There’s a couch, a refurbished flat-screen TV, a dining room table with two chairs and a bench inside Michelle Densley’s apartment. A bunk bed in one bedroom; a bed in hers.
The 34-year-old mother of three, who recently left secure housing at YWCA Utah in Salt Lake City, doesn’t have much stuff.
But in a third bedroom, there’s a menagerie of My Little Pony horses, dinosaurs, Ninja Turtles action figures, baby dolls and dress-up clothes. Toys were one purchase that didn’t lead to fights between her and her husband, she said, so looking into that room in her Salt Lake County apartment, one might think she and her children have lived a normal life.
“It’s an optical illusion of wellness,” she said.
Her children spend hours in therapy each week, Densley said, working to overcome the impact of witnessing domestic violence.
Such trauma can leave children withdrawn and nonverbal or prone to lash out, and it can slow their development compared to other children, said Utah Domestic Violence Coalition Executive Director Jenn Oxborrow.
The coalition estimates 80 Utah children witness the attempted murder or murder of their mothers in a year, a number influenced by Utah’s high rate of domestic violence and the state’s high birthrate, Oxborrow said. The statistic is based on a study of law enforcement and health data about Utah by Johns Hopkins School of Nursing professor Jacquelyn Campbell. She calculates that for every woman killed by domestic violence, another eight or nine women are almost killed.
In one recent case, West Valley City police said a 5-year-old boy witnessed the February death of his mom, Belinda Thomas, at the hands of her boyfriend, Darren Fitzgerald Byrd, 50. The boy told police that after Byrd killed his mom, the man chased him with a knife, trying to kill him, too.
Children exposed to trauma are more prone to experience homelessness, chronic health problems, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, family violence and suicide risk, said Oxborrow, who also is a licensed clinical therapist. Those who witness domestic violence also are more likely to commit crimes or experience a violent crime themselves, she said.
Densley’s 6-year-old son Edison, at one point, stopped speaking. He had difficulty interacting with classmates, felt anxious and was hypervigilant, a behavioral evaluation said. On this morning, he’s hanging out by himself in the bedroom with the bunkbed. Winston, now 5, was having outbursts when he struggled with his emotions. Now he and Eva, 2, were bopping around the toy room, pulling out treasures to show off and then discarding them for new finds.
‘This stuff is damaging the children’
Densley would later tell police her husband became progressively violent, but he never physically hurt their children, she said. So she thought, with patience and time, they could be the normal family she felt they were pretending to be in the happy photos she took with a camera he gave her.
She felt isolated in her marriage, she said, as she lost her job, accrued thousands of dollars in debt and was unable to pay to fix her malfunctioning car. If she purchased anything over $20, she said, their bank alerted her husband.
By 2016, she said, she could see Edison didn’t act like other children his age. She signed him up for soccer, hoping to show her husband how Edison’s capabilities compared to other children.
When her husband came home to take Edison to soccer on Feb. 16, 2016, Densley was about 30 weeks pregnant. She recorded about four minutes of what happened that day, beginning with her husband’s frustration that she was still getting Edison ready.
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” he says on the recording, recently played in court. “I am done. I am out of here. You figure it out.”
He went to the garage and got a gun, and she tried to use her phone to take a photo of him with it through a window. He came back in, demanding her phone, and she asked him to leave.
But as she shrieked for help, he threw her on the floor and strangled her, later charges against him said. “Do you want to die in front of your f---ing kids?” he says on the recording. “Tell me where it is!”
One of the children can be heard babbling nearby; Densley said it was Winston. Her husband eventually left. She didn’t immediately report to police, fearing that might spur another assault, the later charges said.
But after that day, Densley said, her two sons, who witnessed the assault, began regressing and Edison stopped talking. It wasn’t until she arranged an assessment for him five months later, in July, that she understood the connection, she said.
Doctors said in addition to Edison being on the autism spectrum, witnessing abuse was having a profound effect on him, she said. It was then that she decided to get therapy for her children, she said, and during their care that fall, she reported her allegations of abuse in February and June to police. She moved into housing at the YWCA after her husband was arrested.
“It just didn’t occur to me — which I think is the case with most people, it doesn’t occur to them — that this stuff is damaging the children’s brains, rewiring their brains,” Densley said.
Her husband was initially charged with eight counts for two alleged assaults; he pleaded guilty to a third-degree felony count of aggravated assault and a third-degree felony count of committing domestic violence in the presence of a child. His pleas were held in abeyance as he was placed on probation and underwent counseling.
But he was sentenced last week to 180 days in jail, with credit for 29 days served, for violating a protective order by emailing Densley while he was on probation. His attorney, Nathaniel Shafer, declined to comment, but at the sentencing, Shafer said his client regrets what he did and the harm to Densley and his children, and he is working to better himself.
Densley’s husband told the judge he knew his actions were “totally out of line,” adding, “I lost family, career, life. I just want to make it right.”
‘How much young children pick up’
Trauma in children can manifest in different ways, but often it can just seem like a child is misbehaving, said McCall Lyon, who has a doctorate in psychology and is the clinical director at The Children’s Center in Kearns.
The center offers counseling and a therapeutic preschool, and it’s where Densley took her children. Approximately 140 students at a time attend the preschool, and Lyon estimated more than half have experienced some kind of trauma.
Sometimes families come to the nonprofit because of their child’s behavior, such as difficulty bonding with other children or emotional outbursts, only to learn that the child is likely suffering because of witnessing something traumatic.
“Often parents might underreport the impact that that exposure might have, thinking, ‘Oh well, yeah, there was domestic violence, but my child was an infant so they couldn't possibly remember,’” Lyon said, “But what we actually know from research is that those experiences do impact even newborns.”
That is because children are “emotional thinkers,” Oxborrow said. The center of the brain’s emotional response, the amygdala, is fully developed by age 5. When children are exposed to stress and trauma so young, that part of their brain is triggered, releasing stress hormones through the body, and they have few mental tools to help them process it. Those don’t develop until children are older, around age 8.
“So when something’s happening around them, they think that it’s their fault, or they think it’s related to them directly,” Oxborrow said.
One exposure to a traumatic event is enough for behavioral and emotional issues to appear, but it is hardest for children to recover if they’ve witnessed multiple traumatic events, Lyon said. Trauma has a “strong and a cumulative effect” on children’s brains, and it can cause severe anxiety, temper tantrums and developmental regression or delays, Lyon said.
Lyon said parents she works with are sometimes shocked to learn the impact witnessing domestic violence can have on children. Those who are “so active trying to make sure I’m not going to let my kiddos see this, I’m going to try not to let them hear this, they might not realize how much young children pick up on,” she said.
The best way to avoid the negative outcomes of abuse is to get children away from it and into a stable home, Oxborrow said.
The Utah Domestic Violence Coalition was given $300,000 in ongoing funding by the 2019 Utah Legislature for Home Safe, which provides victims a safe place to live as they navigate leaving an abusive situation. The program means families don’t have to “bounce” from shelters to transitional housing to traditional housing, and that stability helps them become more resilient, she said.
She said research on similar programs has shown that after a year or 18 months in safe housing, most families recover and no longer need public assistance. And the risk of recurrence of domestic violence decreases by more than half, she said.
A new chapter
Today, Densley estimates she spends dozens of hours a week trying to help her children recover, driving them to and from therapy appointments and doing assessments. Edison is speaking a little, able to make his needs known, and was accepted into a specialty school for children with autism. Winston is curious and gets along with other children. He is dealing better with frustration and anger.
They all just moved into their new home, after two years in transitional housing through YWCA Utah. Now when they go home, there aren’t multiple locked doors to pass through. They can invite people to visit. They can have their own furniture.
After breakfast, Winston collected discarded yellow straws from Capri Sun pouches and shoved them into the grasp of his Ninja Turtle action figures as makeshift Bōjutsu staffs, then let them ride vicious-looking dinosaurs. Eva found each of her My Little Pony dolls and lined them up across the toy box, and then changed into a princess gown. Edison joined in, too, hopping in and out of the room.
Densley said starting this new chapter will be tough, but she’s up for the challenge.
“I’m so in love with my children, and I’m so dedicated to my children,” she said, “there is literally no amount of work, there is nothing that I won’t do for them.”
Editor’s note: Those who are experiencing intimate partner violence, or know someone who is, are urged to call the Utah Domestic Violence Link Line, 1-800-897-LINK (5465), or the Utah Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis Line, 1-888-421-1100.
11:58 a.m. • An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the severity of the offenses Michelle Densley’s husband pleaded in abeyance to. They are both felonies.
Correction: 11:58 a.m. • An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the severity of the offenses Michelle Densley's husband pleaded in abeyance to. They are both felonies.