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Beth PhillipsBeth Phillips

Beth Phillips: Bearing Witness

At my house one day, my mom's boyfriend started to beat her up. He slammed her into the oven and broke her toe. He kept slamming her against the wall and throwing her all over the place. I ran to my brother's room since it was the only place that had a lock on the door. I stayed there until it was all over. - Katie, 12 years, Latina

Stories like these invade the subconscious of Willamette University senior Elizabeth "Beth" Phillips. That's because the anthropology and gender studies major spent five to six hours a day for nearly three months listening to the heart-wrenching stories of children who have witnessed domestic violence. Philips is a recipient a prestigious Carson Undergraduate Research Grant, a $2,500 stipend that encourages students to pursue an original idea or area of research beyond what they study in the classroom. "Remembering and Dealing with Domestic Violence: Youth in Transition" is the ethnographic study she conducted with 10- to 17-year-old youth at a domestic violence center in Seattle, Wash.

"There's been a lot of qualitative research done on women and domestic violence, but there isn't much on children," says Phillips, who had previously volunteered during high school at the shelter. "I wanted to record children's stories and explore what the children think about domestic violence, how they understand it, how it affects them and what they think about the programs designed to help."

To get the youngsters to share their stories, Phillips first had to win their trust. She began by spending a month going on field trips and hanging out with them. Slowly, they began to open up. "They brought me into their lives and I got to know many of them well. Many are the same ages of my younger sisters. They became my little siblings."

After obtaining the parents' permission, Phillips started meeting weekly with two groups - six boys and six girls - who were living in transitional housing for up to 18 months. Additionally, she conducted one- to two-hour individual interviews with children living in short-term shelter housing. "As we got to know each other better, the kids started to share stuff with me, even things they hadn't told the other counselors. They told me not only about the violence they'd witnessed, but also about abuse that had happened to them."

Listening to all this pain took its toll on Phillips. "I was surprised by how willing these kids were to open up to me and how affected I was by their stories. Listening to their stories was really hard. I found myself feeling sad and angry. I had to figure out how to get angry about what had happened to them without getting depressed about it."

Phillips worked through her feelings by "doing a lot of journaling, working on my field notes and talking with my family. I came to realize that you have to move on and help these kids. I was able to acknowledge the pain and sadness and still do the work."

When he was done abusing her, my mom would always just go into her room. She thought we'd believe she was watching TV. We'd all leave her alone and I'd try to keep everything quiet so she could rest. - Tim, 14 years, Latino

One of the themes that emerged from the research was that children respond in their own unique ways to domestic violence. "There is no single way that kids deal with domestic violence. Some push it away and try to forget about it. Others act out or get defensive."

She also found that because children are naturally focused on themselves, they tend to view the experience of family domestic violence through a narrow lens. "When they talk about the domestic violence incidences in their family, they remember what they were doing during the experience. They understand domestic violence in terms of what it meant for them and their safety. They also often feel guilty about the abuse and talk about what they should have done."

When my mom's in a bad mood because of the violence my step-dad does on her, I help by telling her that it's going to be all right. I help her calm down. - Chris, 12 years, Slovenian immigrant

When families seek help for domestic violence, Phillips found children are often thrown into conflict about differences in how society - friends, classmates, people they meet on the street - and shelter counselors tell them to behave. "In domestic violence centers, youth are told to open up, to share their stories and to talk about how they feel. A boy in one of my groups called it 'becoming a softie.' At school or in their neighborhoods, people tell them to be tough and to forget about the domestic violence."

Girls, too, receive conflicting messages. "Domestic violence counselors tell girls that if a guy hits or teases them, it's not okay. But everyone knows that boys tease when they flirt. Counselors tell girls, for instance, that it's not okay if their boyfriends tell them not to wear certain clothing because that's controlling behavior. Their girlfriends tell them that the boy is just showing how much he cares. The question is how are these kids supposed to negotiate these different messages?"

I tell my friends that my parents never fight. I say I'm the one who cries all the time. It's just the opposite. It's my mom who's crying. - Christina, 10 years, Caucasian

Counseling professionals, say the youth, are out of touch with the reality of their worlds. "Domestic violence counselors tell the kids not to fight. The kids say they're being bullied and have to stand up for themselves. One boy told me, 'Hey, they're beating me up. I'm going to fight back.'"

If people hear about my dad beating up my mom, they're going to think I'm weird, you know? - Courtney, 16 years, Solvenian immigrant

Phillips, who has spoken about her research at several nonprofit agencies and will present her study findings in San Diego at the domestic violence conference, "Violence in the World of Our Youth," insists that helping children who witness domestic violence requires a much larger cultural change. "Domestic violence programs can only go so far in solving the problem. Our schools and our society need to change. We have to be willing to get involved and help those we suspect are being abused. Our schools need to address the huge bullying problem that exists and talk openly about behaviors that aren't okay. They need to get more involved in conflict management and create an atmosphere that says it's okay for boys and girls to share their feelings."

Her work with these kids has defined a career path for Phillips. "This experience has made me realize how valuable it is to do research with people that makes a difference," says Phillips, who would like to go to South Africa and work with homeless youth. "I want to work with grassroots organizations doing research that helps tell their story. I want to tell their stories to help change the story."