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Children and Domestic Violence

Iliana’s Survivor Story

My earliest childhood memory — I must have been three or four years old — is of my parents fighting. I’m sitting on the couch in the dark, and I hear them arguing in the next room. Arguing is putting it lightly, though, as I can still hear my mother being hit and screaming in pain. I was scared, confused, and crying. Every time someone asks me why I choose to be the executive director of a domestic violence organization, I go back to that memory. 

Of course, it’s not a memory that I always share with others. It took me two years in this position before I could even utter the words “because my mother is a survivor.” It still feels raw to say it, acknowledging the trauma that my brothers and I experienced in the place where we should have been the safest. But, I say it because I choose not to keep secrets like that anymore. 

Growing up, I never told anyone. I learned to pretend that everything was okay, which was not a difficult thing to do, given that my father isolated us from family and neighbors. He also kept our friends at arm’s length and never allowed us to have play dates or sleepovers. To this day, it’s hard to let people into my inner sanctum. It can be terrifying to think about inviting others into my home. 

Now, looking back at my childhood, I’m surprised no one ever guessed. I exhibited the textbook symptoms of a child who has witnessed domestic violence. I had debilitating headaches to the point that my pediatrician feared that I had a brain tumor and ordered an MRI. Moreover, I was always anxious, depressed, quick to anger, and on guard. So, I kept to myself and had trouble making friends. My brothers also exhibited physical symptoms, including severe nosebleeds and stomach aches. Thankfully, though, we skirted many of the other adverse effects domestic violence often has on children:

  • Higher probability of suffering from child abuse
  • Engaging in risky behavior, such as unprotected sex and using alcohol and drugs
  • Bad grades and trouble learning
  • Starting fights, bullying others, or being bullied at school
  • Skipping school or getting into trouble with the law
  • Becoming a victim of domestic violence or abusing an intimate partner

I decided to take this job because, as a childhood survivor of domestic violence, I saw Haven Hills as an opportunity to help other child survivors overcome the effects of their trauma. I wanted to make sure that this organization had the financial and staffing resources to provide others with what I lacked as a child. 

We invest a great deal into the children that come to our shelters and attend our programs to ensure that we stop the intergenerational cycle of abuse before it’s replicated in the next generation. That’s because we believe the most important thing that we can provide a young person to counteract the devastating effects of domestic violence is a safe, caring environment with staff available to help them work through their trauma. 

Although children may never forget the trauma they experienced, they can learn what it means to have healthy relationships and positively manage their emotions. And the sooner we offer that intervention, the easier it becomes for them to develop into healthy adults. I know that the other staff and I at Haven Hills take that responsibility very seriously. 

My story and that of my brothers’ has a happy ending. We’re mostly well-adjusted individuals with caring partners and have built homes that are free of the trauma we experienced as children. We were lucky to find our way. My hope now is that Haven Hills staff can help others find their way, too.

Iliana Tavera was named Executive Director of Haven Hills, Inc. in 2015. At Haven Hills, Iliana is responsible for managing one of the largest domestic violence providers in Los Angeles County. She has 25 years of experience in nonprofit management, fundraising, operations, and a strong track record of developing successful collaborations among the private sector, nonprofits, and community partners.

Please visit this webpage from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services for more information on the effects of domestic violence on children. 

Next: Men and domestic Violence

Recent posts

  • Keep Breathing

    Usually, when you experience any form of abuse from a partner — whether that be physical, psychological, financial, or sexual abuse, people will encourage you to disconnect from your abuser. This can include stopping all communication, and seeking police support if appropriate.

    However, with children, the process of separation is more complex and often means you need to remain in contact with the other party, despite harm that happened within the relationship. Having a child with an abuser is an unbreakable bond that you will share for the rest of your life.

    It can be hard to have your own identity when you are struggling and trying to provide a safe place for yourself and your children. Like our survivor Megan who shared her struggle:

    I take deep breaths. I have felt suffocated for years. Tried to catch my breath by leaving “him”. But I couldn’t breathe as they put the handcuffs on me for “abusing him” when I had been the one abused. I couldn’t breathe when they handed me the restraining order to not come within 100 yards of my kids because I was a “danger” to them. I couldn’t breathe in every court hearing being told I was a bad parent. I couldn’t breathe as I slept in the truck. I was able to take small breaths when I was able to fight the negatives and get them back. I could take deep breaths as I finally had them in my arms after two months of nothing. My breath was taken again when they pulled my three month old from my arms because of both of “them”. I couldn’t breathe when I sat in that room for 1 hour as not one but TWO social workers watched my every move as I “visited” my kids. I couldn’t breathe when the ER doctor told me I was pregnant. Short breaths and reflect and the choices I am making. Deep breaths as I secured my income and escaped the abuse, finding us a safe home. Full breaths when I was finally told I could have my kids back after a year and a half. Slow breathing as “he” disappeared for months leaving me to do it all, feeding them, loving them through their own pains and confusion. And again, small breathes as he returns and threatens to take them again because I decided to fight for “him” to pitch in for their survival. Preparing myself to deal with the ups and downs of co-parenting with an abuser. Life can be breathtaking in both ways. But the point is to Keep Breathing. I will continue to have my kids be my oxygen.♥

    Client’s name withheld

    Don’t forget to nurture your own identity and life. It may be difficult, it is important to build a broader identity outside parenthood and your relationship, to ensure you have a range of identities to draw solace from.

    Work, friendships, hobbies, and other relationships can be sources of support and meaning and give you something to feel positive about at times when the co-parenting relationship feels particularly fraught.

    For information on how to deal with the effects of trauma or to get help, please visit our website at havenhills.org.

  • Grit

    One of the many barriers that survivors face when trying to leave an abusive relationship is a lack of education or job readiness. Often, this inability to support themselves keeps survivors in abusive relationships.

    Knowing this, in 2020 Haven Hills partnered with the American Aerospace Technical Academy to create a multi-sector blueprint to highlight meaningful workforce pathways combined with trauma-informed practices for survivors of domestic violence. We focused on a multi-sector approach to create pathways out of poverty, dependence, and violence through training in non-destructive testing, GED attainment, job placement, and wrap-around support services such as case management, life skills, and support groups to help manage work stress for survivors. Our hope was to help participants build stability through increased workforce readiness, skill acquisition and confidence building.

    It is never easy to take on a new career or to consider a new career at any age and it was especially important that we prepare participants for the added workload and scheduling management required to accommodate virtual classes from 5pm to 10pm, Monday through Friday during the 16-week program.

    We are honored to report that six survivors successfully completed the first Workforce Development Program class! We are challenged to find the perfect word that encompasses the six graduates and their sheer determination to complete this program. The only word that comes to mind is “Grit”. This word is defined by the perseverance, resiliency, and the hard work to reach a goal over a long period of time and each of these survivors have all truly encompassed what it means to be “gritty”.

    The challenges these survivors had were many, and they met them with determination and the hope of building a better life for themselves and their children. They had to learn new material virtually through a pandemic, which certainly had its own set of challenges. They had to re-learn how to be in school. They balanced being a single mother, working to provide for their family, while healing from their trauma. And yet, despite all of that, they succeeded. It was inspiring and an honor to witness their growth throughout this program.

    All of us at Haven Hills believe this project has the potential to change systems and conditions for domestic violence survivors that traditional workforce strategies do not provide.  We look forward to implementing the best practices learned through this pilot and cultivate relationships with additional training programs to provide more opportunities for survivors in our care.  We also hope to better understand both the participants’ individual capacity for success within this context and our ability to provide the wrap-around services and follow-up required for long-term and sustained participant success.

  • We strive to support the unique needs of ALL survivors we serve

    Lisa came to our Shelter from South Central Los Angeles. She had just moved with her batterer from Arizona and knew no one in California. And, as is common in domestic violence relationships, her abuser had isolated her from everyone and everything that she had been familiar with.

    Lisa resisted calling a shelter because she felt that as a lesbian she wouldn’t be accepted into any program. In fact, there is a common concern among our LGBTQ+ survivors, that they will not be accepted into a shelter or receive the services offered because domestic violence shelters only accept straight women and their children.

    Nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, at Haven Hills we take great pride in serving ALL survivors of domestic violence regardless of national origin, ethnicity, gender-identity, sexual orientation, age, language, religion, income level, or abilities. 

    Domestic violence is not limited to heterosexual relationships and can affect individuals of all sexual orientations and genders. Within the LGBTQ+ community, intimate partner violence occurs at a rate equal to or even higher than that of the heterosexual community. LGBTQ+ individuals may experience unique forms of intimate partner violence as well as distinctive barriers to seeking help due to fear of discrimination or bias.

    Luckily Lisa made a call to our hotline and found a helpful advocate ready to provide support – a safe place to stay, case management, individual and group counseling, and a community ready to help her rebuild her life. 

    Lisa participated in all our shelter programs. We helped her file a restraining order and worked with her to connect with a transitional housing program. Today, Lisa is working as an executive with a major corporation and is enjoying her new home in Los Angeles.

    We strive to support the unique needs of ALL survivors we serve. Because we believe that everyone deserves to live a life free from violence. 

    Crisis Line 818-887-6589

    You are not alone. We are here to help.