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This article appeared in ASHA Hope Happenings:  Working Towards Eliminating Domestic Violence, Volume 2, Issue 1, Winter 2006

Forgotten Victims: Immigrant Children and Domestic Violence

By Amelia Berry

  • Between 5 and 16% of children in the US are exposed to domestic violence each year. 
  • Studies suggest a 10% smaller brain size in children who are maltreated. 
  • Children who witness abuse in the home are 2-3 times more likely to suffer from depression later in life and are 3-12 times more likely to commit suicide. They are nearly twice as likely to develop cancer and nearly 2 ½ times more likely to suffer a stroke.

 - 2004, Family Violence Prevention Project, Cincinnati, OH. 

Americans are just beginning to understand the devastating impact of domestic violence on children.  But what happens when these children are immigrants, or the children of recent immigrants? 

Over 120 professionals ranging from shelter advocates and pre-school teachers to doctors and police officers gathered at Cincinnati Children's Hospital recently for the Alliance for Battered & Abused International Women's 4th Annual Conference, "Immigrant Children & Domestic Violence: Solutions for Helping Silent Victims."  Workshops addressed the special challenges of immigrant children and how services can be tailored to meet these families' needs.

Featured speaker Julie Kim, Children's Program Manager at the New York Asian Women's Center, discussed the complex dynamics that may emerge when an immigrant child is exposed to domestic violence.  When bilingual children are used as interpreters for their monolingual parents to communicate with social workers, doctors, or police, they are forced to hear details of the abuse that are inappropriate for their age, and they are often blamed by one parent or the other for "taking sides."  Immigrant children often struggle at school due to language barriers, inability of non-English-speaking parents to help with homework, and challenges "fitting in" with their peers, and these problems are exacerbated when they are forced to change schools because of domestic violence or when they are struggling to cope with violence, often with little or no support.  Often, immigrant children are made to feel that the violence in their family is a "cultural" problem; this alienates them from their community and their own identity. 

Other workshops included an introduction to immigrant children's federally-mandated education rights within public schools - including the right of undocumented children to attend school without facing inquiries about immigration status - and an exploration of the many special considerations for immigrant families involved with Children's Services.  Participants in a workshop entitled "Child Support, Custody & Immigration" learned about the interplay between immigration and family court cases, including how to use protection orders to address abusers' threats to take children out of the country.  A workshop on economic survival explored immigrants' eligibility for the "safety net" of public benefits that serve as a lifeline for many victims and their families, but for which immigrants are often ineligible due to immigration status.  Conference attendees also learned about several immigration processes that Congress created specifically to aid immigrant victims of abuse and their children, such as self-petitions under the Violence Against Women Act, the U Visa for victims of crime, and Special Immigrant Juvenile Status for abused or neglected children.

The emotional climax of the day came with the testimony of a 26-year-old north African woman who currently resides with her two young daughters in a transitional housing program for battered women.  She talked about the physical, verbal and emotional abuse she and her daughters suffered at the hands of her husband, and how her husband then fulfilled his threats to get custody of her children by convincing the court that she was incapable of caring for them due to limited English and lack of financial resources.  After four months of only limited visitation rights, she regained custody of the children and has worked tirelessly both on her own and with a strong network of service providers to provide stability for her daughters, whose speech and social development were stunted by the abuse.  "Since my kids have been back," she reported, "I have watched them open up.  They have a secure and stable life for the first time.  They are happy and healthy.  They are better communicators, they are more open to other people, and they have friends for the first time."  This brave survivor encouraged outreach to immigrant women, many of whom are isolated by domestic violence and lack information about the resources available to them and their children.  "The more we get the word out," she said, "the more these women will get the message, like I did, that they are not alone in this new country."    

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