Advocacy groups, experts are worried about the fate of Simpson's children

June 22, 1994|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Writer

Like their parents, Sydney and Justin Simpson join the tally of victims of domestic abuse in this country: Researchers say family violence is present in 3 million to 4 million American homes, and they estimate that at least 3.3 million children and teens may be witnessing that abuse.

Their beautiful mother fatally stabbed, their famous sportscaster father charged with his ex-wife's murder, the Simpson children, ages 9 and 6, have been enveloped by an extended family and apparently shielded from the ensuing publicity, according to news reports. But the effects of domestic violence on children caught in the cross-fire -- these so-called "forgotten victims" -- have been well documented by research studies.

"Those two little kids are in serious need of major treatment for them not to be scarred for life," said Elaine Fisher, executive director of Parents Anonymous in Maryland, an advocacy group that deals with child abuse and neglect issues. "I see it all the time. What's shattered is the child's sense of safety and a sense of self-esteem."

"The hardest thing for them is going to be reconciling the fact that they love their father with what potentially he might have done," added Rita Smith, coordinator of the Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Mr. Simpson has pleaded not guilty in the slayings June 12 of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald L. Goldman, who, according to police, were killed at Mrs. Simpson's condominium while the couple's two children slept. No one can presume to know how the Simpson children are faring; they are in the care of their maternal grandparents, who say they have shielded them from the media frenzy. What the Simpson children may have witnessed of their parents' at times abusive relationship also is unknown: During Mr. Simpson's much-publicized arrest in 1989 for beating his wife, Sydney was a preschooler and Justin still in diapers.

But, according to studies of battered women, anywhere from 68 percent to 87 percent of their children witness the abuse. If children don't observe it, they instinctively know it's happening: They wake to shouting in the night or their mother's blackened eye in the morning.

"Kids who witness violence are really 'at-risk' kids for developing emotional and behavioral problems: more anxiety, less empathy, less self-esteem and more depressive symptoms," said Diane Davis, a psychologist who runs group therapy sessions for children at the Domestic Abuse Project in Minneapolis. "Often these children live in fear and terror of when's the next thing that's going to happen. They're always on guard."

But, according to Ms. Davis and other counselors, the level of risk depends on several factors: age of the child at the time the abuse began, gender, role in the family, developmental status, extent of violence, repeated separations and moves, the level of emotional support in and outside of the family, the family's economic and social status.

Children exposed to domestic violence feel isolated and rarely talk about "the family secret." Ms. Davis,the Minneapolis psychologist, believes the Simpson children may have been under even more pressure to keep the secret because their dad was famous and beloved.

"Kids often feel responsible for the violence. It's much easier to blame themselves" than admit their parents can't provide a safe home for them, she added.

When a parent dies as a result of domestic violence, the issues for the child become even more complicated. The number of children who lose a parent in such incidents is unavailable, although in 1992, 1,431 women were killed by boyfriends or husbands, according to the FBI.

In her treatment of children who have lost parents, said Ms. Davis, "The kids glorify the deceased parent and deny the abuse occurred. They want to hold onto the good part of their parents. But they have to go back to the grieving process. You have to help a child work through the process that what [his dad] did was bad but I can still love my dad."

Witnessing the abuse may leave more than psychological scars. A child can learn to batter or learn how to take it.

"They can either think that that is the appropriate way to respond and replicate the behavior or they can be so turned off by it," said Sylvia Gafford-Alexander of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "But the majority seem to live it out."

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