(NI) – When I was 10, I was very curious about what exactly my Aunt Liz’s job was. She seemed to always be very busy and have many interesting stories to tell, but when I asked what she actually did at work, she’d look a bit uncomfortable and change the subject.
Years later, I confessed my fascination and asked why she’d kept a secret of her work as the manager of a domestic violence shelter. Liz explained that a lot of her work involved helping the child survivors of domestic violence and that she didn’t want me to get upset thinking about them.
Why would I get upset? Because it was a very sad thing to be taken from your home, your friends, usually some of your family, your school, having to leave all your possessions behind and go and stay in a boring shelter with nothing much to do and no-one to explain what was going on.
Liz was right. It is upsetting to think about all the children currently living in domestic violence shelters. In fact, it’s terrifying, as the statistics around it prove. A new report released this week by Hestia, London’s largest provider of domestic violence refuges, claims that 950,000 children per year directly or indirectly experience domestic violence.
And if that wasn’t shocking enough: a quarter of the children living with domestic violence are under 3 years old.
Since the world’s first domestic violence federation, Women’s Aid, was established in 1973, activists have been trying to get the issue of children experiencing domestic violence onto the political agenda.
The last few years have seen an increased awareness but, as Hestia reports: ‘The concept of specialist support for children affected by domestic abuse is starting to gain traction within the sector, and yet very little progress has been made to put this into practice.’
So why has it taken a series of governments from across the political spectrum so long to realize that children need help?
1.The lack of understanding within British politics. According to Women’s Aid, women are more likely than men to experience prolonged domestic violence and, currently, only 29% of British MPs are women.
That isn’t to say that male politicians won’t experience domestic violence, just that they are less likely to, and that in turn will affect the decisions they make about funding. For example: the current government has pledged an extra £10 million ($15 million) of funding for domestic violence services. On the surface, this looks like a good thing, but the same government is currently pursuing an austerity agenda which is likely to bring about an increase in domestic violence.
2.Most refuges are not commissioned to support children. The effect of politicians’ lack of understanding means that not only is funding frequently inadequate, it is often distributed unevenly.
The majority of support workers are aware of the difficulties faced by children who have been exposed to domestic violence, but awareness is not enough. Refuges need some of their funding to be specifically allocated for supporting children, otherwise the support they do offer will be underfunded, unsupported and, frequently, unsustainable.
3.Crisis management-focused funding. Once the funding has been allocated and a family enters a refuge, the focus tends to be on crisis-management.
The majority of funding is, understandably, devoted to helping women out of immediate danger and the idea persists that helping the mother will automatically help her children. Unfortunately, this doesn’t take into account the fact that children are individuals with their own set of needs. Most refuges find that there is very little funding available for the psychological and physical issues many child survivors of domestic violence face.
4.Most funding goes to women. Despite the fact that 1 in 6 men will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, there are very few refuge places available for men and many survivors are forced to declare themselves homeless in order to find accommodation.
This means that a father fleeing an abusive home is usually unable to take his children with him. As most women’s refuges cannot accept boys over the age of 12 (the point at which many boys begin to ‘present’ as men), many women are forced to leave their pre-teen and teenage sons behind, either with family or, sometimes, the abuser.
This lack of support means that fewer children enter refuges than the numbers actually needing help, skewing figures on how much funding is needed and how widespread the problem is.
With this in mind, Hestia is launching a new campaign, Hidden Child, aimed at improving services for children and lobbying the government for more funding and acknowledgement of the problem. If you wish to support Hestia’s Hidden Child campaign please consider doing the following: