Children are not passive witnesses to family violence

Posted on 10 October 2016 by Robyn Miller

MacKillop Family Services CEO Robyn Miller in the Heritage Display at MacKillop's South Melbourne office.

This op-ed by MacKillop CEO Robyn Miller was original printed in the Council to Homeless Persons' Parity magazine (August 2016, volume 29 – issue 7). 

Several years ago I was working with a family in which violence was an all-too-common occurrence. The father had told me the children did not notice his violence, “they just sit in their bedroom, playing quietly.”

The children provided a very different story. They explained that whenever violence was occurring in the home, they would sit quietly together in their room and take turns brushing each other’s hair, and rubbing each other’s backs, trying to distract themselves from the sound of their mothers’ cries. It was a tangible way to comfort each other in the most excruciating of circumstances.

Children have a remarkable ability to develop adaptive responses to deal with challenging situations that most adults would find unbearable. But we must be very careful not to mistakenly construe their outward appearances as a sign they are not being affected, for the reality is very different.

Children are not passive witnesses to family violence. Indeed, they do not even have to see or hear violence to be harmed by it, with research indicating that children can even share their mother’s physiological reactions to fear of injury in utero.

The impacts of this exposure – even before the child is born – can be deep and long-term.

Often this trauma is further exacerbated by the experience of homelessness arising from the need to flee the family home. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare[i], over the three years to 2013–14, over 187,000 of the 520,000 Australians who had accessed specialist homelessness services, were adults and children seeking assistance for reasons related to family violence.

Yet despite the extensive evidence-base of the impact of early exposure to trauma, children have for many years been the forgotten victims of family violence, and services that respond to their specific needs have been either absent, or underfunded in all Australian jurisdictions. Children have not been adequately responded to as victims in their own right.

Two recent developments in Victoria will help to change this.

The first is the Royal Commission into Family Violence, which is noteworthy for its recognition of the urgent need to address the housing response to family violence. The Commission made a number of recommendations to increase the availability of more stable and sustainable housing options to meet the needs of victims and their children.

Importantly, the Commission also emphasised the need to develop therapeutic services and early intervention programs for children who have been exposed to trauma.

This is a particularly important development. One of the biggest challenges for any organisation working with vulnerable children is to develop the capacity of staff to respond to trauma effectively.

MacKillop Family Services is no exception. Four years ago, we made the decision to implement the Sanctuary Model to respond to this. Sanctuary provides a framework to facilitate the development of structures, processes and behaviours to address the impact of trauma on the families we work with.

The implementation of Sanctuary has enabled an understanding of trauma-informed approaches to be embraced across the organisation. We have seen firsthand the outcomes this can deliver, and welcome the Royal Commission’s recommendations on this point.

The second development is the Victorian Government’s Roadmap for Reform, which seeks to ensure all Victorian children have the opportunity to grow up in loving, caring and stable families, with all of the supports required to develop into healthy, capable and happy adults.

The great strength of the Roadmap is its recognition of the need to develop early intervention strategies to deliver better outcomes for children – particularly those at risk of exposure to violence in the home – and the related consequences, such as homelessness.

In my statement to the Family Violence Royal Commission, I noted that when endeavouring to help traumatised children and families, the system must not be fragmented and siloed, but interconnected and operating as a whole.

Keeping children safe requires effective partnerships between police, courts, specialist family violence services, family support services, and other services such as homelessness, mental health and disability services, and child protection, and we must assist vulnerable women and children to access these services.

For this reason, we particularly welcome the government’s commitment to establish 17 Support and Safety hubs across the State, which will make it easier for victims of family violence to access the help they need quickly and safely.

The sad reality is that we will never be able to protect all children from trauma, through exposure to violence in the home. However, through the policy commitments expressed in the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Family Violence and the Roadmap to Reform, at least we can begin to ensure that the specific needs of children and young people are not overlooked, and that we are doing all we can to give them the best possible start to their lives.

[i] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2016), Domestic and family violence and homelessness 2011-12 to 2013–14, AIHW, Canberra