DREAMing of Essex without domestic violence

DREAMS works to change culture, outcomes in county

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ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Domestic violence has long-lasting repercussions beyond the immediate effects of pain, fear and injury. A family touched by domestic violence can struggle to regain its footing, plagued by physical and emotional reminders of its trauma. In Essex County, these families receive help from DREAMS, a program from FAMILYConnections that aims to help heal families who have experienced this misery.

“DREAMS is a creative arts and trauma-informed therapy program that provides services to children exposed to domestic violence and their non-offending parent,” Amanda Santana, FAMILYConnections’ director of programs, said in a recent email interview. “DREAMS offers individual, family and group therapy to help our clients build healthy coping skills and end the cycle of domestic violence. DREAMS clients also receive case-management services and child care and transportation, when available.”

Domestic violence flies under their radar, leading many to think it is not prevalent here in Essex County. However, according to records from the New Jersey State Police, in 2014 and 2015, Essex County reported many cases of domestic violence, including seven homicides, 3,460 assaults, 671 terroristic threats and 22 sexual assaults. One-third of the country’s reported domestic violence offenses were in Newark, and 33 percent of all reported domestic violence cases in the county involved children. In addition, poverty has been shown to be a contributing factor to domestic violence and, according to the State Police, 27 percent to 32 percent of all children living in Newark, Irvington, East Orange and Orange live in poverty. Of course, this does not preclude those who live in towns like West Orange, Maplewood, South Orange or Bloomfield from experiencing domestic violence.

“DREAMS is the only domestic violence specific therapy program offered to children in urban Essex County,” Santana said. “Not only do children have the opportunity to learn and practice healthy coping skills in a safe place with others who have experienced the same types of trauma, but they are also given the time to rebuild the bond with other family members who have also been exposed to domestic violence.”

DREAMS, which is funded by the N.J. Department of Children and Families, helps families process the trauma, regardless of how it manifested in the first place.

“While most trauma-informed services can help a child process their exposure to domestic violence, having a therapist and case manager who understands the dynamics of power and control in domestic violence relationships elevates that service to a more productive and personalized level,” Santana said, adding that there are various levels to truly “understanding” domestic violence and its effects: “Understanding that ‘exposure’ does not only mean being a direct witness to violence, but also the aftermath of it — a mom that is too tired to play and bond with her children because she was up all night fighting with her abuser, a hole in a wall after a fight, a car that can’t be used because the tires were slashed, a parent who always appears fearful and hypervigilant in the home and when walking down the street. This goes for case management, too; understanding the domestic violence units in the court, being able to direct clients to the most useful resources, having connections with other domestic violence resources in the county and state.”

With rigorous training, DREAMS understands all this and is able to accommodate many different types of survivors who have very different pasts.

“Our DREAMS program does two important things really well: We heal trauma and we awaken hope in mothers and children who have survived domestic abuse,” FAMILYConnections Executive Director Jacques Hryshko said in a recent email. “With healing and hope comes the power to build a new home and a strong family.”

But DREAMS is not alone in its crusade to support those who have been affected by domestic violence. With overwhelming support from the community and sister agencies, DREAMS is able to provide what its clients most need: a safe space to process their trauma.

“The vast majority of clients who come through DREAMS love it, as is also evidenced by our Consumer Satisfaction Survey results collected annually,” Santana said. “We are not only a place to receive therapy, but also a respite for families in their time of need. Our bright and welcoming atmosphere is the first sign that the program is not only friendly, but a place for families to settle and feel safe during their time with us.

“We receive many donations from community members in the form of clothes, housewares, gifts during the holidays, school supplies, personal hygiene, etc. — anything someone might need if they left an unsafe situation quickly or they are trying to build a new life,” Santana continued. “We have strong relationships with the other domestic violence services in Essex County and we also join forces, if you will, when it comes to domestic violence awareness activities, serving a new client who needs help or healing to better assist a shared client.”

In order to better assist those in need, DREAMS has several programs scheduled for the coming months.

“DREAMS has a graduation coming up at the end of this month for families graduating our six-month program; we are planning an outside activity with pizza and an ice cream truck,” Santana said. “While it’s only summertime, DREAMS will start planning our Domestic Violence Awareness Month activity for October very soon … stay tuned!”

For Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October 2016, DREAMS took a stand with a new initiative: #itscalledatanktop. This social media campaign worked to bring public awareness to how deeply ingrained domestic violence has become in our society by focusing on sleeveless undershirts, still sometimes called “wife beaters.”

“In the U.S., one in four women aged 18 years old and older experience severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime,” Hryhsko said in a press release about #itscalledatanktop. “Most people are unaware of the prevalence and severity of domestic violence throughout our country. And, they are unaware of what the term ‘wife beater’ truly means, and the violence associated with it.”

Danielle Dinneen, manager of the DREAMS program, decided to pursue this project after seeing a close friend use the term “wife beater” on social media. This led her to consider the impact such words can have on survivors and society as a whole.

“This is such an important message to get across because, as we continue to use this language, we are perpetuating the idea that this type of violence is ‘normal’ and ‘OK’ and ‘allowed,’” Dinneen said in a previous interview. “If I was a domestic violence counselor who continued to consciously use terms like ‘wife beater’ to describe a piece of clothing, it would be like an animal activist wearing a fur coat to an advocacy event; it would be an act that would defeat the purpose of the everyday work.

“That work at DREAMS is to give survivors and their children the opportunity to heal in a safe and supportive environment,” Dinneen continued. “Using terms that remind them of their trauma would not only be insensitive, it would be harmful to their healing process. FAMILYConnections clients are not the only individuals going through the healing process. Each person in this world is a survivor of something, and bringing awareness to the violent undertones in our language is a kind of advocacy that would benefit us, our children and the children that they raise.”

For more information on FAMILYConnections and its programs, such as DREAMS, call 973-675-3817 or visit www.familyconnectionsnj.org.

Photos Courtesy of Amanda Santana