Starting a New Chapter in a Safe Space

Domestic abuse typically conjures up images of angry men and bruised partners. But children are deeply affected by violence. With these young victims in mind, JWI is working to build 100 children’s libraries in domestic violence shelters across the country. 

by Lauren Landau

A little girl relaxes in Domestic Violence Intervention Services (DVIS)'s library during the April 2016 dedication ceremony.

A little girl relaxes in Domestic Violence Intervention Services (DVIS)'s library during the April 2016 dedication ceremony.

The youngest victims of domestic violence are also the most powerless. Kids have no say in whether to stay or go, and when that decision is made for them they often leave with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. 

For many, childhood is filled with so many comforts: cuddling a beloved teddy bear, hearing the siren call of the ice cream truck, or settling in for a bedtime story. But in a home devoid of love, filled with the sounds of violence, and where stories don’t have happy endings, the comforts so many take for granted are a distant dream. 

Taryn Norman is the grant writer for Domestic Violence Intervention Services (DVIS) in Tulsa, where JWI built a children’s library last April. She says reading provides an important bonding and educational benefit, especially during a chaotic and dramatic time in children’s lives. 

“The library gives families a place to go together,” Norman says. “A lot of the counselors have talked about how great it is to see parents and children reading and bonding.”

In the Manya Kanof Gussack Library at Cape Cod's Independence House, children can do their homework on computers, read a book, or just find peace in this comfortable, safe space. 

In the Manya Kanof Gussack Library at Cape Cod's Independence House, children can do their homework on computers, read a book, or just find peace in this comfortable, safe space. 

Crystal Brill is the director of children’s trauma programs at DVIS. While most people think of libraries as centers for borrowing, Brill tells JW that being able to keep the books is a huge draw for children fleeing violent homes.

“When they come to shelter, they have to leave a bunch of their belongings behind,” she says. “So they may not have those comfort items or those things that are just theirs any longer.”

Owning something concrete that they can physically hold is huge. Brill says that when DVIS staff and volunteers inform kids that the library and its books are theirs to enjoy at any time, their faces light up. 

“It’s almost as if they’ve never experienced that before, just the freedom to come into this room and to be able to do what they choose to do, to read what they choose to read is—I mean you can read it all over their faces, the impact it has.”

Children are also welcome to claim the books at Cape Cod’s Independence House. Volunteer Coordinator and Director of Development Donna Giberti says the addition of the library has been “tremendous.” 

“We’ve had kids coming in while their parents are here receiving services, and they’re doing their homework on the computers and they’re reading the books,” she says. 

In addition to keeping kids occupied and creating a sense of ownership when they are able to take a book home, the behavioral benefits of a library can be life-changing. In the midst of chaos, these spaces provide a sense of peace and calm.  

Two children check out the books in Domestic Violence Intervention Services (DVIS)'s library during the April 2016 dedication ceremony.

Two children check out the books in Domestic Violence Intervention Services (DVIS)'s library during the April 2016 dedication ceremony.

“It’s another almost sacred space where you can go and just slow down, be a little bit quieter, a little bit more mindful,” Brill says. “My daycare worker said she had one kiddo who was very overstimulated by all the toys and activity in the daycare.”

The care provider brought the child to the library, where they sat and read together. “She said that just the one-on-one time with him really helped him to settle and he was so engrossed in the story, wanted her to read another book afterwards.”

After some quiet time in the library, the child’s demeanor upon returning to the daycare was “ten times better.”

And that one-on-one time is particularly critical for parents, whose connection with their children may be weakened by recent turmoil.  “We talk about that with our parents a lot, that reading gets both parent and child back on the same page if even for five minutes,” she says. 

Even illiterate parents or those who struggle with reading can benefit. Brill says one mother expressed uncertainty when told about the bonding benefits of reading aloud to her baby. 

“Her reading skills weren’t that great, and so we talked to her about how it’s more about baby hearing your voice,” Brill says. “Even if you don’t know the words and you’re just describing the picture in the book, it’s still that one-on-one time with baby.”

After sitting in the shelter’s library, flipping through books with her mother, the baby looked up.

By creating these connections and building distance from trauma, JWI’s children’s libraries provide peace at long last for the children who need it most.