There are families in family violence
Although great steps have been taken to address the issue of family violence in Australia, the whole conversation still largely frames the problem as something that happens between adults. Children also experience violence in the home and it is time they were given a greater stake when reporting on and considering the issue of family violence.
This issue is deeply personal for me. My first memory when I was three years old is of being hit by my father after he discovered the label from a box of tic tacs I had stuck to a wall. He lined my sister and me up and asked who had put it there. She said it wasn’t her. I lied and said it wasn’t me either. He hit us both then asked again, who did it? Again she protested her innocence. Again I lied. When he started shaking us so hard it felt like my neck was going to snap, I knew I couldn’t let my sister take any more. I admitted what I had done. He discarded her to focus on me, roaring and slapping and pounding, my body his drum as he hit home his message. Whack, whack …
After managing to wriggle from his grasp I ran, hurling myself beneath the couch in our lounge room, attempting to hide in the ineffectual way three-year-olds have. He thundered after me, gripped my ankles and dragged me out, ripping from my scalp a chunk of hair that had snagged on the couch springs in the process. He then hung me upside down in the air and shook me until I broke my hold on the couch leg I had managed to latch onto. Once on my feet again, he launched round two.
Whack, whack …
On and on it went until mum finally found her voice and managed to whisper scream at him, ‘Stop it! You’re going to kill those kids one of these days!’
This memory is among the most vivid I have but it is not my only violent memory. My childhood was spent walking along a razor edge of expectations that were impossible to meet. There was no room for mistakes. No allowance for the fact that I was small and learning: leaving a bike in the yard; tripping and hurting myself; running through the house. The impulses of early childhood were the things most likely to evoke his rage. Sometimes it was just a few slaps. Other times he would lose control.
The pattern of violence in my home does not match what most people think of as domestic violence. Dad was equally belittling to us all, but to my knowledge he hit mum only one time. He did, however, hit my siblings and me repeatedly from the time we were old enough to walk to the time he left when I was eleven.
According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, all children are born with the same fundamental freedoms and inherent rights as adults, although their vulnerability also entitles them to special protection. Children have the right to protection against all forms of abuse, violence, neglect, cruelty and exploitation. According to the convention, these are not lofty ideals, but basic rights.
Unfortunately, in the real world, we know it is not always possible to shelter children from violence and abuse, especially if that abuse is perpetrated by the very people who are meant to be acting as guardians and protectors.
There is one right championed by the convention, though, that we can and must defend if we are serious about making changes in the lives of the most vulnerable victims of domestic violence: ‘Children have the right to have their views heard, considered and taken seriously in a way that is appropriate given age and ability, especially when decisions are being made that affect them.’
But is this happening? In her November 2015 article in the Monthly titled ‘Suffer the Children’, Jess Hill shared the story of a mother called Erin, who went into hiding with her children rather than force them to visit a father they feared. At the police station, when she was eventually arrested on criminal charges of abduction, Erin submitted this, her daughter’s letter to the police:
My name is […], and I am scared of my dad. I have seen him in a rage throw my brother across the room. He has held a knife to my mother’s throat telling her how easy it would be to cut it … and the court has given me to him. I have tried to tell all the legal people involved how scared he makes me but I am too young for anyone to listen …
At what point do I become old enough? I want to … think that somewhere in the cosmos is a place where I am valued and safe. I don’t want to be the next Luke Batty … Please, please help.
This child tried repeatedly to have her view heard. Yet even after this letter was received, she and her brother were removed from their mother, the one person who had taken them seriously.
Hill’s article goes on to describe the concern the court seems to have about the power of mothers to influence a child’s perception of their father. In many rulings, the possibility of infringement on a father’s rights seems to take higher priority than the risks of further exposing children to potential ongoing abuse.
My dad left our family in 1985. At that time the culture of regular visitation for fathers was not entrenched in our societal norms, so I didn’t see him regularly. But every time he asked to see me and my siblings, we met with him. Although I was fiercely loyal to my mum, and took her side in their divorce, she was careful about how she spoke about dad and tried to separate the breakdown of her marriage from our relationship with our father.
On the rare times I saw dad I generally thought how warm, funny and smart he was. Despite wishing I could feel only rage towards him, so I could hurt him the way he had hurt me, I loved dad. Didn’t just love him. Twisted myself in knots for him. Kept trying to make myself good, better, best, to prove to him that I was worth loving back. But that didn’t mean I wanted to live with him. Or that I wouldn’t have been at risk of further violence if I had been forced to spend extended periods of time in his company.
If anyone had asked me when I was a child if I felt safe with dad, I would have said no. I would have said it with the same certainty I say it now. Yet judging by the way many children are treated by today’s family services, my views would not have been sought, and if they had been, they would not have been listened to.
In The Body Keeps the Score, Dr Bessel van der Kolk, a leading clinician since the 1970s in the area of post-traumatic stress and related phenomena, says, ‘Trauma almost invariably involves not being seen, not being mirrored and not being taken into account.’ I cannot think of a single time during my childhood when I felt my views were heard, considered or taken seriously. It never occurred to me they would be.
As a child your experience is constrained within the world your parents show you. You rely on them to be your teachers and guides. If they teach you that you’re worth nothing, that your pain and sadness deserves no recognition, that is the lesson you learn. If they fill you with their anger before you have had time to make your own sense of the world, it becomes fused into your understanding of how the world works and the world becomes a dangerous place.
When the world can’t be trusted, it doesn’t occur to you that there might be adults out there who could help, and that there are avenues of support beyond the four walls of your home.
The one time my dad hit my mum was some months after he had moved out and begun living with another woman. It was past midnight. I woke to mum’s cries for help to find dad in our kitchen, pinning her to the ground. When I tried to wrench him off her, he shoved me away. When I tried to comfort mum, he threw me across the room. After he threatened to scoop her eyeballs out with the cap off his beer bottle, I grabbed my brother’s hand and ran next door to our neighbour. I told her that dad was trying to kill mum and asked if we could call the police.
Although I was nearly jumping out of my skin with how revved up I was, I was only thirteen and had been taught to always be polite to our elderly neighbours. So when she took her time looking through the phone book for the number of the local station, then reported ‘some kind of domestic disturbance’, I stood by and let her, although I wanted to drag her in to the kitchen at my house so she couldn’t look away from the harsh reality she was trying to coat in a polite veneer.
This was the first person I had ever told about the violence going on at home. I told her my dad was trying to kill my mum. She downgraded the situation to a ‘domestic disturbance’ not even worthy of dialling 000.
When the blue and red lights of the police car flashed into view, I raced back home. Dashing to answer the insistent rap on our door, I nearly collided with dad, who stepped out of the shadows to greet the officers. Before he could say anything I jumped in. ‘Dad was hurting mum and he doesn’t even live here anymore. He’s not meant to be here. I want you to take him away.’
The policemen looked at dad. ‘Is this true?’ He nodded without looking up.
Their attention shifted to me. ‘Is your mum here?’
At this stage I didn’t know if mum was dead or alive, but after I called her she emerged from the bedroom relatively intact.
‘Do you want to press charges against your husband?’ She shook her head without speaking.
When they asked if we wanted to stay at a shelter in case dad came back, I convinced mum it was probably a good idea. In the police car on the way to the refuge, I kept expecting the officers to ask about what had happened. Instead they asked what grades we were in and the name of our budgie. It felt like they were showing us what we were expected to do. Act normal. Put it behind us. Don’t dwell on it.
This was the second time I had informed other people about the violence going on in our home. They didn’t ask us if we were all right. They didn’t offer to put us in contact with support services. Instead they dropped us off at the shelter that would be our home for the weekend and that was the last we saw of them.
During the whole of my childhood it had never occurred to me to reach out to anyone for help with what was going on at home. To me, the way the police responded to our situation confirmed that, apart from a place of escape during a period of peak violence, there was no help on offer.
The third occasion I told an outsider about the violence at home was when I told my teacher. I had taken a box of school fundraising chocolates with me to the shelter, and over the course of the weekend had eaten the lot. I didn’t have the $37.50 I now owed, so I decided the best way to get out of paying was to tell a lie, one wrapped up in the truth of my experience over the weekend.
I pulled my teacher aside after English class. ‘Sorry to tell you this, but my father tried to kill my mother on the weekend and we had to stay in a women’s shelter.’
She let out a gasp.
‘Yeah it was pretty bad … and the worst thing, while I was there someone stole the box of chocolates I’m meant to sell. I’m not going to be able to give you any money for them.’
She stared at me a few seconds too long then her eyes darted to the window. ‘It’s all right, Ruth.’ Her voice was small and her eyes didn’t meet mine.
‘So I don’t have to give you any money for them?’ I asked.
‘No. It’s fine,’ she said.
Okay, so the main reason I spoke to my teacher was to get out of paying for the chocolates, but I was also testing to see what would happen. I had always thought of school as my safe place. The adults there mostly seemed responsible and reasonable. If they thought what had happened to me was a big deal, then maybe it was.
However, my teacher did nothing. She didn’t ask if I was okay. She didn’t pull me aside after lessons to see how things were at home. She didn’t ask if I wanted to see a counsellor. Not one of the people I had told asked how I was. Not one of them asked if dad had ever hit me.
These adults showed me that what was going on at home wasn’t something I was meant to talk about: my problems were my problems and it was up to me to figure out how to deal with them. By looking away, unwilling to bear witness, they also left me feeling exposed. The story they didn’t want to hear now felt unspeakable; by association I felt unspeakable too.
Until recently I was comforted by the idea that under today’s mandatory reporting laws a situation like mine would now be handled differently. But Victoria’s 2016 Royal Commission into Family Violence reveals that worrying gaps still exist. According to the royal commission, ‘Key personnel in universal systems, such as health services and schools, are not adequately equipped to recognise that family violence may be occurring and often do not know what to do when it is identified.’ When looking at the way children are treated in the domestic violence landscape as a whole, the royal commission went on to say: ‘We heard that they are often described as silent victims because the system has historically focused on the safety and wellbeing of women (or women and their children).’
So why isn’t violence against children in the home given the same focus as the adults around them? Have we somehow come to believe that the smallness of a child’s body reduces the impact of their injuries? Or are we clinging to the idea that children have unending resilience and no matter what life throws at them they will simply bounce back?
In many ways I am a poster child for resilience. Each time my dad was violent I would close the door on the experience as quickly as possible and escape into fantasies of a world where I was a famous movie star and the whole world loved me. In this world I drew a velvet rope around my life and allowed access only to those deemed worthy. Dad was not on the list.
I distracted myself with books and school, cramming my head so full that there was no space to think of anything else. I was school captain of my primary school and in the top ten students of my year throughout high school. I was on the debate team, the basketball team, in the rock band, the choir, and had the lead role in all the school musicals. I made it my mission to be as normal as possible because the idea of anyone finding out about my crappy home life and pitying me made me want to vomit.
I was tough. I was strong. But those events from my childhood that I had been so quick to get over had gone nowhere. In my twenties they came out in fits of uncontrolled sobbing, elaborate fantasies of stabbing would-be rapists as I walked the streets alone at night, and a background feeling of shame, anxiety and hypervigilance, that to this day I revert to in times of stress. I have spent thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars in therapy bouncing back.
But not everyone has this luxury. So what happens to those children whose cries go unheeded, whose wounds remain untended? On the Australian Institute for Family Studies website, the list of impacts seen in adults who grew up in homes with domestic violence includes diabetes, gastrointestinal problems, arthritis, headaches, gynaecological problems, strokes, hepatitis, heart and liver troubles and high blood pressure.
Documented mental problems extend to personality disorders, dissociative disorders, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and psychosis—to name a few. One of the most worrying long-term consequences of child abuse and neglect documented in this research is the risk of adults repeating learned patterns of violence with their own children. This intergenerational aspect of domestic violence begins in childhood, so it makes sense that intervention at this time offers the best hope of stopping the cycle from continuing.
What difference might it make if, when they were young, traumatised children from abusive homes were listened to, comforted and reassured that the way their parents treated them was not the way they deserved to be treated? How might the trajectory of their lives change if they were shown that the life they have grown up with is not the only one they can choose? What kind of parents might they become if, when they were still growing, they were offered a raft of kindness and compassion that allowed them to hold onto their gentler natures, instead of being left to drown in the rage that surrounded them?
On a purely financial basis, the cost to our society in caring for the physical and mental health outcomes of the many adults who have not bounced back from their abusive childhoods should be reason enough to start investing in the care of children at the time the abuse is occurring, not years after the damage is done. Unfortunately, in most cases children are not offered the kind of support they need. Often they are not even counted in the most basic statistics of violence in the home.
On the Our Watch website, an organisation whose purpose is ‘to provide national leadership to prevent all forms of violence against women and their children’, and whose ‘work will always be based on sound research …’, you find data only about women. There is no information on the number of children who are victims of violence in the home each year. In their statistics section, the word ‘child’ is not even mentioned.
I do not wish to detract from the very real need for support for women living with domestic violence. A 2013 World Health Organization report, Global and regional estimates of violence against women: prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence, describes intimate partner violence as the most common type of violence against women, affecting 30 per cent of women worldwide. The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women states that in Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa and the United States between 40 to 70 per cent of female murder victims are killed by their intimate partners. And that is to say nothing of those who are injured, belittled, financially abused, or who simply never tell anyone about their experiences.
The impact of domestic violence on women is a problem of global proportions and deserving of every possible support. But it is worth noting, amplifying, and saying again: children too are suffering, and their experiences are not being given the attention they need.
Many people now understand that domestic violence is less an issue of anger management than of power and control. Perpetrators do what they can to gain dominance—controlling money, limiting friends and family visits, undermining the way a person feels about themselves. There are few relationships in the world with a bigger power differential than the one that exists between an adult and a child.
Children are born into homes not of their choosing and asked to follow rules not of their making. They struggle against the smallness of their stature, the immaturity of their understanding, and most vitally, their desperate need for love and belonging, a need that keeps them tied to their parents in ways more pervasive than their need for shelter and food. It should seem obvious that this power structure is rife with the same kind of abuse, yet conversations around domestic violence often skirt the issue of parents’ violence towards their children. The royal commission made reference to this in many different sections of its report.
As a result of under-reporting of family violence and the lack of comprehensive data collection, it is difficult to assess the full extent to which children and young people are experiencing family violence in Victoria. The best data we have on the likely prevalence of family violence against adult women is from the Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey, however this survey does not extend to children.
The fact that the survey does not extend to children is telling. The royal commission did, however, observe that in 2009–10, 46.5 per cent of all affected family members listed on Family Violence Intervention Order (FVIO) applications in courts were children aged 0–17 years. The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, a national charity helping to protect children from violence, reports that as many as one in four children in Australia may be growing up in violent homes.
Despite the significant number of children experiencing violence in the home, the royal commission points out that family violence services have historically focused on the safety and wellbeing of women (or women and their children), which may mean the needs of children are overlooked entirely. ‘Although a child’s safety and welfare are often intrinsically linked to the mother’s safety and welfare, a child’s needs can differ from, and at times even conflict with, a parent’s rights.’
Turning to the website for the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), you find some acknowledgement of the violence children can experience in the home.
Children may experience domestic and family violence as direct victims, bystanders or as witnesses—they may be used as weapons, forced to watch or participate, encouraged to spy, be blamed and required to intervene to stop the violence. Children may be exposed to domestic violence from birth or in utero, with pregnancy noted as being a time of increased risk of violence for women. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, the risk of exposure to domestic and family violence is far greater.
Yet the 2016 COAG National Summit was focused only on reducing violence against women. The addition of two words, and children, would indicate that we as a society are beginning to think more inclusively about the other significant victims of violence in the home. If we go on considering children only as appendages to their mothers, how are we to create policies addressing their specific issues? The royal commission makes this recommendation:
The right of children and young people to live free from violence should be at the centre of family violence policy and practice. Their interests and welfare should be a primary focus—not a secondary consideration for action after the needs of the parents have been accommodated.
But the current state of play is that ‘despite Victoria’s legal framework recognising children’s right to safety and wellbeing, and specific legislative protections for children who experience family violence, the specific needs of children and young people are often overlooked. They are rarely treated as victims in their own right.’
Nelson Mandela said, ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’ Every time violence against children is glanced over, alluded to or mentioned only in passing, it suggests we think of their pain as less significant than that of the adults around them. Each time we overlook them in our statistical analysis, think of them only as bit players in the domestic violence sphere, diminish the validity of their stories, or in any other way pat them on the head and tell them to go and play, we force them to carry their burden alone. Is that the kind of soul we want our society to have?
Children too are being hit and hurt and killed by the people who are meant to love them most. It is time for their suffering to receive the attention it deserves. •
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. For more information about a service in your state or local area download the DAISY App in the App Store or Google Play.