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Getting to the Roots

kids runningthroughfieldsChild abuse seminar aims to help local professionals intervene

In 1975, 24-year-old Daniel Sonkin was an intern in a San Francisco Planned Parenthood, where he gave pregnancy test results to patients. Among the many clients he delivered pregnancy news to, one woman in particular caught his attention. The woman, who he remembers as being in her 20s, had terrible bruises covering her arms. He couldn’t help but inquire.

“I didn't grow up in a family with domestic violence,” says Sonkin, “so I didn't really know anything about this problem. Although we were taught briefly in school about child physical abuse, there was no mention of sexual abuse or spouse abuse.” The patient, when prompted by a curious Sonkin, relayed that, when telling her boyfriend about the potential pregnancy, a verbal altercation began that escalated into physical violence.

Her situation startled Sonkin, and sparked his interest in domestic violence issues and their roots. Although there was no way of telling if the woman’s unborn child was harmed or not, he learned that the beginnings of interpersonal abuse, spousal abuse, or sexual abuse can and often do lead to child abuse or neglect. The link is further proved by the fact that approximately 40 percent of families that deal with physical child abuse also experience other family violence, according to United Way of Santa Cruz County.

Sonkin has been making connections like these through his work as a psychotherapist for the past 30 years. From the observations made from his Planned Parenthood internship in San Francisco, Sonkin advanced to working with male perpetrators at an abused women’s shelter in Marin County. This eventually progressed to leading support groups for offending parties on behalf of the Family Violence Prevention Project and beyond into Sonkin’s own private practice. His internationally recognized expertise is focused specifically on domestic violence, child abuse, and trauma resolution.

Sonkin will raise these issues with Santa Cruz County human service professionals and therapists at a Friday, Jan. 13 seminar titled “Primed for Terror: The Neurodevelopmental Effects of Child Abuse and Domestic Violence.”  The event, which will take place at Cabrillo College from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., will teach attendees how to confront and intervene in these abusive situations.

Domestic violence awareness has come a long way since Sonkin first saw those bruised arms in 1975. “When I was in graduate school,” recalls Sonkin, “there were only two books on domestic violence; today there are hundreds of books published on the topic, as well as dozens of research articles published every year.” The issue is especially fresh in the public’s memory because of the 40 counts of child sexual abuse that Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State University assistant football coach, faced in November 2011. The case claimed national attention and reminded Americans that child abuse can, and does, happen everywhere. In Santa Cruz County in 2011 there were more than seven substantiated cases of child abuse per 1,000 children under 18 years old, according to the Santa Cruz County Community Assessment Project. Although this is a significant improvement from past years, there is still work to be done.

The upcoming seminar, which is an effort of the Child Abuse Prevention Committee (CAPC) and United Way of Santa Cruz County, is one way these groups hope to combat the problem locally. At the workshop, Sonkin will discuss the neurological effects of witnessing or experiencing child abuse and how to take action when confronting these situations.

“This is for therapists and social workers,” notes Leslie Hartman, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the chair of the event. “But I also think it’s a really beneficial seminar and educational opportunity for any professional in our community who works with families and children. If we want to strengthen our communities by strengthening individuals and families, then any of us who are working with people in any capacity can benefit from this.”

Attendees can expect to come out of the workshop having learned the physiological effects of child maltreatment on the developing brain along with an understanding of the association between domestic violence and child maltreatment. Dr. Sonkin will also point out general intervention guidelines for offending and non-offending parents and discuss general intervention strategies with children.

“Counselors and social workers are really on the front line,” says Mary Lou Goeke, executive director of UWSCC. “They often will be the ones that discover situations of family violence so they need to understand the new research, and what’s coming out now in terms of brain development and brain trauma for children who have witnessed or experienced abuse. Having this seminar is a way for us to bring their skill level up and also a way for us to let them know about new resources we have in our county that they can refer people to.”

The seminar meets the requirements for four hours of continuing education credit, which are available for licensed therapists and social workers.

“My personal hope for this workshop,” adds Hartman, “would be to draw enough of an interest and share a common vision for how to reduce, intervene in and ultimately prevent family and community violence.”


The seminar will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 13 at the Cabrillo College Horticulture Center. Registration is $25. For more information or to register visit unitedwayssc.org.

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