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Youth radio: A child's view of domestic violence

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Remembering the past
Valencia McMurray, 19, left, and her mother Charlene Sanders sit together at their Richfield, Minn. apartment Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2011. McMurray saw the affects of domestic violence firsthand as a six-year-old when her father stabbed her mother.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

More than a quarter of American children experience parents physically fighting each other at some time in their lives. Early researchers into family violence often considered children to be "invisible victims", but that view is changing. 

MPR Youth Radio reporter Valencia McMurray revisits an incident that happened in her family when she was six and has kept a hold on her family 14 years later.

By Valencia McMurray, Minnesota Public Radio

St. Paul, Minn. -- My story begins Sept. 30, 1997, at 652 Bush in St. Paul. I remember being inside this house. I remember my father standing right here on this porch, almost exactly where I'm standing, banging on the door. He just wanted to talk. She didn't want to listen to him but I feel like she also didn't listen to us. Because we told her, "Don't go outside mom. Please don't go outside, mom."

"I should have listened," said my mom. "But I figured, it's going to be all right. The neighbors are all outside, and I just thought we were going to be safe. But we wasn't."

I remember his eyes were red. He was not himself. He was someone else. There was no love in that man.

"We sat out there and we talked and I told him that we couldn't get back together and I think that's what made him mad," said my mom. "Because when I got up and turned my back to come in the house, that's when he stabbed me and y'all was screaming and hollering."

Return to scene of incident
Valencia McMurray returns to the address in St. Paul where her family lived in 1997 to record her memories of the incident.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

I remember standing beside my sister inside. The youngest of my brothers was a few feet ahead of me and then the second oldest of my siblings, Jermaine who was 15, was trying to get through the screen door.

"It just looked like he was hitting her and then I saw the streetlights glisten off the blade," said Jermaine. He had to make a split-second decision. "I'm standing in the doorway and I was going to run through the back door and come around front, but I didn't want to do that and then miss something and it'll be the last time I see my mom alive." 

My dad stabbed my mom repeatedly. Thirteen times, according to the police report, but my family remembers it was 15. 

"I remember feeling the knife go into my neck," said my mom. 

That's the only the one she felt. The rest she described as an out-of-body experience, like she was watching from above. 

"I remember giving up," she said. 

The last thing she remembers is the picture of the four of us kids screaming and crying. 

"I remember that I saw y'all face and I couldn't give up," she said. "I kept saying 'who's going to take care of y'all if I give up?'"

Valenica McMurray's siblings
Valencia McMurray, right, is the youngest of five. Pictured here are three of her siblings, from left, Steven Johnson, Roscoe Pedro and Victoria McMuray in 2000.
Courtesy of Valencia McMurray

Jermaine pushed his way out onto the porch to defend our mom and my dad stabbed him in the back. My mom managed to call 911 and my dad fled.

"My mom's laying on the porch, bleeding to death," said Jermaine. "And she's trying to talk to 911 and they're asking her questions." 

He couldn't stand it: "I left my little sisters and brother with the neighbor and I told the police officers, 'If you don't catch him before I do, I'm killing the bastard.'" 

Jermaine said he walked around St. Paul for three days with a brick in his hand. 

"And I was on my way back to his house and my aunt called, and said the police just picked him up at his house," Jermaine said.

THE AFTERMATH

My dad spent 11 years in prison for trying to kill my mom. We had no contact with him. 

Meanwhile, our family's life was a blur of moving to different states. My mom was too paranoid to live in any one place. My siblings and I never talked about that night we almost lost our mom. It wasn't until I turned 18 that I dared to look back at what happened and think about how it affected me. 

Reading the police and court reports about that night in 1997, my sister and brothers and I are like background figures.

From the police report:

Squad 332, Officer McPeak was leaving East Team. I was approached by a hysterical young black male, later identified as Miller Jermaine Johnson. I then arrived on scene. There were several people standing on the porch. Children were crying hysterically. I asked that the children be taken away from the scene. I kneeled down and attempted to interview her as to what happened...

I asked my mom how she remembers us.

Interview with mother
Valencia McMurray interviews her mother Charlene Sanders about the incident she survived in 1997. It was their first conversation about the attack and its aftermath.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

"Nobody really ever asked me 'How are the kids doing?' she said. "And you know, I think about that all the time, 'How did that affect y'all?' Because when y'all was little and when it happened, I was trying to get you to therapy to talk to someone, wouldn't none of y'all go. Everyone was so angry, but no one ever told me how they felt about anything."

She's right. Until this interview, I hadn't talked to her about it. 

I avoided those emotions and thought this was in the past. 

WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN?

Jeffrey Edleson, directer of the Minnesota Center against Violence and Abuse at the University of Minnesota, said this isn't unusual at all. Edleson is an expert on how domestic violence affects kids. He said it's a relatively new phenomenon to look at the long-term effects on kids. 

"It's only 25 to 30 years ago that we started to even mention the kids," said Edleson. "It's only in the last 10 to 15 years that a lot of attention has been given to kids. So I think we're just at a starting point of responding to kids exposed to domestic violence."

Celebrating a birthday
Valencia McMurray, middle, celebrates her sixth birthday with her siblings, the same year her father attacked her mother.
Courtesy of Valencia McMurray

Edleson said kids who grew up with parents physically fighting each other are two to three times more likely to use violence in their own relationships, or become victims. That was certainly true in my case.

As a kid, I got into many fights with others. I was a bully. I remember this kid, David. All I remember is my first punch. Then, I blacked out. That scared me. "I'm just like my dad," I thought. I made a decision right then, at 12 years old, to stop fighting and I haven't since. 

It doesn't seem like my siblings have done the same. My mom has also noticed too.

"I guess the boys do got a lot of anger," she said. "And it upsets me that they do the things that they saw done to me. It really bothers me."

It really bothers me too. I don't want my nieces and nephews to see things I've seen, or to think violence is how you solve problems. Edleson said all men have the ability to change. The will to change will come and go depending on pressures from outside.

"It's learned, and it can be unlearned and new ways can be learned and that's the one thing I'm really optimistic about," said Edleson.

According to Edleson, education and treatment can help offenders end their violent behavior, and the entire community needs to give clear and consistent messages that violence is not OK.

Interviewing Jeffrey Edleson
Valencia McMurray, left, interviews Jeffrey Edleson, a national expert on children's exposure to domestic violence, at the University of Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

"I've seen lots of people in the work that I did with men who batter. A lot of men change, and make big changes in their lives," said Edleson.

My dad walked back into my life on my 18th birthday. The courts had prevented him from contacting me until then. He called me up from his home in Wisconsin, and it was clear, the only thing that had changed was time. 

I was really mad because I couldn't understand how he thought we could start talking like nothing happened and like it wasn't a big deal. He didn't seem to think about how that one night has affected my whole life up to this point and is continually affecting the way I see men.

His reply: "Well, that's the way I was raised. I was raised in violence." 

This made me angrier, because if you understand how badly something has ripped holes in your heart and your life, why would you put that same burden on those you claim to love? Wouldn't you want to stop that cycle and keep your kids from that? I told him I lost him. I almost lost my mom.

And if I could give up violence, he could too.

I'm still waiting.

Minnesota Domestic Violence Crisis Line:  1-866-223-1111

St. Paul Intervention:  651-645-2824