Dad hitsmum and that hurts

17th September 2004 at 01:00
One in three children witnesses domestic abuse at home. Katrina Tweedie reports on how teachers are caught between helping them and dealing with their anger.

A 12-year-old boy decides it is easier to lie to his teacher and say he has lost his homework than admit his violent father hurled his school bag from the car window, with his jotters inside. Then the teacher, in front of the class, berates the child for his carelessness. You can almost taste the injustice.

This is a real example - just one of many - of a teacher unwittingly compounding the problems facing children who live with domestic abuse.

One in three children in every class suffers because of domestic (adult) abuse at home, according to a soon-to-be-published study in South Ayrshire.

In almost all these homes, the men attack the women. Cases of women attacking men are rare.

The study for the South Ayrshire Multi-Agency Partnership questioned 254 anonymous S5 and S6 volunteers from all its secondary schools, asking them for views on abuse: it established 32 per cent were living with domestic abuse.

Asked for one word that being abused might make you feel, all the children not experiencing abuse stuck with single words. The others wrote sentences or strings of words, such as: "Angry, scared, lonely and guilty, like a prisoner." One wrote: "Watching your mum get battered is very frightening".

"Suicidal" was used by eight pupils.

The research underlines the feelings of isolation, fear and trauma experienced by the children. "The responses gave us a real sense of the difference between a perceived life of domestic abuse and actually experiencing it," says Sandra Paton, a trainer for South Ayrshire Women's Aid, who is funded to work in secondary schools. "Despite my background of 14 years working in refuge, that shook me."

The survey found that more than 90 per cent of those who live with domestic abuse have been in the next room, or closer, when the abuse occurs. For teachers standing in front of a class it is a sobering thought that a third of the children sitting before them may regularly see or hear their mother being beaten.

The impact of that emotional trauma cannot be overstated, say child support workers, and many believe some of the problems schools face could be a result of domestic abuse. Truanting, vandalism, low-achievement, falling asleep in class, distraction, persistent lateness, depression and lack of self-esteem can all stem from abuse at home.

Yet, one cannot assume that every child from such a background will have obvious behavioural problems. Some will be so quiet and unobtrusive that teachers could lose sight of them.

The Scottish Executive has highlighted domestic abuse as a priority. Four years ago, it earmarked pound;18.3 million to tackle the problem: most went into refuge services, although some is directed to local authorities to appoint a multi-agency co-ordinator to address the issue, particularly in schools, where it sees teachers as having an important role in child protection.

The Executive also emphasises the vital role schools play in prevention of domestic abuse, and has asked local authorities to ensure pupils are informed about it. However, there are no set guidelines as yet.

Important though this national prevention strategy is, local authorities do not have a unified approach to domestic abuse and funding is constantly under threat. Old attitudes remain entrenched and recent studies by aid workers and refuges show that children are still often unwilling to disclose abuse, even to trusted teachers.

The opportunity for teachers to bring about change is tremendous. Yet they can unwittingly exacerbate problems. Heather Coady, national children's rights worker for Scottish Women's Aid, believes understanding the issues surrounding domestic abuse and how it affects children's learning should form a basic part of teacher training.

"Teachers are not social workers but if they understand this issue, it might make their life easier and make children more able to learn," she says.

Ms Paton suggests teachers imagine that a child with problems at school is living with an abuser at home, and then ask themselves whether, in that light, they should change their working practices. In this way, their methods could be domestic abuse-proofed and pupils' attitudes might be changed.

"I believe that if 95 per cent of teachers accessed the appropriate awareness training, they would go away thinking: 'I need to reconsider this'," she says.

Ms Paton would like to start raising awareness in early primary, but time and budget constraints limit most of her work to secondary schools.

"Nursery children, in their naivety, are more likely to speak out because the intimidation of threat isn't as powerful, nor is their ability to police their words. But I believe they often don't have the language to articulate their situation and need to be given the vocabulary to express their fears."

The extent of domestic abuse and the need for a focus on it in education was first highlighted in 1999, when research by Zero Tolerance, a charity for tackling male violence against women and children, established that half of young men and a third of young women thought it acceptable for a man to hit a woman under certain circumstances.

As a result, Glasgow City Council, one of the leading agencies, appointed Alison Elliot, Scotland's first dedicated resource worker, and commissioned the Baldy Bane Theatre Company to write a play. In To Have and To Hold, a comedian tells jokes that progressively become more provocative, culminating in: "What do you tell a woman with two black eyes? Nothing, you've told her already."

Workshops afterwards challenge children's attitudes to the topic: who laughed, they ask, and why? On several occasions, the play has prompted children to later disclose abuse.

"Before work like this, I'm sure domestic abuse wasn't touched, wasn't talked about in schools," says Ms Elliot. "A lot of the work I'm doing is awareness raising because many teachers may not have recognised the impact that domestic abuse has on children.

"Teachers have said to me that it is only once they have had the training that they can look back at young people about whom they had a gut feeling but no concrete evidence, and now they would have the confidence and support to maybe act on that gut feeling."

Following the South Ayrshire research, further work is now being carried out to determine why children keep abuse secret and fear disclosing their situation even to a trusted teacher.

"Again we are getting alarming responses," says Ms Paton. "A large proportion are using language that is frightening, mirroring the threats that, for years, women have told us their partners have made: that social workers would get involved and the kids would be taken into care, for example, or that the teachers would call the police and they wouldn't do anything and the children would end up dead.

"It's an extreme form of fear that is not rational; it's like asking children what will happen if you don't pay an electricity bill and them thinking that you would be taken to jail."

Work with children in refuges has begun to identify how they cope with their situations, especially in school. "We know that many of them have a huge need to take back power, to strike at a society that has failed them, and they don't always rationalise it," says Ms Paton.

Unfortunately, when children fail in school, teachers may unwittingly add to their problems, primarily by using complaints, criticisms and condemnations similar to those the children experience at home.

"Some teachers shout nearly as loud as my dad does," was a comment from one secondary school pupil, who was questioned about domestic abuse. Another gave a thumbs-up to his care worker and laughed: "I'm to be excluded."

Teachers are in a delicate situation. They may need to deal with a troublemaker or low achiever who has not disclosed - and may be going to great lengths not to disclose - domestic abuse.

"If a child is acting up, if that is a result of domestic abuse, and if the teacher doesn't know it, then you have a situation viewed in isolation," says Ms Paton. "Teachers see unacceptable behaviour and have to deal with it, so the child is punished for surviving the abuse."

Controlling children and engaging the disengaged is already one of the biggest challenges for teachers: it is only further complicated by the difficulty of forcing a child to disclose what happens at home if he or she doesn't want to.

"We have raised enough issues among teachers to make them think they need to domestic abuse-proof their teaching practices and to make sure children have the opportunity to speak out," says Ms Paton. "If they are going to criticise children - and there will be times when they need to discipline them - then boundaries must be set that are fair and explained and that preserve dignity."

Preserving a child's dignity is vital, she argues, because self-esteem has a survival value. If children lose that at school, they will end up more deeply hurt.

"I believe that a lot of the problems that teachers are presented with come on the back of domestic abuse. You can either compound that problem and virtually write the child off, or you can take a step back and say 'OK, bad behaviour doesn't come from nowhere.'

"Something has to fuel bad behaviour, that whole fight for survival, and we are trying to extinguish it when we should be trying to make sure it grows."

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