Applying and getting the Center for Health Journalism’s 2018 National Fellowship was the easy part. The hard part for myself and partner Jayne O’Donnell was following through with our ambitious project about children and domestic abuse for USA TODAY. We first wanted to do a series on how family court forces children to spend unsupervised time with allegedly abusive parents. But through a series of conversations with our editors, we decided to instead focus first on how new research shows exposure to domestic violence harms children’s brains, even if they aren’t the intended victims of the abuse.
One of the first lessons we learned was the need for patience with survivors. We were often asking people to relive their trauma when we interviewed them and that carried a high emotional cost for families. For those families who are still enduring the abuse, the feelings were especially raw. We had to be patient, kind and generous with them. It took time to get to hear their entire story and oftentimes there were a lot of tears. Being caring, empathetic and gentle was a must. In many of the video interviews we did people broke down crying and we often had to wait until they collected themselves before we could continue interviewing them. We even had one teenager storm out of an interview because the questions we were asking were potentially triggering. One of the mothers that I spoke with told me, in a fit of anger, that the questions we were asking were retraumatizing her. As we moved forward with interviews, it was imperative to let the families know that we would go at their pace and anytime they needed to stop that was fine.
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