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.