On the eve of the Super Bowl, the National Football League gave out various awards to players for performances during the past season. Perhaps the most important and moving was that of the Walter Payton Award, given annually to the player who demonstrates outstanding contributions to society off the field while handling himself in exemplary fashion in uniform.
This year’s winner was Jason Witten from the Dallas Cowboys. When I heard what he went through as a child and how it has impacted his life today, I felt compelled to write.
As a child, Jason, his mother and siblings fled an abusive environment within his own home. He was fortunate to land in the home of his grandfather, who saw that Jason did not fall into the trap of following an abusive lifestyle. His grandfather provided the positive influence so important to a young child exposed to violence at an early age.
Jason learned that children are helpless when exposed to abuse and often take up the lifestyle for lack of exposure to violence-free environments. Jason never forgot the lessons taught by his grandfather. He established an organization that provides mentors who go into domestic abuse shelters to spend quality time with the children forced into similar circumstances as his.
Jason learned long ago that children are not born hating. Children are not born as bullies or with a propensity to lash out physically or verbally. Children are not born to settle into a lifestyle of abuse or develop such low self-esteem they allow themselves to be lured into abusive relationships.
All of this behavior is learned — or absorbed — from those most responsible for their emotional development. In some cases this behavior comes straight from Mom and Dad. If children were ignored or received little or no parental guidance in the home, the street becomes their mentor.
We have come a long way, and it took a long time. Too many people have lost their lives, while many more have had their lives adversely impacted. I have been in this business long enough, however, to bear witness to remarkable changes in laws, protocols, procedures, training, advocacy and, perhaps most important, attitudes.
Despite the best intentions and efforts of many people and organizations, domestic and sexual violence will never be reduced to a satisfactory level. Unlike diseases from the past, there is no miracle cure that will relegate this violence to the history books. Domestic and sexual violence will continue to exist as long as society ignores the root causes.
Domestic and sexual violence stem from a place deep inside a person where logic, common sense, fear of sanctions or an expectation of accountability cannot be reached. If we have any hope of making true progress, we have to start with the children currently exposed to this scourge.
This does not mean we lessen our efforts. Whether it be policy decisions, law changes or public awareness, if we see a gap, we need to fill it; if we identify a shortcoming, we need to raise it; if we know of a weakness, we need to strengthen it. Of course, if we see something that is working, we need to promote it.
Wars are made up of battles. Battles are made up of skirmishes. Every case of domestic and sexual violence that is reported is a skirmish worthy of our intervention and advocacy and no less deserving of a comprehensive approach toward a positive resolution.
Abuse is not a crime that occurs behind closed doors and only affects other people. It is one that impacts all of us and one that requires all of us to take a stand and refuse to accept anything but complete elimination. Complacency equals complicity. Once we stop thinking, we stop trying. Once we stop trying, we stop caring. Once we stop caring, we stop existing.
Steven Edmondson is the domestic violence investigator for the Sagadahoc County District Attorney’s Office in Bath.