Family violence. The very name indicates that it’s not just violence against women – occasionally it’s violence against men. Then there are the children; the forgotten ones of family violence. The children who are either exposed to, or experience directly in the home, some kind of abuse. The statistics on the number of children who are affected by family violence are staggering. Although it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many are affected by domestic violence in Australia (because it’s not been particularly well documented), we do have statistics on women.
From research completed in 2012 we know that 1 in 6 Australian women had experienced physical or sexual abuse and 1 in 4 had experienced emotional abuse from a current or former partner. That’s a lot of women. In an ABS Personal Safety Survey, 59 percent of women reported that the violence they experienced had been witnessed by children, 37 percent that the violence had not been witnessed by children and four percent that they did not know whether the violence had been witnessed by children in their care. Sadly, violent homes are much more likely to have children than non-violent homes, and often with children aged five and under. Children can be the reason why some women choose to stay in violent relationships.
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It’s often not just family violence that these children are subject to either. An estimated 30-60 per cent of families affected by domestic and family violence experience harm fin other ways. A high proportion of those who have experienced physical abuse (55 percent) are also exposed to family violence and it is the same for those who’ve suffered sexual abuse (40 percent).
This Family Violence Problem Belongs to Us
The impact of trauma on these children is huge and can have a lasting impact on not just the individuals, but their future families and our society. It is not just their problem – it is our problem. Kelly Richards, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Justice at the Queensland University of Technology says,
“Many women affected by domestic and family violence have children who, rather than simply being an addendum to the violence or passively witnessing it, experience violence directly or live in fear in their home, robbed of a sense of safety or protection. The longer the violence continues, the more likely it is to impact children’s attitudes and their sense of relationships and the world. . . Family violence has potentially profound effects across the life cycle of an individual – from infancy, through childhood and adolescence, and even through to adulthood. Such trauma has long-term implications on self-esteem, relationships, physical and mental health, daily functioning. When those affected become parents, and have not had the right support to work through their issues, it often impacts the next generation.”
These children who have been traumatised and/or abused, are at much greater risk of being impaired as adults – socially, emotionally and cognitively. They are much more likely to develop harmful coping behaviours which can include substance and alcohol abuse, smoking and overeating, which can all compound the tendency for mental illness, homelessness and suicide.
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Suella Jarvis, YWCA Canberra’s community services manager, had seen exposure to family violence manifest in children as anxiety, aggression, emotional distress and disturbance, lack of concentration at school, and difficulty seeking and maintaining positive relationships. She said children who experienced violence often didn’t have a strong sense of self-worth or self-confidence and could be vulnerable. “We know that for normal and healthy growth and development, children need parents who are a safe and secure base for them,” Ms Jarvis said. “Children exposed to domestic violence are exposed to a parent or carer who has hurt them or hurt a person close to them, like a mother. . . So it really ruptures that sense of the parent as a safe and secure base.”
When Nathan was five he had his first experience of family violence abuse. His mum’s new boyfriend’s older son tied him up with a cord and “put fire ants underneath me”. He was young, vulnerable and scared. This was just the start of years of abuse. The first time his mum found out about her partner’s son’s abuse, “everything went pear- shaped”. But she moved on to another partner, who was “exactly the same”.”He used to also hit my little brother and I would try and protect him,” Nathan said. One of the boyfriends he said “used to punch me and beat me up while pouring chilli sauce down my throat”.
But Nathan is now 16 and looks like any normal teenager. And despite his experiences he hasn’t lost his trust in men. His dad ended up being his carer and the violence stopped. Nathan is now a part of Community Solutions, who has the “Be Cool. . . Not Cruel” initiative which aims to highlight the importance of healthy relationship ideals. Nathan’s advice for children living in a home where domestic abuse is occurring is not to keep silent. “You need to talk to someone and seek help anywhere you can,” he said. “I didn’t know about the help services then. Now I’m part of Community Solutions. Don’t hide stuff. Get it out.”
Some early childhood educators, Judi Rhodes and Tanya McQueen, are also trying to help children like Nathan. They have developed handmade storybook characters that they are hoping will reach into homes to comfort children who have witnessed and may still be witnessing family violence. The picture book has been written to help children develop coping strategies when they are exposed to abuse at home. At the moment, most counselling services are targeted towards adults who are victims of domestic violence – the children are often overlooked. Ms McQueen says, “We want to help the children living in these situations develop the tools they need to protect themselves.” They are waiting for funding to go ahead with printing.
Recovery Is Not a Given, but There is Hope
Support for these children is a community undertaking. Friends and family are important, but extended community is vital towards recovery for these children who have been abused or exposed to family violence in any way. The Australian Government recognises that it has a challenge in helping these children more. Mandatory reporting and some community programs are part of the changes that have been taking place for the better in addressing this issue. The resilience of children is also encouraging. Sometimes children from violent homes do not exhibit any signs of traumatisation, although this is not always an indicator that a child is not traumatised. Richards says that high-functioning mothers who are non-violent help children to cope better, as well as having high levels of familial and social support. Professional support is also an essential to enriching that child’s community.
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