Newton’s Youth and Domestic Violence

Newton schools have long been a source of community pride. And they should be. Notwithstanding the fact that Newton schools help produce tremendous results for many of Newton’s youth, an overarching question that I believe we should be focusing on is: Do Newton schools create the best possible environment that enables all students to reach their full potential?

As recently (and increasingly) highlighted by the media, domestic violence is a very real reality for too many Newton residents. In fact, it has been reported that the Newton Police Department receives more calls for it than any other type of disturbance. This is a very serious problem with many consequences.

Unrealized by many, witnessing domestic violence is one of the causes that holds back too many Newton kids from reaching their potential. This is because when a kid suffers from consistent trauma at home and there aren’t sufficient mechanisms at school to identify and treat it, it becomes impossible for that kid to sufficiently focus on learning. Over time, such problems can present insurmountable barriers, which often lead to serious public health problems such as substance abuse, drug overdoses, bullying, mental illnesses, and even suicides.

Part of the problem is that it can be difficult to identify which children in our school system are struggling because of being subjected to domestic violence. As this Boston Globe article articulates, “You never are going to know every student in a classroom who is experiencing trauma. They are not going to have a name tag that says, ‘Yes, I have a trauma history.’ ”

You need look no further than the attached picture of my brother and me for proof of this. Despite growing up in Newton and looking like a typical student, at home we struggled with trauma that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. Take my word for it when I say that it takes an extraordinary effort to overcome such surroundings, especially when we allow the kids who need our help the most to fall through the cracks.

Undoubtedly, in a community as large and wealthy as Newton, there are good resources available for some of the kids who fall into this trap. For example, we’ve got the Boy’s and Girl’s Club and the West Suburban YMCA, which help provide Newton’s disadvantaged youth with extracurricular activities and summer camps, among other things. However, for many of Newton’s youth, such opportunities are not enough to overcome the hurdles created by domestic violence for a variety of reasons.

Consequently, the question becomes: Are we doing enough to identify as many kids in need as possible? If so, do we have a good enough network in place whereby each of these kids is going to have consistent access to the resources he or she needs to beat the odds? What does that network look like, and how does it work? If we aren’t doing a good enough job, what will it take to do better?

Speaking from experience, I strongly believe that we can do better.

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Janet Sterman

What a brave entry by one of the leaders of future generations! Thanks Tom!

Bryan Barash
Bryan Barash

Thanks for posting this Tom, I think it’s a really important topic and quite timely given that these issues were in the news today.

The Attorney General and our DA Marian Ryan announced a new free online program to train mandated reporters and the general public in how to recognize signs of abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Seems to me like a good step in the right direction. You can check that out here: http://51a.middlesexcac.org/

There was also a hearing today on a bill proposing to expand who is a mandatory reporter to add public employees, volunteers and all school employees to the list. Seems crazy to me that all school employees weren’t already included in the list.

Nanci Ginty Butler

Tom, I am so sorry to hear of the struggles you endured in your youth. Thank you for raising awareness about this sometimes silent issue. I wanted to speak to the resources currently available to Newton’s youth. Of course, it is rare that there can be enough, but Newton does fund several human services (and has since the mid-1970s) that serve residents (both youth and adults) who experience domestic/intimate partner violence. I won’t be able to provide a comprehensive list of them all, but hopefully some of my colleagues will chime in to cover what I miss, I’ve worked in Newton-funded counseling services for 15 years. The city funds a home-based family counseling service that is free to all Newton residents with teens in the home. This group services families experiencing all types of struggles and works to help them navigate through the difficulty and links them to longer term services. Many of the families served are experiencing domestic violence. Newton also funds a school-based outreach counseling service that provides mental health counseling to students in the middle and high schools in Newton (with unlimited free care offered if needed). Again, many of the students served have experienced some form of violence or trauma at home. These services are both run by Riverside Community Care – http://www.riversidecc.org. In response to advocacy by Newton residents, Newton-Wellesley Hospital has a clinician available to the community that provides services to those experiencing domestic violence: http://www.nwh.org/community-health-resources/domestic-and-sexual-violence-services/ There is also a program based in Waltham… Read more »

Emily Norton
Emily Norton

Thank you for sharing your story and raising this urgent issue. I’d love to hear ideas of what people think we could be doing better, if there are successful models elsewhere to replicate, etc. We know from the headlines that removing children from homes doesn’t always lead to a good outcome either.

Sallee Lipshutz

Tom, You are beyond brave. I salute your strength not only to survive, but also to advocate for those whose needs, like yours, were not met adequately. I have seen signs in my synagogue’s women’s restrooms signaling those who might be abused to call hot-lines. I don’t know if men’s restrooms have those, too. Also, would school bathrooms be an added safe place for that info? What about sports teams and counselor handouts to kids? What about kid extra-curricular activities like outside of school language schools, dance schools, etc.? These places could target the kids, offering them a safe number to call to get them in the system for help. Would something like that have been useful to you?

Julia Malakie

I’ve seen the type of signs in restrooms that Sallee mentioned in some high school girls’ restrooms. I don’t know if they’re in NNHS and NSHS (or private schools, for that matter). Maybe there could be something similar but age-appropriate for younger grades? I say age-appropriate, hoping there would be a way to make young kids aware of who to call for help, without scaring little kids who have not yet learned that some parents are abusive.

Tom, looking back, do you think help would have been available when you were a kid, but you didn’t know who to ask? Or would you have been reluctant to report even if you’d known who to go to? It seems that for whatever reason — not wanting to be different, not wanting to get parents (or clergy, or teacher) into trouble, thinking they’ll get into trouble themselves — a lot of kids don’t report abuse. Making the ability of teachers, and other people in their lives, to recognize the signs, so important.

Margaret Albright
Margaret Albright

Family violence doesn’t discriminate by income or race. It is everywhere. Every community in the Commonwealth struggles with how to reach those affected better. It is always a work in progress.

There’s an important piece of legislation pending at the state house right now which would get child serving agencies including schools sharing information and working together. Ironically enough schools are often unaware of restraining orders, DCF and DYS involvement, etc.

@Tom, in Newton we screen students for depression and anxiety in 7th, 9th and 11th grade. We are also looking at “connectedness” and review that measure as reported by the youth behavior risk survey (YRBS) that is a statewide survey developed by the Centers for Disease Control. Connectedness means that students feel there is an adult at school who they can talk to and who is trusted. Several pilot programs are seeking to increase connectedness, especially among middle school students, an age when many kids get lost.

We’re not perfect, but we do recognize the need and that we have to always be improving our tools and trying harder.

Lynne LeBlanc

Thanks for the thoughtful blog, Tom.
I’m not sure if readers are familiar with “Just Think: Teens Making Smart Choices” but it is an excellent venue for high school students to learn about resources available in Newton. It is a yearly expo event at Newton North High School with daytime in-school events and resources for students only and an evening component for students and parents/guardians. Here is a link to some Just Think basics: http://www.northptso.org/just-think-what-is-it.

Tom Sheff

Tom, you’re awesome. You’re brave, smart and highly motivated. Keep up the wonderful work.
Roughly 10 years ago, the city cut counselors at the schools because they had to make cuts and our elected leaders logic was that counselors don’t effect curriculum. I’m not sure what type of counselors they were, but they could have been mental health counselors. If they were mental health counselors, maybe we can work to get them back employed. The city would benefit by being able to detect the problem at an earlier stage in someone’s life.
Tom, keep pushing and searching for answers. Take care.

Margaret Albright
Margaret Albright

NPS does have a commitment to mental health though I will be the first to acknowledge how much harder this is with young children. Every one of our elementary schools has a school social worker – something that was not the case even 10 years ago. We also have a school nurse each elementary school – many districts no longer do this. Our teachers are trained in responsive classroom which takes into account not just academic readiness but social and emotional well-being.

But this will always be a work in progress. And though I know far from perfect, I would encourage the legislature to pass the bill which allows sharing of information between child-serving agencies and schools. Right now this is not possible due to privacy protections of adults.

Marti Bowen
Marti Bowen

Tom, I appreciate your telling your painful story and your contributions to helping other kids in similar situations. I hope you keep your efforts going, even though you are meeting resistance, to try to get the administration to be aware that finding these kids is the first step to helping them. Finding them, gaining their trust and helping them to see that their life could be better, then making sure something is done. Your ideas about coaches and others who work with children in groups are good ones.

Kids who are being abused or living in neglectful situations will generally tell no one. In fact, they will go out of their way to keep anyone from finding out. They never bring friends home. Mostly they don’t know their situation could be better and just accept that this is what their life is. Even if they do know, they don’t want to get their parent/s in trouble or be taken away from them.