun, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson and Washington Counties, there were 114 dependent children from violent homes in the system as of August.
We also know violent households often involve substance abuse or mental illness as well, and that the combination heightens the harm done by each. What’s more, child witnesses of intimate partner violence are at increased risk to become abusers or victims themselves.
So the cycle must be broken, and that is what we are trying to do at the Guardian ad Litem Program. We know the single most critical factor in how children weather their exposure to domestic violence is the presence of at least one loving, supportive adult in their lives.
Guardian ad Litem volunteers represent abused and neglected children in dependency court. We know their challenges. We also know children can recover from trauma given the right services and supports, and we advocate for trauma-informed, evidence-based screening, assessment and treatment.
We also work to support the child’s relationship with his or her non-offending parent. For most children, a strong relationship with that parent is a key factor in helping them heal.
And as their advocates, we work to tell children the violence is not their fault and to show them they are lovable, competent and important.
Help us break the cycle.
To learn more about the Guardian ad Litem Program or become a volunteer, please call (850) 747-5180 or visit www.guardianadlitem14.com.
To get help, call the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-500-1119, or find your local domestic violence program at www.myflfamilies.com/service-programs/domestic-violence/map.shtml. Florida’s 41 certified domestic violence centers served more than 10,000 victims between March and June 2020, and they remain open and available to serve.