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Anna G. Larson, Published October 08 2012

InDepth: Education is key to reducing domestic abuse

FARGO – A child’s voice saying, “Mom and Dad are fighting” is commonly heard by dispatchers at the Red River Regional Dispatch Center.

While neighbors and other witnesses report possible domestic abuse to police, it’s common for a young child in the home to call for help, said Lt. Joel Vettel of the Fargo Police Department.

“We’ll get calls from 10 or 11 year olds who say, ‘Mom and Dad are fighting,’ or ‘Mom and her boyfriend are fighting,’” Vettel said.

Although Fargo has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the country, the majority of the assaults and abuse are due to a domestic abuse situation, he said.

“It exists in our community,” he said. “It’s not something we see on a weekly basis, on a monthly basis – it’s something we see on a daily basis.”

Because of its frequency in the community, the response to domestic abuse has changed in recent years, Vettel said.

One effort to increase awareness of domestic abuse in the Fargo-Moorhead community was launched in 2011 by the Fargo Police, Prairie St. John’s and the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center of Fargo-Moorhead. The team of organizations created an awareness campaign titled “Domestic Abuse: It’s Everyone’s Business.”

“Our campaign is not one that is just limited to putting up billboards or doing public safety or public service announcements,” said Police Chief Keith Ternes. “We’re trying to address the issue of domestic abuse in our community by dedicating more resources, by taking some new approaches that aren’t so much traditional law enforcement to try and combat that problem.”

When the awareness campaign launched, the department created a new position to specifically combat domestic abuse. Det. Chris Nichtern was appointed in November, and his sole duty for at least the next two years is to review and follow up on domestic abuse cases to make sure victims stay safe and offenders comply with court orders.

Children, too, are being educated about domestic abuse. Educating children about domestic abuse is a significant part of overall community awareness, said Daria Odegaard, education coordinator at the RACC.

The RACC employs the “I Wish the Hitting Would Stop” Domestic Abuse Education Program to arm fourth grade children with the language they need to better talk about situations, she said.

The program is provided to classrooms in the Fargo-Moorhead and West Fargo districts, as well as surrounding areas.

“The largest learning objective is making sure that if children know domestic abuse is occurring, they tell someone about it,” Odegaard said. “When children are in homes with domestic abuse, they’re told to keep it a secret.”

“I Wish the Hitting Would Stop” aims to help children understand that domestic abuse is never their fault, and it teaches children what to do if they are ever exposed to it, Odegaard said.

“It encourages students to ask questions,” she said. “We start by defining abuse, which children are very aware of, but then we teach them that words can hurt us too.”

The term children often struggle to define, Odegaard said, is “domestic.” The program defines domestic as referring to the home, where people live.

“It can help kids know what’s healthy, what respect is and how to create that in their own relationships,” Odegaard said. “Instead of promoting risk factors, we promote the protective factors to keep them from experiencing these issues.”

The effectiveness of the “I Wish the Hitting Would Stop” program was recently studied by North Dakota State University associate professor Carol Archbold and doctoral student Thorvald (Tod) Dahle. Fourth and fifth grade students from eight elementary schools in two districts answered open-ended questions based on information taught in the program.

The study found that nearly three-fourths of fifth graders retained the information they were taught by the program in fourth grade, Archbold said.

“That’s impressive,” she said. “It shows the importance of getting these kids the information early on.”

Teaching children about domestic abuse in an age-appropriate way is important because they understand more than people typically think, Odegaard said.

“They know what’s going on, I don’t think kids get enough credit sometimes,” she said. “I call kids weather vanes because they’re so intuitive.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525