Amelia Estrada threw away a belt after her nephews told her it had been used to beat their mother.
The boys sometimes see someone hit someone else on TV and say that used to happen to their mom.
"They'd seen it before," Estrada said.
Their mother, Sally Estrada -- Amelia's sister -- was stabbed to death at her city home on June 7, 2008. Police have charged her boyfriend, Eugene A. Hampton, with homicide.
Estrada died in the arms of her daughter, Gladys Mendez, now 13. She also left behind sons Luis Morales, 7, and twins Jose and Juan Morales, 4.
Her three sisters vowed to take care of her children, since their fathers are unable to. The children moved in with Amelia Estrada and Gerald Zapata, who are raising five children of their own in York.
"I'm just taking it one day at a time. They are not a burden to me," Amelia, 29, said. "God is not going to give you more than you can handle. . . . I was blessed, but what they went through, oh my God."
Experts say domestic violence has lasting effects on children, even if they're not being abused themselves.
Historically, programs for abused women operated on the premise that if they kept battered women safe, the women could keep their children safe, said Barbara Nissley, the children's program specialist at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
But in recent years, research has shown that safety is not the only issue, she said.
"How do we help children heal when they've lived with a batterer?" she said.
'They must be so lost'
Each of Sally Estrada's kids has dealt with their mother's violent death differently.
The twins have handled it pretty well, their aunt said. But they can still tell you exactly what they were doing the moment their mother died, Amelia Estrada said.
They draw pictures for their mom and ask Estrada if they'll make Sally happy. Everything they do is for their mother, Amelia said.
"Jose, every so often . . . I know when he's thinking of his mom because he'll come up to me and hug me," Amelia Estrada said. "He'll say, 'I just love you.' . . . I look at them and think, 'They must be so lost.'"
Seven-year-old Luis didn't speak for a while after he was told his mother was gone.
"He shut down on us," Estrada said.
At one point, he blamed himself because his mother and Hampton once fought after Hampton cursed at Luis, Estrada said.
"He said, 'Why didn't she just leave?'" Estrada said.
He has received some counseling at school. But he has been acting out there, so much so that Amelia's thinking of home-schooling him.
"He's got so much anger," she said.
Gladys, 13, is keeping busy.
Since her mother's death, she has become more active at Hannah Penn Middle School, working on the Soul Food Cookoff and becoming head of student security. Her grades have improved, and she joined the track team.
"I've noticed since we've been in track, she seems so much happier," her aunt said, adding that she thinks Gladys runs off her frustration. "She's dedicated to something."
But there are hard moments, when Estrada will catch her niece staring and know what's on her mind.
Gladys was also a fan of young pop star Chris Brown. She called him her future husband and had his posters plastered all over her room, Amelia Estrada said.
Brown was recently accused of beating up his girlfriend, fellow pop star Rihanna.
"As soon as she heard about it, she tore those pictures down," Amelia Estrada said. "It hit her pretty hard."
All the kids have nightmares. Estrada sometimes feels like they're trapped in one and can't get out.
"I wish I could just cuddle them," she said. "I can't replace her. I can't bring her back."
Stacy Kimberly used to meet with children while their mothers received help at Access-York, a domestic violence program that is part of the YWCA of York.
"Generally, they've said . . . it's very chaotic in their heads," she said.
The visible signs that a child might be exposed to domestic violence often come out in a school setting, said Kimberly, a former child advocate and now a community education specialist and volunteer liaison.
They might act out or not be very social. They might fall asleep in class as a result of having stayed up late listening to their parents fight.
Many kids think the abuse is their fault, Kimberly said. They think if they got better grades or went to bed on time, nothing bad would happen.
"That's never the case," she said.
Children can often be the deciding factor, in one way or another, that helps a woman leave an abusive partner, Kimberly said.
The victim might stay as long as the child is not being hurt, for example. One instance of child abuse might cause the victim to leave, she said.
Barbara Woodmansee, community education director for Access-York, remembers a mom who decided to leave an abusive partner after she saw her child acting like him.
Other times, she said, the child is used as a threat. For example, a batterer might tell a woman that if she leaves, she'll never see her child again.
"If the child ever hears that . . . talk about feeling as if they're to blame," Woodmansee said.
Last year, Harve L. Johnson was charged with homicide in the beating death of 2-year-old Darisabel Baez. The child's mother, Neida Baez, was also charged with homicide for allegedly failing to intervene.
In her statement to police, Baez said she got into the room where her daughter was being beaten, and Johnson told her she would make things "worse" if she didn't leave. Baez was afraid, her
attorney told the court.
Kids can all react in different ways to domestic violence, Kimberly said.
"Just being there to support the kids is number one," she said.
Safety is still the primary focus of programs for domestic violence victims.
When victims come to Access-York for help, they work with their children to create a safety plan, Kimberly said.
Sometimes, it's up to children to call 911, she said. They need to know when to call or go to a neighbor's house, as well as their own address and phone number.
Parents have to be in on the plan, too, to make sure the place the child is heading is safe.
Every step of a route is planned so the child knows exactly what to do.
"You don't want them in a panic trying to run across a busy street," Kimberly said.
Woodmansee said more emphasis is being placed on using a family model to help domestic violence victims. In those situations, a case manager works with an entire family instead of working separately with mothers and children.
Nissley said that in recent years the coalition has been looking at what it can do to help a victim as a mom.
"Parenting is a tough job no matter what," Nissley said. "Batterers often interfere with parenting."
Battered women in focus groups have indicated they need more help with their children, she said.
In order for children to heal, they need a safe, supportive, trustworthy adult, she said.
"If that adult is the nonabusive parent, even better," she said.
Breaking the cycle
Children learn primarily from their parents in their first years of life, Nissley said. So, domestic violence groups work with kids to make sure they pick up healthy relationship habits and don't think what they've seen at home is right.
"We don't want domestic violence to be a risk factor, (so that) kids leave and pick up that violence is acceptable," Nissley said. "We don't want any child to grow up and be an abuser or a victim."
Domestic violence groups have always worked with kids to teach lessons such as "hands are not for hitting" and that violence is never acceptable, she said.
The coalition developed a program called A Kid is So Special, she said. It includes a series of booklets for kids and moms to work on together, to help a mother understand what's going on with her children.
Kimberly said abuse can sometimes make children angry at their parents. The key is letting them know it's OK to be angry, but it's not acceptable to express it in the violent way they've seen, she said.
She works with high school students and runs a program for teens and parents called But I Love Him. They discuss what makes a healthy relationship.
Often, Kimberly said, it's the first time kids have thought about it.
Estrada said she's had conversations with her nephews about appropriate behavior.
"We tell them, you don't hit girls," she said. "If you're angry, you walk away."
Woodmansee said redirecting children and teaching them how to express their anger is important.
"They're going to model what you do," she said. "If they see unhealthy relationships, they're going to think that's normal."
Moving forward, looking back
Sally Estrada would have turned 32 on March 9.
Her family brought flowers to her grave in Gettysburg. They had balloons and cake, playfully smashing some in each others' faces because that's what Sally would have done, her sister said.
They reminisced about her past birthday celebrations.
"We did a lot of remembering," Amelia Estrada said. "I think it helped."
But the trial for Hampton, who has pleaded not guilty, is coming up. His attorney did not return a call last week for comment.
"I think that's when things are going to start getting crazy for us," Estrada said of when Hampton's trial begins.
She has been to some of the pretrial hearings, and it has brought back memories of family gatherings with her sister and Hampton. Sally and Hampton had been together just less than a year when she died.
"When I see him, I get so angry, you know what I mean?" Amelia said.
Thirteen-year-old Gladys has said she'll testify at trial, if she has to.
"I know I want to go in. I just want to know I'm strong enough," Gladys said in a recent interview. "I take it day by day."
24-hour hotline -- 846-5400 or 1-800-262-8444
Victim Assistance Center
1-800-422-3204 or 854-3131
Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence
24-hour National Domestic Violence Hotline (will connect to local domestic violence program) -- 800-799-SAFE
Some common effects of domestic violence on youths are:
-- Source: Access-York
-- Source: Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence