The body of 29-year-old Melissa Sousa of Waterville was found in the basement of her apartment building last Wednesday, more than a day after she was last seen, as she was putting her twin 8-year-old daughters on the school bus.

Her longtime boyfriend has now been charged in her murder. According to Sousa’s boss, the boyfriend had threatened Sousa’s life several times: “A week ago in the driveway, he pointed a gun at her and the kids were saying, ‘Don’t kill my mom,’ ” Megan Legasse told the Morning Sentinel.

And on Oct. 21, an Acton woman was sentenced to 32 years in prison for murder after stabbing her husband in the chest in front of their two young children. “They tried to help their father as he lay dying,” the judge said at the sentencing.

Though we don’t usually hear their stories so plainly, children are often victims of domestic abuse just by being in the room. As such, they can carry with them forever the scars of that trauma, not unlike what many soldiers live with after leaving the battlefield.

As we mark Domestic Violence Awareness Month, it’s important to think of the youngest victims of abuse, how that abuse follows them through life and how we as a society address that trauma.

Witnessing domestic abuse – the incessant arguing and yelling, the controlling behaviors, the threats and violence – hits children right in their developing brains, particularly the parts controlling attention, memory and emotion. It activates fear and other raw emotions, flooding their minds just when they are trying to figure out all these complex feelings.


The toxicity of abusive relationships also affects parents, of course. The instigator, clearly, is an unfit parent, and it can become difficult for the adult victim, too, to meet their child’s basic needs for attention and affection.

So just as every cell in a child’s body is screaming out for a safe and secure home with parents who are dependable, protective and loving, they are plunged into an unsafe, uncertain world. All of their most complex emotions become tied to stress, and can come pouring out whenever they feel stress in the future.

Such toxic stress impedes their physical, emotional and social development. They can find it difficult to concentrate, to be alone or to deal with frustration. They are more likely to experience physical illness and depression. They can have trouble forming relationships.

As adults, they are more likely to suffer from substance abuse disorder or fall into criminal behavior. Sadly, they are at an increased risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of domestic abuse themselves, continuing a cycle of violence.

Both through the cycle of abuse and the enduring damage done to child witnesses, domestic violence has a long reach. Its toxicity is not limited to the lifetime of the relationship but instead reverberates on, sometimes for generations.

There are no simple solutions to domestic violence. We need to talk about it openly and clearly, so that victims know they can come forward, and perpetrators know that it is unacceptable.


We need to put in place policies for early detection and intervention, and resources so that victims have a place to go when necessary.

We need to make sure children have a safe place to go and dependable adults to reach out to when things are bad at home. We need to address directly the trauma those children have experienced.

And we need to teach boys that masculinity isn’t about power and control, and how to handle anger and frustration in a way that doesn’t end in violence.

If you or anyone you know needs help, call the statewide domestic abuse helpline at 866-834-HELP (4357) or go to to chat online with a trained advocate at any time. More resources are available at

We need to remember that the problems unleashed by domestic violence don’t stop when the abuse does.


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