Special Reports

Children often see domestic homicides

There's no telling what went through David Brame's mind Saturday afternoon when he met his wife Crystal at a Gig Harbor shopping center. The Tacoma police chief shot his wife, and then took his own life, while his children waited in his car, parked several spaces away. The children heard the shots and ran to their mother who lay on the ground.

Through their father's actions, 8-year-old Haley and 5-year-old David Jr. joined millions of children nationwide whose lives are scarred by the violence that erupts between their parents.

Studies have shown that 25 percent of domestic homicides are witnessed by the children of the victim, according to the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence.

Dr. Steven Berkowitz, a researcher with the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence at Yale University, said that the "emotional proximity" of a perpetrator of violence against a parent adds to children's emotional risk factors.

Not only are they witnesses to seeing their parent killed or injured, he said, but the act is carried out by somebody they love and care about.

In addition, Berkowitz said, children can lose the people they most rely on to help them mediate emotional turmoil: their parents.

Bev Hatter manages Bridges: A Center for Grieving Children at Tacoma's Mary Bridge Children's Hospital. Bridges, which serves about 170 children annually, includes a special group for children who have experienced homicide or suicide in their families.

"What I think is critical for us as a program to believe is that children can heal," Hatter said. "No matter how difficult or tragic the circumstances are, children can heal with the right support. But that doesn't mean it won't be a part of their story forever."

Anyone who experiences the trauma of witnessing violence or death can be overcome by a feeling of helplessness, Berkowitz said. And that can spill over into self-blame.

Psychologists say it's not unusual in divorce cases for children to blame themselves for their parents' difficulties. And when those difficulties erupt into violence, the feelings can compound.

"They have already been living in a stressful environment, with lots of acrimony," Berkowitz said.

He said children who are exposed to parental violence or homicide are at risk for a variety of psychological problems: post traumatic stress disorder, problems in grieving, depression or anxiety.

Programs such as Bridges can help children put the pieces of their lives back together. Counselors look at who is included in a child's circle of caregivers, and try to help strengthen it. And if there isn't one, they try to create one.

There's also an educational component for caregivers, designed to help them know what to expect.

"We look at how children express their grief," said Hatter.

The Child Witness to Violence Project at Boston Medical Center notes that children affected by strong emotions founded in adult violence often communicate with actions rather than words.

Teachers or other caregivers may observe include nightmares, fear of falling asleep, headaches and stomach aches, aggressive behavior and play, hyperactivity, constant worry about danger, clinginess or a loss of previously mastered skills, such as staying dry at night.

The project's Web site, www. bostonchildhealth.org, recommends that adults who care for children traumatized by violence follow these guidelines to help children heal:

•Give children permission to tell their stories. It helps children to be able to talk about the violence in their lives with trusted adults.

•Help children know what to expect at school. Provide a highly structured and predictable learning environment for children.

•Foster children's self-esteem. Children who live with violence need reminders that they are lovable, competent and important.

•Don't go it alone. Identify and collaborate with other care givers in the child's life.

•Remind children that the violence is not their fault.

Hatter said it's also important for caregivers to remember that these are "children first and grieving children second." They still need appropriate boundaries set by loving adults.

Crystal Brame's attorney said Monday that the Brame children were being cared for by their maternal grandparents and were receiving counseling.

"What their ... vulnerabilities are will be important," Berkowitz said of the children. "As well as the abilities of the care-taking adults around them to support them. The family members will need a lot of support and assistance."

Hatter said friends who want to help should remember the family will need support not just through the initial tragedy, but over the long term.

"None of us can give a huge amount continually," she said. Rather, she suggests offering assistance in one area: taking kids to soccer practice, helping with homework.

The best response from the community, Berkowitz said, will be to give the family time to heal in peace - out of the media spotlight.

"It is very important to remember that people can be remarkably resilient," Berkowitz said. Even though he often deals with children who have witnessed horrific things, he said, "the resiliency of people, and kids, always amazes me."

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635


For help

Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-562-6025

Family Renewal Shelter for Battered Women & Children: 253-475-9010

Domestic Violence Helpline: 253-798-4166; 1-800-764- 2420; TDD: 253-798-6050

Bridges: A Center for Grieving Children (at Mary Bridge Children's Hospital): 253-272-8266

Fund for Brame children

Tacoma Police Union Local 6 is setting up a fund for the Brame children at branches of TAPCO Credit Union. For information, call 253-565-9895 or visit www.cityoftacoma.org.

Books for children

•"A Family That Fights" by S. Bernstein, published by Albert Whitman and Co. Henry's parents fight often and sometimes his father hits his mother, causing Henry to feel frightened and ashamed; includes a list of things children can do in situations of family violence.

•"Something is Wrong at My House: A Book About Parent's Fighting," by D. Davis, published by Parenting Press of Seattle. The book acknowledges children's feelings of anger, fear and loneliness.

•"When Mommy Got Hurt: A Story for Young Children About Domestic Violence," by I. Lee, published by Kidsrights; story and pictures aimed at preschoolers.

•"Mommy and Daddy are Fighting: A Book for Children About Family Violence," by S. Paris and G. Labinski, published by Seal Press of Seattle; written from a child's perspective. It also contains discussion questions and a bibliography for parents, teachers, counselors and child care workers.