Children: the forgotten victims of domestic violence

Children often have a hard time studying at home causing them to fall behind. Source: Cassandra Mulhern.


With no safe place to be at home children can become withdrawn. Source: Cassandra Mulhern.
With no safe place to be at home children can become withdrawn. Source: Cassandra Mulhern.


According to the Australian Institute of Criminology’s 2011 Children’s Exposure to Domestic Violence in Australia report, children are the forgotten silent victims of domestic violence.

The Australian Bureau of statistics 2005 Personal Safety Survey reported over a million children were affected by domestic violence.

While there was a decrease in these numbers between the 2005 and 2012 surveys, the number is still significantly high with 766,000 children affected.

These numbers are consistent with UNICEF’s 2006 World Report on Violence Against Children which showed between 133 and 275 million children worldwide being exposed to frequent domestic violence.

Children can be affected by domestic violence in many different ways, according to the University of NSW’s 2011 Impact of Domestic Violence on Children literature review.

It is a common misconception that seeing, hearing or being directly exposed to domestic violence are the only ways children are affected.

The AIC report found witnessing does not paint a true picture of what the children are experiencing, instead it identified terms such as being exposed to living with and being affected by violence as better descriptors of the child’s experiences.

“The research literature demonstrates that witnessing can involve a much broader range of incidence, including the child being used as a physical weapon, being forced to participate in assaults, being forced to spy on a parent”, the AIC report said.

Other ways include being told they are to blame for the violence, being used as a hostage, and intervening to protect a parent.

Jacqui Haywood was a teacher and Head of the Special Education Program at Woodridge State High School in Logan, and said she came across students who were experiencing domestic violence at home.

“I think it’s harder on children because they love both the parents, and they don’t understand what going on,” she said.

“For some of them, they don’t even realise it’s wrong and that this isn’t what life is supposed to be like”.

Mrs Haywood was a teacher for 10 years and observed the lack of trust children generally had with adults due to their turbulent home life.

She said it often became problematic because when she found out about a domestic violence situation she had a mandatory obligation to report it.

“I was often the only one they had spoken to about it so they knew it was me that had done it and suddenly I had become the enemy.”

“They lost that adult they could talk to and they’re on their own again.” Mrs Haywood said.

The Domestic Violence Prevention Centre’s website said children growing up in a home with domestic violence live in unpredictable circumstances.

Mrs Haywood confirmed this and said the unpredictability can cause the child to fall behind at school.

“Some of that would be having no safe or quiet place to do homework,” she said.

“Obviously people are walking on eggshells at home and they’re frightened to cause a disturbance.”

UNSW’s literature review said domestic violence affects children both psychologically and behaviourally and can even display symptoms of post- traumatic stress disorder.

“In their own words, children most often report feelings of sadness, confusion, fear and anger,” the literature review said.

Behavioural problems can present themselves in form of aggression and anti-social behaviour, while the psychological effects can cause anxiety and depression.

School can become an escape from violence at home and children tend to stay much longer than they should each day. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
School can become an escape from violence at home and children tend to stay much longer than they should each day. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Mrs Haywood said there was a huge impact on the social part of schooling for affected children.

“They didn’t feel safe inviting friends home, so that often affected their ability to make friends,” she said.

There is legislation in all states and territories designed to include children in domestic violence protection order, but support in school environments appears to be lacking.

While the federal government has put in place The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children and The Council’s Plan for Australia to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children, these are broad government level initiatives.

Lack of school-based support was not exclusive to the students Mrs Haywood said, explaining teachers and staff also struggled.

Staff are strongly discouraged from speaking in depth to children once they are made aware of a domestic violence situation, instead are obligated to send them to the school counsellor.

The policy is designed to protect staff from being involved in court proceedings during domestic violence cases.

“The catch is, how do you stop a child who just starts crying and wants to blurt everything out to the person they trust?” Mrs Haywood said.

Mrs Haywood’s experience is supported by the AIC’s report which speaks about the lack of awareness among professionals on how to deal with situations of children living with domestic violence.

The report was also critical of the “haphazard nature of mandatory reporting requirements”, as there is a risk of large numbers of children being forgotten in child protection initiatives.

Chelsea* was in high school when she experienced and ultimately survived domestic violence.

As a student, she met and became attracted to an older man who was an employee of her school at the time.

As the relationship progressed the man became more and more violent and possessive of her, to the point where she feared for her life.

Chelsea said she didn’t seek help herself, but instead was pressed by teachers who believed there was something wrong.

“I felt all alone,” Chelsea said.

“I was ashamed and hurting like crazy.”

She also described how difficult she found it to trust adults, males in particular.

Eventually the teachers that approached Chelsea were able to convince her to seek help from police and counsellors, as well as making sure she was safe in school.

She still felt there is more that could be done to help and protect children living with domestic violence.

“There definitely needs to be a better system in schools to make kids aware and comfortable enough to seek help and show them these circumstances aren’t their fault,” Chelsea said.

Mrs Haywood said she feels more training for staff especially Heads of Department and more freedom to guide a child who comes to them is one way more support can be provided in school.

“Learning how to deal with these matters to allow that child to unload on them rather than sending them to someone they may not have had interaction with” Mrs Haywood said.

“They don’t have that trust with them”.

Following the report Not Now, Not Ever, released in March by former Governor General, Dame Quentin Bryce, a council has been formed to fast-track domestic violence reforms, with Ms Bryce at helm.

Time will tell if the council will have an impact in children living with domestic violence and their school experiences.

*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the source.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing domestic violence in any capacity you should reach out for support.

In an emergency dial 000

DV ConnectDVconnect : 1800 811 811

Mensline: 1800 600 636

Sexual Assault line 1800 010 120