Behind Closed Doors: How domestic violence affects children

ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) -- "If nobody talks about it, then nothing will change."

On paper, Kaera Watson knows her childhood seems idyllic.

"You know, on the outside looking in, I think if you were to look at our family, we had a house on a big piece of land, with horses and dogs, and we had an in-ground swimming pool and you know, all the things that you think of a good family to have," said survivor Kaera Watson.

But, behind the picture perfect façade, a dark reality. Kaera says her biological father abused her and her family for almost a decade, but no one around them had a clue.

"You can't just look at a family, and look at all the things they have and think that it's not happening there because there's nothing that's, there's no line, you know, once you make a certain amount of money, that stuff like that doesn't happen," said Watson.

Domestic violence is not just an act between partners; it simply means violence that exists within the home, affecting anyone and everyone.

"I think what we have to remember is that adults are models for kids, whether we're intending to be a model and when we're not. Often times, what the children see within the home is where they're learning about emotions and regulating emotions and anger and how that's expressed," said Maureen Mostacci, Executive Director, Rockford Sexual Assault Counseling.

"Whether they're witnessing or they're themselves victim of the abuse, this one hundred percent affects them," said Marissa Ebert, LPC, HOPE Child and Family Counseling.

Studies show 1 in 4 people in the U.S. is a victim of domestic violence, with 41 percent of Rockford’s crime numbers following suit.

"Everybody, I don't care who you are, how much money you make, what color your skin is, how old you are, everybody knows somebody who's been abused," said Watson.

Regardless of the type of abuse, whether physical, sexual or emotional, experts say children often show their pain in a variety of ways.

"You can see kids that manifest things like behavioral issues, mental health issues, physical manifestations of their trauma, like gastrointestinal issues or migraine headaches, and then children who replicate the abuse that they see in their homes, so they may be violent and abusive to their peers, or the victim parent in their home," said Megan Brechon, Executive Director, Children's Safe Harbor.

Kaera remembers wetting the bed to the point that her parents took her mattress away.

Those memories or triggers push Kaera to change the narrative for other survivors.

Others, like Rockford mayor Tom McNamara, are joining her.

"If you have a sister, if you have an aunt, if you have a mother, if you have friends, if you went to high school with a class of people, if you went to preschool with a class of people, if you go to work and it's not just you at your work setting - domestic violence affects you," said McNamara.

Initiatives like the Family Peace Center address the city's growing problem.

"We are really looking at this from a multi-dimensional perspective. It's going to take more than one person to eliminate domestic violence, so as far as I'm concerned, the more people that are raising awareness on this issue, the more likely we are to persevere and hopefully end this issue," said Casey Bachochin, Program Director, Remedies Renewing Lives

McNamara knows the work to end domestic violence will continue long after he leaves City Hall, but he won't stop fighting until it does.

"You are a Rockfordian, you are incredibly tough, we see your bravery, we're inspired by it and that bravery is going to inspire us to work harder and harder every single day, so that we can make sure that we live up to our community's values," said McNamara.

For Kaera, being adopted by her foster parents changed everything.

"At 11 years old and you've endured so much, you don't, how do you teach a kid right from wrong, when all they've experienced is something totally different," said Watson.

And their patience helped her move on.

"It takes a lot to take in somebody else's children and raise them and teach them," said Watson.

Now, she's a police officer, married to her college sweetheart and a mother of two and rather than wallow in what happened, she shows her strength.

"I think of it as, you know, I had all these bad things happen to me, but I really don't think I would be the person I am without it," said Watson.