Children are the 'invisible casualties' in abusive homes

Government needs to provide additional resources to support services, widespread education about domestic violence, and more safe spaces for victims, writes Caroline West 
Children are the 'invisible casualties' in abusive homes

Children can either witness, overhear or directly experience violence in the home. They are victims too, not passive bystanders.

Now in our third Covid lockdown, focus once again turns to the epidemic of domestic violence. However, while this is an important conversation to have, we must also remember that there is another group of people at risk of domestic violence — children.

Children can either witness, overhear or directly experience violence in the home. They are victims too, not passive bystanders. 

They can pick up on the atmosphere in the home, suffer from the effects of financial abuse when one parent is not allowed to purchase sufficient supplies, or be directly targeted by the abuser. 

This combines to perpetuate trauma that can be transferred from generation to generation if sufficient help is not available to break this intergenerational cycle. 

Impacts of experiencing domestic abuse as a child can vary from substance abuse in adulthood, a pattern of unhealthy adult relationships, and physical and mental health issues, as well as being more at risk of living in poverty.

While the courts were busy over Christmas with victims of abuse seeking domestic violence orders, the helplines for services such as Women’s Aid were also busy. 

It is also concerning that the Childline helpline received over 700 calls on Christmas day, with some children sharing that they were scared of tension at home and adults engaging in substance abuse.

Andrea McDermott, social care leader with Men’s Aid, highlights how services are lacking in Ireland for fathers who want to protect themselves and their children. 

"There are no refuge spaces for men and their children in Ireland to escape to, so fathers were seeking help for themselves and their children through Men’s Aid helpline," she said. 

"Men are disclosing their teenage children running away from the home and sleeping rough as they can no longer sofa surf in friend’s homes the way they may have done in the past when their family home becomes extremely toxic and dangerous."

Sofa surfing might have worked for some older children as a temporary measure before Covid but, in times of social distancing and bubbles, this safety valve is gone for most. 

For children who cannot escape due to age or circumstance, the risk of being exposed to abuse is higher. 

Andrea shares a devastating example: "One dad spoke of singing songs to his two children while locked in the bedroom. His wife was banging on the door drunk and screaming he is a useless husband, calling him a wimp and she wishes she never had children with such a pathetic man so he can keep them. His children were crying throughout the ordeal. 

"He told Men’s Aid that his wife was mentally and physically abusive to him and his children, but it had become 100 times worse during lockdown. He had nowhere to go and nowhere to take his children to escape."

A lesson for everyone is that, even though the child may not be the target of the violence and abuse, they are still experiencing the same trauma and mental anguish as the targeted person.

While adults can be supported to leave abusive situations, children may often experience a sense of powerlessness as they are dependent on adults to protect them.

Emma Reidy, CEO of Aoibhneas Domestic Support for Women and Children, states: "Children represent the invisible casualties in an abusive home, where their access to support depends on a parent's access to their own supports, including a willingness and ability for that parent to see their situation in the first instance as unsafe or even dangerous. 

"We experienced a 17% increase in the number of children that accessed our service in 2019. 

"While positive that we were in a position to support more children, it is important that we take stock of the prevalence of domestic violence in homes, including everyone impacted by it."

Emma says her service supported 739 children in 2019, a 17% increase on 2018, which highlights the need for continued specialist support for children in a household where domestic abuse is taking place. 

It remains to be seen how Covid-19 has impacted these figures for 2020. 

With schools now closed, vulnerable children can slip through the gaps or lose access to a few hours of respite from an abusive home situation.

This situation cannot be allowed to continue. From 2019, the government has had an obligation under the Istanbul Convention to provide adequate refuge spaces. 

This commitment has still not been fulfilled. There are less than a third of the prescribed number of refuge spaces actually provided and nine counties do not have a refuge. 

There are no refuges for men and their children, and some spaces are inaccessible to people with disabilities or large families.

Covid-19 and the multiple lockdowns have highlighted gaps in existing services and we must ensure that these gaps are closed so that children and adult victims of domestic violence can be protected and supported in a holistic way that breaks the cycle of domestic abuse. 

This involves ensuring additional resources to support services, widespread education across society about the many forms domestic violence can take, and increasing safe spaces for victims to access. 

We don’t have to live in a society where victims go unheard; together we can build a society that supports our most vulnerable members.

  • If you need help or support, you can reach out to Men’s Aid: 01 5543811 or hello@mensaid.ie; or Aoibhneas: 01 8670701 or helpline@aoibhneas.org 

  • Dr Caroline West is a lecturer, writer and host of the Glow West podcast. Find her at www.iamcarolinewest.com

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