SPOKANE, Wash. — Under a program managed by Washington State University for nearly the past five years, Spokane has been one of only a handful of communities across the nation to participate in a U.S. Department of Justice sponsored effort seeking ways to identify and address the needs of children exposed to domestic violence.

Working in partnership with local law enforcement and a number of community service agencies, Safe Start Spokane recently received the final $507,000 installment of a federal program grant that will have directed a total of $2.23 million towards assisting the local child victims of domestic violence by the time of the project’s scheduled expiration in Oct. 2005.

Operated through the Child and Family Research Unit (CAFRU) at WSU Spokane, the demonstration project is one of only 11 such programs nationally. While each of the programs is intended to increase the capacity of local communities to reduce the incidence and impact of violence on children and families, each program operates independently in developing services within its own community. Safe Start Spokane is further distinguished from the others by the fact that it is the only program operated by a major research university, rather than through a local governmental or public service agency.

Christopher Blodgett, director of CAFRU at WSU Spokane and principal investigator for Safe Start Spokane, said one emphasis of the project here has been in the creation of a local crisis intervention capacity that puts trained mental health professionals and counselors into the field to provide immediate trauma support to children victimized by family violence, neglect or abuse.

Working in partnership with Partners with Families and Children, Spokane Mental Health and the NATIVE Project, Safe Start Spokane has created a staff of five advanced-degreed professionals who are available 24 hours a day to support local law enforcement in the field.  Since its inception, the program has provided a much-needed service to some 600 families and more than 900 children traumatized by family violence. At same time, it has helped Safe Start Spokane make a significant contribution to the body of knowledge about a pervasive social problem that all too often is overlooked or misunderstood.   

“We’ve learned a great deal about the history of family violence and the nature of the traumas to which some children are exposed,” he said. “We’ve dealt with multiple homicides and multiple suicides – some truly horrific domestic violence situations where children were involved.”

Although Blodgett said there has been “little public dialogue of any depth about the level of violence that occurs in communities,” statistics suggest millions of children across the United States annually experience trauma as the result of domestic violence, neglect and abuse.

It’s an estimate that would seem to be borne out by Blodgett’s work on behalf of Safe Start Spokane.

“What we keep coming up with, over and over again, suggests this is likely a problem of epidemic proportions,” he said.

Concerns for those exposed to such violence within their families is heightened by a growing body of research suggesting that violent trauma causes its child victims to suffer developmentally, both immediately and over the long-term, Blodgett said.

In an effort to reduce the impact of such trauma on the children served through its program, Safe Start Spokane has worked with about seven other local social agencies to coordinate post-trauma counseling for children and to provide for continuing counseling and other family services as needed in the wake of their exposure to domestic violence, he said.

Lacking the resources to study the developmental progress of child victims over the long term, Blodgett said the effectiveness of such counseling efforts are virtually impossible to quantify objectively. He notes, however, that in instances where Safe Start Spokane has offered counseling to children who have been victims or witnesses to violence, some level of follow-up counseling is accepted by the families nearly 70 percent of the time.

In an effort to address the broader problem of the impact of domestic violence on children throughout the community, Safe Start Spokane has also conducted a widespread professional development program over the past four years, training about 5,000 mental health professionals in issues related to the traumatic impact of childhood exposure to domestic violence and has assisted in incorporating educational components addressing the issue into the curriculum for Eastern Washington University’s master’s degree program in social work.

Most recently, Blodgett said Safe Start Spokane has begun training developmental psychologists involved in counseling children in the diagnosis and care of children exposed to domestic violence.

“What we’re finding is that well over two-thirds of the children in counseling say they were victims of domestic violence,” he said. “I’m a developmental psychologist myself and the diagnosis and treatment of children suffering from the trauma of domestic violence was never part of my formal training.”

Safe Start Spokane is not a stand-alone project, Blodgett said, but rather a program that operates in conjunction with about five other companion projects, all of which are funded through a variety of grants totaling close to $10 million.

While the DOJ grant funding for the program will not continue beyond next year, he said Safe Start Spokane is likely to continue operating through the attainment of second-generation program grants.

“There’s a dramatic need for such programs and none of the state-funded systems are currently prepared to do this kind of outreach,” Blodgett said. “Most of the people working within the social service and criminal justice systems would tell you that this is an area that has been greatly neglected historically.”