NASHVILLE, TN – A father killed his three children in Sacramento last week before turning the gun on himself. It happened in a church parking lot during the father’s supervised visitation. The children’s chaperone was also killed.

Although rare, such killings do happen, despite an adult monitor who is supposed to keep kids safe from a violent parent. Three experts weighed in on the mental health impacts on children who witness violence and how to prevent them from getting killed when their parents fight.

“We have previously considered children and adolescents as simply witnesses to domestic violence (DV), not victims as well,” said Dr. LaTonya Wood, a psychologist who teaches at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles.

Wood said DV occurs within and across family systems and affects everyone. How DV impacts children depends on their age, stage of development, and how long they have been exposed to violence.

Dr. LaTonya Wood is the Director of Clinical Training at the Graduate School of Education and Psychology at Pepperdine University.

“The longer they are exposed, they tend to have poor outcomes and more long-term difficulties,” she said.

Toddlers, who are just learning to walk, talk, and be toilet trained, can regress. They can have trouble sleeping or are afraid to be left alone. Pre-schoolers, age 3-5, who have limited verbal ability to express what they are feeling, express their emotions through behavior problems like temper tantrums, aggression, and a lot of crying.

Older kids can complain of physical pain, start to sleepwalk, or have nightmares. “These are symptoms of PTSD and a reaction to what is happening in the family,” Wood said. When kids complain they don’t want to go to school the reason could be anxiety. They don’t want to leave a parent alone because they are afraid for their safety.

Teenagers may react to DV by being angry at the offending parent and wanting to hold them accountable. Their grades can drop; they can become depressed, anxious, and have low self-esteem. Social learning is modeled in the home and kids who live with violence have trouble developing intimate relationships with their peers. The can engage in sexually risky behavior, or start to take drugs, or drop out of school.

Violence at home can have a cumulative effect and be carried into adulthood. Wood said the teenage years is where you begin to see intergenerational transmission of violence towards others. It could be directed at peers or towards a parent.

“What has been modeled for them and demonstrated is that problems are solved through aggression; emotions are expressed through aggression, needs are met through aggression,” Wood said.

DV generally occurs behind closed doors. Assessments within the home can be revealing but are difficult to do. “I think we need to keep our community informed of things,” she said.

“A teacher observes something, the coach on the baseball field observes something, a church member observes something, but we’re not communicating together to put that information together to provide a supportive network for these families,” Wood said.

The presence of a firearm where DV occurs, makes them much more likely to be deadly, according to a lawyer and policy advocate who works on gun control issues.

“The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500%,” said Shikha Hamilton, the National Director of Advocacy and Mobilization at Brady United to End Gun Violence.

Hamilton cited some grim statistics:

  1. 4.6 million children live in homes with access to an unlocked or unsupervised gun.
  2. Children witness violence in about one quarter of intimate partner violence cases filed in state courts.
  3. A 2019 study of child homicides between 2005-2014 found 20% of all child homicide victims were killed in instances of domestic violence.
  4. Of that 20%, 54.3% were killed in cases where the perpetrator intended to kill their intimate partner before the homicide occurred.
  5. A 2014 study of intimate partner homicides discovered that 20% of the victims were not the intimate partners themselves but friends, family members, including children, neighbors, people who intervened, law enforcement responders, and bystanders.
  6. One in five kids have handled gun when adults were not around.
  7. 75% of kids know where a gun is stored in their home.
  8. 51% of all suicides are by firearms.
  9. 60% of all gun deaths are suicides.
  10. Access to a gun increases the risk of death by suicide by 300%.
  11. Last year one in ten high school students experienced physical violence from a partner.
  12.  Everyday 8 children and teens in the U.S. are unintentionally injured or killed due to family fire.
  13. Accidental gunshot deaths by children handling a gun jumped 31% during the first year of the pandemic.

“In America, 60% of mass shootings between 2014-2019 were either domestic violence attacks or perpetrated by those with a history of domestic violence,” Hamilton said. She said the common denominator was access to guns.

Regarding the killings in Sacramento, the father was out on bail and should not have had a gun. Authorities are investigating how he got hold of one.

“If he didn’t have access to that firearm we would still have those three beautiful children,” Hamilton said.

Even with background checks, there are still loopholes with private owner sales and gun shows. Enforcing guns laws that already exist would help. Crazy people and people with DV convictions are not supposed to buy or possess firearms but like the deranged father in Sacramento, they can get still get them and that is a big problem.

“There is good news. Harm can be repaired and future violence can be prevented,” said Leiana Kinnicutt, Program Director of Children and Youth Program at Futures Without Violence.

Kids who have experienced violence heal through their relationships with caregivers, family, and their community.

“When we focus less on individual incidents of violence and more on the context we are better able to foster healing and resilience,” she said. Creating and sustaining the conditions that help victims be resilient in the face of violence lead to futures without it.

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