World Series Manager Joe Torre Talks of Growing Up With Domestic Violence as He Advocates for Children
In 1995, a short while after being fired for the third time as a Major League baseball manager, Joe Torre cried.
His tears had nothing to do with his professional demise. Instead, it was at a self-help seminar that Torre cathartically confronted his long-buried memories of growing up with his violent father, a police detective who frequently abused his Italian-born mother.
The former All Star player and World Series manager spoke at a panel discussion on the individual and societal effects of domestic violence on children — and what lawyers can do about them — during the ABA Section of Litigation’s 2013 Annual Conference.
Torre recalled being told that his father pushed his mother down the stairs at his childhood home in Brooklyn. She was pregnant with Torre at the time.
There were memories of brandished guns. Of crashing dishes and yelling. Of furtive whispers among his siblings, who wanted to shield their little brother from the madness. But because of their silence, an impressionable Torre suspected it was all his fault.
Torre said the violence took its emotional toll. He suffered from unusual shyness and low self-esteem from childhood well into adulthood.
“I was afraid of everything,” he said.
Torre noted that his lifeline was the opportunity to play baseball as a kid, combined with the loving nature of his mother and siblings. During his 17-year career as a catcher and infielder, he made the All Star team nine times. Starting in 1996, he managed the New York Yankees for 12 seasons, making the playoffs every year and winning the World Series four times.
With his wife, he founded the Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation, which raises awareness for children on the effects of domestic violence in their homes and provides nurturing environments for child witnesses of violence.
The issue eventually got the attention of the Obama administration and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who named Torre as co-chair of the Department of Justice’s Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence. The panel issued a report with recommendations on how the justice system and the broader society can and must stem the emotional trauma of violence on children.
Appearing with Torre was John Rich, a professor at Drexel University’s School of Public Health. Rich spoke of countless other children who, like Torre, have been witnesses to violence. But many don’t have the opportunities to recover and thrive like Torre did.
Instead, Rich said, many who grow up with violence in their homes and communities suffer from post-traumatic stress, which is often mischaracterized as learning disabilities or behavior problems. Many develop lifelong health problems. Some child witnesses to violence go on to commit violence themselves, Rich said.
“The trauma of what happens as a child stays with you,” said Torre, who recalled the added pressure he felt as a player.
Rich and Torre decried school “zero-tolerance” and other policies that punish children for their behavior rather than get at the root of their problems and try to help. “Don’t ask what’s wrong with this kid, but what happened to this kid,” Rich said. Torre noted that his sensitivity in this regard, rooted in his childhood experience, often helped him relate to and manage his players.
Rich added that programs that try to scare juvenile offenders by showing them the effects of violence in emergency rooms and morgues don’t get at the root of the youths’ problems but merely pile on the trauma.
Like Torre’s baseball lifeline as a child, extracurricular activities including sports, arts and music can be valuable outlets for youth who witness violence at home or in the community, panelists said.
Panel moderator Lourdes Rosado, co-chair of the Section of Litigation’s Children’s Rights Litigation Committee, suggested that lawyers can do a lot to raise awareness of the effects of violence on children: They can inform school boards of reports such as the Department of Justice’s study of children and violence. They can keep an eye out for problems on the playground and in youth sports leagues. They can alert people who can help if something is amiss. They can know where to turn for resources, such as Torre’s Safe at Home Foundation.
Torre identified the stakes when he referred to at-risk youth as “our kids.”
“They all are our kids, even though they don’t share the same last name — they’re our future,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure there’s hope for these kids.”