Planting Seeds of Positivity for Children Exposed to Violence

Dec 20 2017

Planting Seeds of Positivity for Children Exposed to Violence

The health and well-being of the children we treat truly starts at home where they live and play, and with the parents or caregivers whom they return to every day. At Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute, Brittany Schliep, a clinical research finance manager, is fighting for healthier and happier homes by helping to prevent the impact of domestic violence (DV) on children in her hometown of Gloucester Township, N.J.

Schliep secured a $5,000 grant from the CHOP Cares Community Fund and Grant Program, awarded to employees who seek funding to do volunteer work for children and families in their communities. This summer, with the support of her family, friends, and CHOP community relations, she oversaw the construction of a gazebo for the Gloucester Township Police Family Resource Center. The gazebo is part of the police department’s “Third Gear” Community Policing Response to DV and a complement to the Family Resource Center’s family counseling services. It creates a safe and beautiful open space where children, especially those who witness violence in their homes, can freely play and learn.

For Schliep, curbing the toxic impact of domestic violence as early as possible is a concern close to her heart: In 2014, the life of her twin sister, Aimee Girard, was cut short by an act of domestic violence, leading Schliep and her community to create Aim High — a scholarship program in memory of Aimee’s bright, vivid, and unstoppable spirit.

“Domestic violence is tough to combat because it’s a vicious cycle between the abusers and victims,” Schliep said. “With this grant, we wanted to get a little creative and asked: How can we try to combat that cycle and stop it in its tracks?” The goal and intent is to target the “little ones,” Schliep explained, by helping as soon as possible to treat young children exposed to violence.

This strategy is rooted in research that demonstrates domestic violence is a pediatric health issue just as much as an adult one: Every year, over 15.5 million children in the U.S. are exposed to adult intimate partner violence (IPV) at home, with serious long-term consequences for the children who witness it. Growing up in an abusive and volatile environment can affect children’s physical health outcomes and risk for substance abuse as well as their mental health, from the development of anxiety to depression to post-traumatic stress. On top of this, research shows exposed children are more likely to become victims or perpetrators of domestic violence themselves as they grow into adolescence and adulthood.

Schliep considered all of these factors when deciding to build the gazebo. Since families struggling with IPV also often become isolated, the gazebo’s outdoor setting is especially fitting.

“[It] provides a safe haven for these kids,” Schliep said. “Kids are known to thrive better being out in nature, so we also wanted to put them where they might feel more comfortable.”

Supporters of Aim High, the Gloucester Township Police, and friends and family attended the gazebo’s ribbon-cutting ceremony Aug. 10 — also the third anniversary of Aimee’s death.

“We decided to use that date as something to be joyful about, not to be sad,” Schliep said, determined to honor Aimee’s light. “And even on that day, kids were already running in the gazebo, so I’m confident that it’s going to be put to good use, without a doubt.”

Just as planting the seeds of well-being in families can help children lead healthy lives, Schliep hopes that planting the gazebo at the Family Resource Center will blossom into even more initiatives for a healthier community.

“My goal is to try and provide therapy to more kids, and to bring more kids into the Center who need that support,” Schliep said. “Unfortunately, where [domestic violence] took place for Aimee, there’s not much support and there’s not much going on to combat it. We can’t change what happened or where, but the hope is that our town will be the forerunner for other towns to get involved. I hope that other states and cities recognize the work that we are doing and that they model this tool to help combat it.”

Along with her work with the Gloucester Township’s police department, Schliep also stays active in a number of violence prevention initiatives right here at CHOP. As a member of the Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) Task Force led by Joel Fein, MD, MPH, director of Advocacy and Health Policy in the division of Emergency Medicine, and Ashlee Murray, MD, MPH, attending physician in the department of Emergency Medicine, Schliep provides insight, guidance, and valuable perspective about communicating with DV victims. Schliep and the Task Force have helped to design a remarkable screening process for pediatric healthcare providers who see patients in places like the emergency department through the STOP IPV program, and they are also developing a CHOP policy for DV victims.

“Aimee was such a gift here on earth, and she would never want anybody to go through what she went through, so that’s why for us, it’s so important to bring awareness to DV,” Schliep said. “I would never want someone to walk this path. So that’s why we do it.”

Learn more about the Aim High fund and ways in which you can donate here.

Read more about the impact of intimate partner violence on children on our website.

Are you a CHOP employee looking to enhance health and wellness for children and families in your community? Learn more about applying for a CHOP Community Cares Grant here.