Violence message hits home

12th December 2003 at 00:00
Being caught in the crossfire of a violent relationship can leave a child emotionally scarred for life. In the wake of new legislation that promises to crack down hard on the wife beaters and husband bashers, Wendy Wallace reports on a schools-based project that is reaching out to the often forgotten victims of domestic aggression

It wasn't safe to go to sleep in case he hit her and I was always yawning and the teachers were telling me off for not paying attention. I had headaches all the time. At school, the teachers thought I was just complaining all the time but I wasn't. I really did have the headaches," says 12-year-old Tasha.

Three-quarters of a million UK children a year witness domestic violence, according to figures from the Department of Health. Two in three of those are at direct risk of attack themselves. At Christmas, the violence increases, with helplines reporting surges in calls. "Christmas doesn't cause it," says Teresa Parker of the Women's Aid Federation of England.

"Existing violence increases because families are together."

The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill, published last week, is the first domestic violence legislation for 30 years, and should offer increased protection to those who live with violent partners. It gives courts the power to order anyone accused of aggressive behaviour in the home to stay away, even if the person is acquitted in court. Anyone breaching such an order could face five years in jail. And for the first time, the legislation also recognises the rights of people in same-sex relationships, and those who have never married or cohabited.

But domestic abuse, as some professionals prefer to term it, remains taboo.

Women try - usually in vain - to conceal violence from their children; families strive to hide the abuse from the outside world, and schools can unwittingly collude. "One woman in four experiences domestic violence at some time in her life," says Maureen Connolly, chief executive of Birmingham Women's Aid (BWA). "That's a lot of children in classrooms. But for some teachers - unless it's been clearly pointed out to them - it never crosses their minds."

Teachers are increasingly alert to the bruises and burns that can signal child abuse. But to see their mother being beaten up by her partner can be worse than being hit themselves, children say. "It affected me a lot. It gets me all muddled and weird - it has frozen me up a bit inside," says eight-year-old Errol. "I've missed out on my childhood," says 16-year-old Yasmin. "People say it is the most carefree part of your life. This was the worst part of my life - constantly living in fear." Lisa, 15, says: "It's like a nightmare and it goes on and on."

These young people and others talk in depth about their feelings in Stop Hitting Mum! (see illustration below), a book produced by the children's charity YoungVoice.

Since January, Birmingham Women's Aid has been running a pilot education project in the city's schools, paid for by Birmingham Children's Fund. The aim is to "raise awareness, show children there is help out there, and to dispel myths and stereotypes".

The charity stresses that domestic abuse happens among all classes, races and family compositions and that suburban and rural schools are as likely as inner city ones to have affected pupils. But the first difficulty BWA faced was finding schools to take part. Of 500 approached by post, only eight responded. "Some said it was too controversial," says schools project worker Tanuja Patel. "Some said they couldn't fit it into the PHSE timetable." Others have since responded positively, and the programme is running in four secondary and seven primary schools.

Ms Patel and her colleague Kerry Dunning are greeted enthusiastically by juniors at a primary school in the north of the city, in the third week of the six-week programme. While the class teacher remains in the room, they distribute cards bearing statements that children are invited to discuss.

"Children should not tell anyone if they see or hear domestic violence," is one. "Children may have to take the side of mum or dad when there is domestic violence at home." "Domestic violence only happens when there are children in the family."

The issues raised in the hour-long session - sadness, anger, fear, loyalty, stress - are real, and most of the class have something to say (in a school that, according to the headteacher, faces a "constant struggle to highlight the value of education".) While some agree that children shouldn't tell - "you could get in the fight too" - others disagree. "If you tell someone, they might sort it," says one girl.

All the school's Year 5s agree that "Domestic violence can affect your school work". One girl says: "They can be so scared they forget about their homework." But there are mixed views on whether "Children who see and hear domestic violence will grow up to be violent adults" - one of the stereotypes Birmingham Women's Aid wants to dispel. (Domestic violence researcher Audrey Mullender, of the University of Warwick, is one of the authors of Stop Hitting Mum!. She finds that, contrary to the stereotype, boys exposed to domestic violence are often "thoughtful, sensitive and protective of their mother and siblings".) Part emotional literacy, part assertiveness training, part citizenship and part PHSE, the BWA package does not patronise children but gets them to consider what constitutes violence and consider the possible responses for victims and perpetrators. "It's about equipping them for the future so they know this is wrong and that there are other options," says Ms Connolly.

"This should be in every school, and we should start with nursery children."

But the session also highlights some of the potential difficulties of work on domestic violence, when first one then a second child raise their home experiences in front of the class. Although Ms Patel and Ms Dunning have stated at the start of the session that children can talk to them afterwards in private if they want to, and that they don't have to talk about personal experience, these are 10-year-olds. "When my Dad hits my mum he just carries on as normal afterwards," volunteers one, in the context of a discussion about manipulative behaviour, and how abusers often compensate with treats and apologies after a violent episode.

Another child says that seeing his mother hurt was worse than getting hurt himself. In one case, the violence was known to the school; in the other, it came as a surprise. In both cases, the teacher in charge of child protection was alerted afterwards.

But schools have to proceed cautiously once disclosures have been made.

"Appropriate response is the important thing," says Ms Connolly. "You can make it more dangerous - if, for instance, both parents are brought in to talk about it."

Professor Mullender sees disclosure as "not primarily a child protection issue but an educational, health, welfare and social justice issue of some complexity". What children need and want, she says, is teachers and senior staff with an awareness of domestic violence who will be sensitive to what they are going through while preserving confidentiality. Education is paramount. Professor Mullender's research has uncovered a widespread lack of knowledge in schools about domestic violence, together with high levels of tolerance of abuse. One in three teenage boys and one in five girls agree that "some women deserve to be hit", with attitudes hardening through secondary school. At the same time, 84 per cent of secondary students say they should be taught about domestic violence at school.

For Ms Connolly, the change in attitudes that education might bring about is key to reducing domestic violence levels, and likely to be more effective than forthcoming legislation.

The Government's green paper Every Child Matters contains proposals for integrating children's services with schools as the locus and may have a positive impact, says Professor Mullender. "Multidisciplinary teams would be much better placed to offer groups and intervention programmes that could help children recover from negative experiences. It would also become far easier to introduce routine questioning that might help more children disclose when there is violence at home."

"The Government can't do anything outside of massive change in public and societal response," she says. "We're telling young people that in some instances it is OK to assault your partner. Until that changes, women and children can't be safe."

Stop Hitting Mum! costs pound;9.99 inc pamp;p from, or fax: 020 8979 is a children's website exploring issues around domestic violence.Women's Aid, 24-hour national domestic violence helpline: 08457 023468 A COUNSELLOR IN EVERY SCHOOL

Sue Walls is one of six qualified counsellors working on the Wrexham Counselling and Support Project, funded by children's charity the NSPCC.

With eight years' experience in a range of secondary schools in the area, she believes domestic abuse is a hidden part of many children's lives.

"Children learn from an early age that violence must be kept secret," she says. "Pre-school children may display physical symptoms of witnessing violence, such as speech delay, bed wetting or tummy aches. Primary school children may show it in emotional and behavioural difficulties. Adolescents might gain relief through drugs, alcohol, self-harm or early pregnancy."

Children witnessing violence at home are likely to find it difficult to trust adults, she says, and often live in a climate of emotional see-saw.

"Dad is hostile and angry one day, then the next day very sorry. Children can become introverted and withdrawn, and it impairs their learning," says Ms Walls. That mistrust - combined with loyalty to the parents - makes it difficult for them to talk to teachers.

Ms Walls and her colleagues find that children come to talk about "milder" issues, and broach domestic violence only when they feel safe with the counsellor. Their independent status helps avoid embarrassment, and makes the boundaries clear.

"Our message," says Ms Walls, "is that domestic abuse doesn't have to stay secret. We're saying to young people that they don't have to live with this. We can help them become more self-aware, look at their own risk behaviours and re-enforce that it's not their fault." The teams also run preventive programmes, encouraging students to examine their attitudes and beliefs.

The NSPCC has launched a campaign for the Government to fund independent counselling schemes in every school. A survey in Northern Ireland - where Government support for such schemes is more advanced - found that in the schools where the NSPCC had worked, 97 per cent of teachers and 94 per cent of pupils believe schools should provide a counselling service.

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