This was just one sad fact I learned at the Rebuilding Lives luncheon last week hosted by Stand! Against Domestic Violence. Keynote speaker Linda Chamberlain, a family violence consultant, said when she started in the business 15 years ago, it was thought babies were too young to know what was going on when the parents had an abusive relationship.
"The reality is, the kids are living it," Chamberlain told the crowd of 300 at the Concord Hilton. "We realized these babies know they are not safe. They are reacting to their environment."
Studies now show that repetitive trauma rearranges brain cells in babies. Although they are born bursting with potential, Chamberlain said, the brain focuses on survival at the expense of the part of the brain responsible for bonding and problem solving. She noted the best programs connect a child in need with a healthy adult to stop the child from growing up and perpetuating the destructive behavior.
Devorah Levine, manager of the county's Zero Tolerance for Domestic Violence Initiative who received the Rollie Mullen Award for her work, said the women who take the courageous step to leave their violent situations are ending the cycle.
"These women are our silent heroes," she said.
One of these heroes, Evelyn Connell, took the stage. She is the mother of five, with 13-year-old twins still at home, and her soft sobs filled the room as she told her story: Her father died when she was 3, and her mother remarried when she was 6. When she was 8, her stepfather began to molest her and it continued until she left home before finishing high school. She drank and took pills to soothe her pain, went from one bad relationship to another, and had three children with different fathers.
"I thought I needed a man to validate me," Connell said. "I lived on impulse."
Then she met Ken. Cocaine complicated their lives and turned him into a violent person, she said. They cleaned up their act, and he was helpful and considerate when she was pregnant and the twins were born.
"But after one year, he started doing drugs again," she said. He also began to bully her, once almost killing her by holding a pillow over her face. At a party for the twins' third birthday, he became violent. "He broke my spirit," she said. "I became more and more isolated."
When the twins were 5, she called the Stand! crisis line for the first time. She called many times during the next five years but hesitated to leave Ken because she thought she would have nowhere to go after an emergency stay.
When the twins turned 10, the family took a vacation to Tahoe that turned into a nightmare. "Kenny spent all his time in the casino gambling and getting drunk," she said. He returned to the room and became abusive, but when security came to the room and asked if everything was OK, "I lied and said yes." The turning point came when Ken began to tell the children their mother was a bad person.
"I left, with just the luggage I'd left for the vacation with," Connell said. "I called the Stand! hotline and they put us up at a motel, then brought us to the shelter. I was not afraid for the first time."
She and the twins stayed at the shelter for eight weeks, and she received a restraining order against Ken. She took every class and counseling opportunity she could to learn how she could better her life. She turned 50 during this time.
"My kids started to flourish," she said. "They felt safe and secure. And they loved their therapy sessions." She also bonded with others in the program.
"I got into transitional housing and continued to work hard to get healthy," she said. "Now we're doing normal family stuff." She earned her high school General Equivalency Diploma and the very next day registered at Diablo Valley College, she said, which brought a standing ovation from the audience.
She is proudest that she broke the cycle for her children.
"Kelsey will not let herself be abused, and Kyle will not be an abuser," she stated emphatically.
CCTV will air the Rebuilding Lives luncheon at 1 p.m., Monday. Nov. 5, and at 8 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 14. Check out Stand's Web site for ways to make donations. Let's stop the cycle so babies can sleep securely at night, with both eyes closed.
-Dolores Fox Ciardelli can be e-mailed at editor@DanvilleWeekly.com.
The county's domestic violence crisis hotline receives about 12,000 calls each year and an estimated 1,200-1,500 of those calls represent new clients. The hotline number is 1-888-215-5555.