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After domestic violence, SoCal mothers learn new parenting skills

After years of physical abuse, Karen Gonzalez finally fled her home in November 2011 after she said her boyfriend tried to strangle her. 

She hadn’t realized just how much the experience had affected her and her three children.

“My body would feel stressed or tight or I couldn't breath or I would hold my breath and I didn’t even realize, 'Oh, wow, I’m not breathing,'” Gonzalez remembers.  

A program run by the nonprofit Echo Parenting helped raise her awareness and strengthened her parenting skills so she could help herself and her children move through the trauma of domestic violence.

Research has shown that children who live through domestic violence exhibit behavioral, social and emotional problems. But interventions and victim services in Los Angeles are underfunded and the response to cases often disjointed, according to a recent audit by City Controller Ron Galperin's office.

The report found Los Angeles earmarks one-quarter of what San Francisco spends per capita on domestic violence response, and one-twelfth of what New York City's expends. The auditors also found the Los Angeles Police Department underreported domestic violence cases by misclassifying at least one-quarter of all reported incidents over the past six years.

There is no official accounting of how many children live through domestic violence in Los Angeles. The LAPD told KPCC that it does not record the number of children in a family when a domestic violence complaint is filed.

The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services does not collect this data either. Domestic violence, typically defined as spousal or partner abuse, isn’t considered a type of child abuse or neglect, according to Neil Zanville, a department spokesman. The “county, state and federal governments recognize the risks to children and youth in homes experiencing domestic abuse; but the stats are not collected at this time,” he said.

The numbers could be substantial. The controller's audit states that on a single day, about 131 people call 911 seeking help for domestic violence-related issues.“In the course of a year, the City receives about 48,000 such calls,” Galperin wrote in a letter to Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Council members.

Further, the number of victims is on the rise. Domestic violence cases rose 6 percent in the first half of this year, according to LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. 

Finding a way out

Gonzalez fled to a "crisis shelter" and then a "transitional shelter," taking her then 2-year-old daughter Leilani with her. Her two older children went to live temporarily with a relative.

She described her experience in the transitional shelter as difficult. “You get a home with a refrigerator, but no food, shelves but no plates, no basic toiletries,” she said. 

Given that she didn’t want to be found, she confined herself inside the shelter and didn’t work. “I was poverty-stricken,” Gonzalez said.

Then 29, she struggled to meet her family's clothes, food and other needs, then realized that her children also had been traumatized. They acted out, had trouble in school, and developed fears of many things.

She said her life changed when Echo Parenting came to her shelter and invited her to a parenting class. 

Echo Parenting has run classes in domestic violence shelters since 2007. Over the past two years, the organization held training in seven Los Angeles shelters. Some of the classes are funded through private grants and others through a federal grant to shelters from the Office on Violence Against Women, said the agency's co-executive director, Louise Godbold.

Gonzalez said she learned that how she responded to her children’s behavioral issues mattered. She was taught “how to break the cycle of violence, how to look at the children [with] compassion and [with] love — basic human needs that we’re all trying to meet,” she said.

Studies have shown that kids who live through domestic violence can turn to violence themselves.

“Where's that violence come from? It comes from what people are learning in the home,” said Ruth Beaglehole, who developed the Echo Parenting methods she calls “non-violent parenting.”

When a traumatized mother is short with her kids, shouts at them, punishes them routinely, maybe even hits them, the child who has witnessed domestic violence is hurt again, Beaglehole said.

She gives an example of a child who repeatedly fails to do her homework and a mother who doles out punishment to try to get her child to comply. That's a wrong-headed approach, she said.

Instead, Beaglehole counsels parents to help their children talk about why they are misbehaving. She said this empowers children to take ownership over their own lives.

“It makes children a partner in the healing, rather than subject to what mom determines is best for them,” said Lizeth Toscano, a social worker who runs Echo Parenting trainings in shelters.

A growing field of psychologists and therapists advise parents to focus on their children’s needs if they have experienced trauma.

“Their behaviors are really an indication of what’s going on underneath,” said Heather Forbes, a social worker and trauma specialist who has worked with child trauma survivors with behavioral and learning issues. “They really need a much deeper level of healing.”

After attending parenting classes, Gonzalez refocused on the children even while coping with past trauma herself.

“I had to also help [the children] understand that the overwhelmingness or the anxiety would pass,” Gonzalez said. That meant checking in on what the children may need. "Was it a hug, was it coloring or do you need to go outside?”

Leilani, now 6 and in first grade, has displayed learning and behavioral issues since starting kindergarten. Her teacher has noticed, too, Gonzalez said. “We just had a parent meeting … and the teacher is concerned because my little one just won’t focus.”

Leilani's therapist uses play to help her work it out, her mother said. They have constructed a “trauma narrative” using puppets. Leilani now talks with little anxiety about the domestic violence. She tells her mother that in her puppet show, “my daddy was being mean to you and I didn’t like that.”

Gonzalez’s 14-year-old son, Jonathan, has had a tougher time. Gonzalez worries about him a lot, but because of the parenting classes, knows what to say to him — “not to think that domestic violence is who I am and that's it.” 

“That’s where my teenager is at right now. You know the anger, ‘I’m hurt, why did this happen?’ So he’s taking his own journey.”

Jonathan has been in therapy, too, working out the emotional turmoil. “It’s like talking with someone I’ve known for a while, and it just feels good,” he said. “It helps.”

Gonzalez felt she received life-changing benefits from the Echo Parenting trainings, so she took the 100-hour certification course and now conducts classes herself. She also founded a nonprofit group called Helping Hands that collects donations, including food, toiletries and toys for families living in shelters.

Her work drew so many donations she collaborated with a local church in Winnetka. There she stores the goods, leads parenting trainings, offers art therapy for moms and children, and helps other survivors connect with services and resources.