Children's Perspectives on Domestic Violence

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Audrey Mullender, Gill Hague, Umme Imam, Liz Kelly, Ellen Malos & Linda Regan

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    About the Authors

    Audrey Mullender is Professor of Social Work at the University of Warwick where she chairs both the School of Health and Social Studies and the Faculty of Social Studies and directs the Centre for the Study of Safety and Well-being (SWELL). She has over twenty years' experience of teaching social work, prior to which her background was in the statutory social services. She is the immediate past Editor of the British Journal of Social Work and has herself produced well over a hundred publications in the social work field, including more than a dozen books. Notable amongst these are: Children Living with Domestic Violence: Putting Men's Abuse of Women on the Child Care Agenda (edited jointly with Rebecca Morley and published in 1994 by Whiting and Birch) and Rethinking Domestic Violence: The Social Work and Probation Response (published in 1996 by Routledge). Her research has spanned women's issues in domestic violence and responses to perpetrators as well as services for children. In 2000, she was elected to the Academy of Learned Societies for the Social Sciences and she is a member of the Sociology, History, Anthropology and Resources College (SHARe) of the ESRC.

    Gill Hague is the Joint Co-ordinator of, and a Senior Research Fellow in, the Domestic Violence Research Group of the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. This group conducts national and international studies of domestic violence and offers wide-ranging consultancy, teaching and training on the issue, working broadly alongside the major practitioner organisations in the field and Women's Aid in particular. She holds professional qualifications in social work and in pre-school education, as well as a doctorate in social policy. She has worked on violence against women issues for nearly 30 years as an activist and has specialized in the issue as an academic since 1990. Overall, she has 20 years' experience as a social worker and has worked in academic teaching and research since the 1980s. She has written extensively on violence against women, as well as on other subjects, and, with Ellen Malos, is recognised as an authority on multi-agency work and domestic violence. Her publications include the popular overview book with Ellen Malos, Domestic Violence: Action for Change (second edition, Cheltenham: New Clarion Press, 1998) and many widely-read reports, papers and government briefing notes on the inter-agency approach. She has also written on the views and voices of abused women, and on children's issues, historical perspectives, international responses and housing issues, all in specific relation to domestic violence. Recent collaborative work (some with other authors of this book) includes research for the British Council, the ESRC, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Home Office.

    Umme Farvah Imam is Head of Community and Youth Work Studies at the University of Durham, specializing in issues concerned with race and gender. Born and educated in India, she was formerly employed at Roshni, Asian Women's Association, Newcastle upon Tyne, and was a co-founder of Panah, the black women's refuge there. She has been active for over a decade on wider issues of preventing and responding to the abuse of women and children in the black and Asian communities. She is one of a tiny number of minority ethnic women in Britain combining this particular professional and community involvement with related academic research interests focusing on domestic violence, particularly its impact on children and young people. She is currently drawing on British and South Asian literature to conceptualize the impact of abuse in the lives of young Asian women, and is forging links with academics and women's organizations in India for future research activity on this topic. Her publications include ‘Asian children and domestic violence’ in Mullender, A. and Morley, R. (eds) Children Living with Domestic Violence (London: Whiting and Birch, 1994) and ‘Training Black Women in Newcastle upon Tyne’ in Training European Women: A Study of NOW Projects in Four European Cities (NOW joint Evaluation Project, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1995). She was co-editor of the ‘Black Perspectives’ issue of Youth and Policy (49: 1995). She has presented at national and international conferences on her range of interests, including in a workshop at the major conference on children living with woman abuse that was held in London, Ontario, in June 1997.

    Liz Kelly is Professor of Sexualised Violence and Director of the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University. She has worked in the field of violence against women and children for almost 30 years. She jointly undertook the key British work on the prevalence of sexual abuse in childhood. Prior to, and alongside her academic role, she has been active in establishing and working in local services including refuges and rape crisis centres, and in local, regional and national campaign groups. In the early 1970s she worked with children in a refuge in East Anglia. Her internationally respected groundbreaking work on women's experiences of male violence was published as Surviving Sexual Violence (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988) and is known in the USA through a chapter of a standard text of the same year: ‘How women define their experiences of violence’ in Yllö, K. and Bogard, M. Feminist Perspectives on Wife Abuse (Newbury Park, CA: Sage). She is also one of the key thinkers who has made the connections between woman abuse and child abuse, challenging family dysfunction theories, and setting a clear research agenda for further work in this field in her chapter in Mullender and Morley's 1994 book Children Living with Domestic Violence. Her theorizing continues to broach new territory, dealing currently with topics such as abuse in lesbian relationships, trafficking in women, the public focus on the term ‘paedophile’, and the issues surrounding ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ as long-term core identities. She chaired the expert group established by the Council of Europe to formulate a plan of action to be adopted as official policy. She also increasingly provides expert testimony in court and advises the media in her areas of interest. She was awarded the CBE in 2000 for services combatting violence against women and children.

    Ellen Malos is a Senior Lecturer in the Domestic Violence Research Group of the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. Her work spans interests in child care, domestic violence and gender studies. Funded work has resulted in research reports, conference papers, chapters and articles on custodianship, family violence, and an edited book The Politics of Housework (1980, revised in 1995 for New Clarion Press, Cheltenham). She has undertaken policy research work with funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Department of Health, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Economic and Social Research Council. Currently, she is co-ordinating a four-university collaborative evaluation of the domestic violence multi-service interventions in the Home Office Crime Reduction Programme.

    Linda Regan is currently a senior research officer at the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, London Metropolitan University, where she has been based for over 10 years. During that time she has been involved in over 30 research and evaluation projects, presented at numerous national and international conferences and delivered training to participants in both the voluntary and statutory sector at home and overseas. Linda is a member of several advisory boards and is a trustee of the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize.

    Acknowledgements

    We should like to acknowledge the invaluable work of Wendy Dear, Cassie Hague and Christina Pantazis in Bristol, and particularly the extensive efforts of Sheila Burton in London and Parveen Akhtar in Durham, at various stages of the research on which this book is based. We should also like to thank all the schools and their pupils who were involved in Phase I of the project, the agencies who helped to locate a sample for Phase II, and, most especially, all the children, young people, their mothers and key professionals who gave unstintingly of their time to be interviewed. Thangam Debbonaire, former National Children's Officer of the Women's Aid Federation of England, kindly provided consultancy during the early stages of the research team's work. Whilst, as authors, we naturally take responsibility for any errors that may have crept in, we are delighted to have shared a commitment to completing this important project with all those who helped us undertake it.

  • Appendix: Children's Advice to other Children about Coping with Domestic Violence

    Start making friends. Children need friends and need each other. If it hurts you, you have to change again. (8-year-old mixed-race boy)

    All the interviewees in the qualitative stage of our research had experienced domestic violence, although in almost all cases they were no longer living with the violence and had been able to reflect upon their experiences. Thus their views may be particularly helpful to other young people still living in abusive situations. During the study we specifically asked children and young people what advice they would like us to pass on to other children as a result of their experiences and expertise on the issue. The children and young people we interviewed took on board the question in a committed way and offered passionately felt advice for us to pass on to other children. With a sense of solidarity, they often expressed themselves strongly, maintaining an urgent eye contact. They frequently prefaced their advice with such statements as ‘You must tell the other children’, ‘Make sure that they know’ and ‘It's really important that you tell them’. While many of the points raised repeat issues that have already been discussed as coping strategies in Chapter 5, we have tried to respect the views of our informants by conveying as much as possible of the advice they have offered in their own words, as an example of children's expertise in their own issues. Points are also repeated here from other chapters in order that the list can ‘stand alone’ in its own right, independent of other parts of the book on how children cope.

    Advice from Children to other Children about Useful Frames of Mind to Adopt

    Children and young people had useful general advice to offer on how to deal with their experiences on an overall, psychological level:

    • Sit down, think about what's going on, keep a level head. Try and compose yourself because, once you stop and think, your mind arranges itself and you know what to do.
    • Write down your thoughts and feelings.
    • Try to ignore it and keep yourself busy, play with toys or watch TV, occupy yourself.
    • Try and think happy thoughts.
    • Stick together, help each other. You can get help from your mum or relatives. I suppose to try and get on with your life and not let it dominate everything.
    • Be brave.
    • Stay calm.
    • Don't get hysterical.
    • Tell the children to just calm down, try to relax and cuddle their toys.
    Supporting Your Mother and Siblings

    One of the major areas of advice that children had for other children concerned their mothers – the need to offer them support and assistance and also to value their support and love; similarly, advice often featured supporting and helping siblings:

    • Help your mother be strong.
    • Give your mum advice because sometimes she can't think straight.
    • Have lots of cuddles with your mum and brothers and sisters.
    • Talk to your brothers and sisters.
    • Get lots of reassurance and love from your mother.
    • If you are a child, think what your mum is going through.
    • Stick to your mum.
    Getting Adults or Older Children to Take Responsibility

    Additionally, some of the strongest advice to emerge from the interviews was for children to tell someone and to get an adult to take responsibility. As discussed previously, many of the children were clear that adults, not children, should sort the problem out:

    • Tell a grown-up. Find someone and tell them.
    • Tell your grandma or family.
    • Get older brothers and sisters and your relations to help.
    • Children need to tell an adult. Adults can sort it out.
    • Younger children – try and tell an older sister, your mother. Always be with someone.
    • If you have older sisters and brothers, talk to them about it so they can help sort it out.
    Who to Ask for Help?

    As regards who to tell, the children interviewed had much useful advice for other children. The best person to tell, apart from adults in the family, was generally thought to be the police or someone in authority. As noted previously, however, children recognized that it could be difficult to call the police and it would sometimes be better to get another adult to do it. Also, some minority ethnic children warned about possible racism from agencies and the need to be careful about involving the ‘white’ authorities.

    Agencies that are Trusted and Culturally Sensitive
    • Teenagers – tell teachers, social services, adults whom you can trust in case something happens.
    • Phone an agency. Tell someone. Agencies need to make sure they understand about our family and religion and they don't take things the wrong way.
    The Police
    • Get an adult to go to the police on your behalf.
    • Phone the police and then they'll come in a couple of days and take him away.
    Education
    • Talk to teachers and get them to help you.
    Childline
    • Phone outside agencies, or ChildLine.
    • I phoned ChildLine twice, just to talk to them really. It's just nice to have someone you don't know who you can put all your bits and pieces to … It's easier to talk to a stranger sometimes because you can let your real feelings out. You don't have to worry what they may think of you.
    Having Plans for Keeping Safe

    Another piece of essential advice that children wished to pass on was to plan to be safe and to stay safe:

    • Don't hesitate to get out of the house.
    • Run out into the street or the garden.
    • You need a safe place to hide yourself until the shouting and fighting stops.
    • Put the light on to see what is going on at night and to feel safe.
    • Put a bed against the door.
    • Round up the other children and take them off into another room.
    • Have plans for where to go and how to get away. (This interviewee had undertaken safety planning with a children's worker in a refuge).
    • Get help to get away.
    Having Somewhere Safe to Go
    • Someone to go and stay with until it's sorted out.
    • Get out as soon as there's an argument. Even just go to the park or to the nearest relative so that things don't escalate.
    • Make sure you are safe, have safe places to go to or other places to stay at, preferably with people you trust.
    • Move somewhere safe so you know it's not going to happen again.
    • Leave home with your mum and brothers and sisters and go to a refuge.

    A refuge was generally regarded positively as a helpful place to go, and one where there might be supportive child workers. Some Asian children felt that general refuges were unsuitable and that specialist Asian refuges would be better places for Asian children and young people to escape to.

    • The children will need a refuge or place of safety.
    • Someone to trust, a nice environment – homely – that will raise their confidence.
    • More refuges, not English refuges, they are not suitable for Asian children. They don't understand the Asian way of life so they are not helpful.
    • The child care workers in the refuge will help you and believe in you.
    Not Intervening Directly

    Almost all the children and young people advised other children not to intervene as it might result in getting hurt:

    • Stay out of the argument, keep safe.
    • You need a room to be where you can't see or hear as much. You will know about it [the violence] but this will make it easier.
    • If you are in the house, stay out of the way.
    The Need to Tell your Parents how you Feel
    • Tell your parents about it and how it makes you feel, don't keep it bottled up.
    • Tell them they should be looking after you instead of fighting with each other. Tell your parents you should be the most important things to them in the world rather than fighting.
    • Tell those who are shouting to stop it and tell you they are sorry.
    The Need to Talk with and Confide in Someone

    On a general level, apart from asking an adult to take responsibility for the situation, or asking agencies to help, almost all the children advised others to confide in someone informally in order to share and lessen the load, rather than keeping it inside them. This piece of advice to other children was repeated often in the interviews:

    • Talk to people. Don't take it too seriously. Don't think that the world is going to end. Don't just think of all the bad things all the time.
    • Stick together with your mum and your brothers and sisters. Be a team! You can help each other.
    The Need to Build Self-Esteem and Confidence and to Speak about Feelings

    Children also had good advice to offer about the emotional needs of children experiencing domestic violence and the need to build self-esteem, confidence and self-respect:

    • Someone to make them feel good about themselves and make them feel it wasn't their fault.
    • Take them out somewhere and that would make them feel easier and better about it.
    • Say their feelings.
    The Need to have Cuddly Toys for Younger Children and to Take Possessions if you Leave

    Many children brought up the importance of and need for cuddly toys as reassurance. The very good advice was offered that if you are going to leave home to go to a refuge or other alternative accommodation it is a good idea to have a familiar and loved toy or possession with you and also to try to take your own clothes:

    • You need cuddly toys and possessions.
    • Have cuddly toys and start cuddling them.
    • Have your own toys and belongings if you have to leave home to make the change easier.
    • Children need clothes so they can move quickly.
    • Keep books and read them [to occupy yourself].
    What Children who are Now Safe Say to other Children who are Still Living with Domestic Violence

    These points are derived from a group interview with children of varying ages, ethnic and cultural backgrounds and of both sexes:

    • Hide when it's happening.
    • Cuddle up with your brothers and sisters.
    • Try not to listen.
    • Get support from someone if you can, someone you trust. Tell someone if you can.
    • Go to friends' houses or to relatives.
    • Your nan might be able to help.
    • Tell your teacher.
    • If there is no one to help, try not to get in too much of a state about it.
    • Keep going.
    • Some children like to keep it a secret and hide it.
    • It's OK to hide it but you need to be sure you feel OK about that and not torn apart with worry.
    • Tell them not to argue and hit each other.
    • Don't try and intervene to stop it.
    • Remember that it is not because of you.
    • It's not children's fault.
    • Try the police if it gets really bad. Get a grown-up to phone them if you don't feel able to. But remember, the police can be more trouble than they are worth. If you are going to call the police, good to have talked about it with your mum first (another time beforehand).
    • Social workers might help sometimes.
    • Refuges are OK. The child workers are good for helping. Consult the child workers – don't be shy, that is their job and they know about what children feel.
    • Give your mum advice because sometimes she can't think straight.
    • Help your mum and your brothers and sisters.
    • Get a big dog!!
    • Try not to turn out the same way.
    • When you're bigger, you can read books and stuff.
    • When you're bigger, you can watch things on TV about it.
    • Programmes like EastEnders already have it on.
    • Talk with other children who know about it – like in a refuge.
    What they Say to Mothers Experiencing Abuse
    • Go to the police. Don't put up with it.
    • It won't get any better, even though you think it will.
    • Get out as soon as you can.
    • Don't wait.
    • Go to a refuge. They'll help you there.
    • Try and make a new life – you can do it.
    • Don't see him again.
    • Don't go back to him.
    • Try and be strong.
    • If you have a relationship, have your own house because you can be safe then.
    • Talk to us more about it.
    A Final Word

    The evidence of our study was that children who have witnessed domestic violence want to be listened to, taken seriously and involved in the decision-making process. They want support, understanding and reassurance, to be in safety with their mothers, and to have their own belongings, friends and support structures around them. Wide-ranging coping strategies used by children and young people include helping their mothers deal with the practical and emotional impacts of the violence, intervening directly or getting help, calling the police, and taking responsibility for looking after younger siblings, protecting them and keeping them away from the violence. There seemed to be little variation as regards ways of coping, either in terms of age or sex. Nor were there clear differences on the basis of ethnicity, although children from many minority ethnic families were more likely to seek help from other members of the family, and their coping was adversely affected where there were fears that their communities would be rejecting and official agencies might be racist or non-comprehending.

    Notable, also, was the way in which several older children (both boys and girls) described how they had chosen to support their mothers and had taken on sometimes greatly increased responsibility for helping and advising them and their siblings and for seeking help and advice. Freedom from fear and the opportunity to form better relationships with their mothers were notable gains for many of the children who had previously lived with violence and abuse, and such relationships facilitated effective coping strategies. Children who have lived with domestic violence were shown in the study to be able to talk about and cope with their experiences and understandings if the context is right. Their tenacity and resilience are key resources for agencies to work with and their comprehensive advice to other children is a rich source of assistance and help. The final word of advice lies perhaps with the moving words of a young boy who had established a successful new life with his mother and brother after many years of extreme abuse and trauma:

    This is what you must tell the children. Tell them this. This is really important. If you can, persuade your mum to leave. If you're in a difficult situation and you feel you can't get out of it, this is what you need to do. Tell someone. Doesn't matter what's happening. Tell someone. The adults should deal with it, not you. Get it sorted out and get out if you can. We've gained so much strength by being far away. If you do leave, tell yourself you're safe now. You're safe. Keep telling yourself this. Build your confidence. Hopefully you can become stronger and more confident in such situations. Get stronger. You can do it.

    That's really important and that's what I want you to tell other young people. (14-year-old white boy)

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