What I learned listening to domestic violence survivors about the trauma of family separation

Published on
April 1, 2024

As a pediatrician, I’ve cared for many children living in violence. At times, I’ve welcomed the arrival of child protective services and “failure to protect” laws to get kids out of treacherous situations. So, it might be surprising to know that the first time I heard domestic violence survivors speak about their experiences and the trauma of family separation was at the USC Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 Domestic Violence Symposium.

I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t appreciate fully the complicated and difficult choices for the mothers — it’s usually women — entangled in violent relationships. I just thought, “Thank goodness, the kids are no longer in danger.”

Listening to the survivors, it’s not that simple.

So even before starting to report, my first lesson was a reminder that there’s always more than one side to an issue. I decided to look deeper at failure to protect policies: Are they more helpful or harmful? How often are they used in domestic violence cases? Is it more detrimental to live in violence or get separated from your family? Are there solutions? 

I wanted to talk to everyone involved in domestic violence and child welfare. I especially wanted to talk to survivors and their children, as they’re on the frontlines, and know what it’s like to interact with the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS), Los Angeles County’s child welfare agency. 

With the support from the Center for Health Journalism’s Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund and CalMatters, I was able to interview an extensive roster of sources, including survivors, their children, DCFS representatives, advocates, lawyers, child abuse experts, data analysts and legislators. Taken together, they wove a rich, complex tapestry of the strengths and shortcomings of failure to protect policies. 

For my CalMatters article, I found several missing pieces about California’s laws. First, data about domestic violence, child welfare and failure to protect laws are not systematically collected, making it hard to know the full impact of these policies. Next, survivors’ voices go missing. Often, they don’t get to share their views with the media or those in power. Nearly 22% of women in the U.S. experience domestic violence in their lifetime, but fewer than 40% speak out or seek help. Survivors and advocates have suggestions to help families, such as giving them enough time and resources to find safety. Lawyers and legislators also want to assist families, but not everyone agrees on the best approach to help abused mothers and their children. 

Although quick fixes weren’t identified, I learned several lessons.

1) It’s not my story; the stories are the survivors to tell. 

My responsibility was to chronicle the survivors’ journeys, with experts and advocates as characters they encountered along the way. Even if they hadn’t met, their lives were impacted by the actions of policymakers.

2) Be curious, not judgmental.

This is the “Ted Lasso” lesson. Be curious, ask and then listen, without judgment. The survivors said they have often felt judged. Social workers, lawyers, judges and even friends have asked questions like, “Why didn’t you leave? Why did you risk your children?”  No one wants to feel judged, and if they do, they won’t freely share their story. Be cognizant of your own biases and tendency to judge others. It helps to put preconceived ideas aside. 

3) My deadline does not dictate the survivors’ timelines. Trauma survivors have their own timeline for healing, which can take weeks, months or years, and healing isn’t linear. Healing is necessary for survivors to feel comfortable talking about their pain. I was disappointed that I couldn’t find women who had recently escaped violent relationships to interview, but they weren’t ready to talk. 

One survivor decided to end her participation, after our first phone pre-interview. She described a tragic experience with losing her kids to foster care due to allegations of failure to protect. She realized that talking about her past was too painful. Fortunately, she had a counselor to help cope with reliving her trauma.

All of the survivors had busy schedules rebuilding their lives. They were balancing at least two jobs, children at home, educational pursuits and recovery activities, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and therapy. Being flexible and accommodating on my part was essential.

4) For some survivors, talking about their ordeal can be re-traumatizing. I followed DART’s guiding principles about interviewing people after trauma. Primarily, I tried to make sure the survivors knew they were in control. 

After the interviews, I reviewed sensitive details to make sure the survivor was comfortable seeing it in the article. The two survivors in my story elected to not share their full names, their children’s names or the city where they lived to protect their children, consistent with the SPJ Code of Ethics. Interestingly, though I hadn’t seen it beforehand, I followed some of the same concepts outlined by Samantha Caiola from her reporting with sexual assault victims. I highly recommend her essay.

However, for others telling their story is therapeutic. This was true for the two survivors in my article. Both women had been on a path of recovery for more than five years, and they said telling their story was gratifying.

This applies to children, too — some of them want to talk.  DART’s principles for talking to children are consistent with recommendations for interviewing children from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Two of my favorites: leave the kids in a good place and don’t underestimate them. 

The youngest child I interviewed was 11, and she was amazingly articulate about her experiences. She said she wanted to talk with me, because she knew other little kids had parents who fight, and she wanted them to know that things could get better. In the end, I didn’t include her in the article because her family had an ongoing custody battle.

5) I always ask two questions of my sources: Is there anyone else with whom I should speak, including any adversaries? What didn’t I know to ask that you want people to know?

These questions are useful to find voices that I don’t know exist.

6) Be a part of your community. It’s rewarding, but also, I’ve found sources through my community connections. For this story, the director of a local women’s shelter, whom I knew from volunteering at a local food bank, introduced me to several survivors. 

Finally, I urge fellow journalists to do their best to cultivate trust. Spend time with your sources, especially those with trauma, and if possible, in their home or safe places. It is genuinely a privilege to be allowed into the intimate parts of someone’s life. Handle their trust with care.