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    How to Support Children After Domestic Abuse

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    How to Support Children After Domestic Abuse


    The fall-out from domestic abuse rains down on everyone. Children and young people can get lost in the chaos as the primary victim is often the focus, especially if they need help to escape, stabilise and recover. This is why children were once known as hidden victims; living in violent or abusive households but not receiving support to survive and thrive. The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 views children impacted by domestic abuse as victims in their own right. This is a step forward, but only if a network of comprehensive services goes along with it. Parents often ask how they can help their children come to terms with their experiences. Here are some tips on how to respond to children in the weeks, months and years after domestic abuse.

    Let them talk

    In some households the past becomes a white elephant no one talks about. This is especially true when a parent moves on and forms a new relationship. No one wants to bring up all that bad stuff. As parents, we might avoid these conversations because we feel guilt and shame about the impact on our child, or we don’t want to face difficult questions or blame. Equally, our child might avoid the subject because we become defensive or tearful. But this means children can’t process feelings as they crop up. Trauma needs to be revisited and re-examined, sometimes for years. When children can’t talk, they may take unresolved issues into adulthood, or grow resentment and anger. Instead, we need to let our child know it’s okay to talk about the past, but only if they want to – we shouldn’t force them. We should try not to be defensive but acknowledge their trauma and let them know how sorry we are this happened. We should not take responsibility for someone else’s abuse, but we can acknowledge how difficult it was for them, and how we wish we could have shielded them.

    Shield them from further events

    Leaving an abusive relationship is not always the end of the problem. We might continue to be harassed, stalked and abused, and this is a particularly risky time for victims. Our child has likely witnessed and overheard lots of things in the past, but now we can work towards shielding them from future upset. This isn’t always possible, but we can try. We can only discuss the situation if they are not around; we can make calls to police or professionals when they are at school or nursery. We can avoid updating them on new unwanted contact unless it’s for their own safety. In the same way, we should avoid entering into shouting matches on the phone with our ex. It’s easy to fall into the habit of talking openly with friends and family, but not when our children are within earshot. They have dealt with enough, and if we can protect them from further exposure we should try to do that.

    Avoid criticism of abusive parent

    This is a hard one, but constantly telling a child how terrible, evil and cruel their other parent is can be extremely damaging, even when it’s true. Our parents are part of us, and children usually feel love and divided loyalty to them, even when they behave badly. We feel connected and responsible for family, so a barrage of criticism against a parent can damage our self-esteem. If you need to sound off, and who can blame you, do it when your child is not around. Your anger might be justified but your child does not need to hear it. They will come to their own conclusions over time. Additionally, never compare. The worst thing we can say to a child is that they are just like their abusive Dad/Mum.

    Avoid relying on child for emotional support

    After an abusive relationship we can be in desperate need of support, comfort and validation. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using children, especially older children, as our companions or friends, shoulders to cry on, or for emotional support. This is a lot for a child to cope with, especially when they are recovering themselves. Domestic abuse takes a toll on our parenting abilities, so it’s important to take back control. We should be supporting our children to recover and not the other way around.

    Don’t make them worry

    After a relationship split, children will often be reeling from the changed circumstances for some time. Their little bubble has burst and life suddenly looks uncertain. They need to move forward without lying awake at night worrying about us, and whether we are safe and happy. There is nothing more destructive to a child than the fear a parent might not be able to cope, or even worse, take their own life. It’s normal to have mental health struggles after abuse, it’s one of the most stressful things a human can experience, but we should try and shield children as much as possible from our own trauma. In particular, we should not talk about harming ourselves or wanting to die in front of them. Children take things literally. Even flippant remarks can have an impact.

    Give your time

    It’s likely that in the past your time was monopolized by your abuser. Now you have left that situation, you can help you child giving them your full attention. If you don’t feel up to complex activities like craft or baking, or can’t afford to take them out, you could start by simply being present with them. Chill on their bed for a few minutes when you take in the laundry, ask them what they are watching or reading, ask for their opinion, or ask about their day. Really focus on what they are saying; stay with them. Time and attention are the most precious things we can give children.

     Try not to over compensate

    It perfectly natural to try and over compensate, especially when our past decisions have resulted in harm to our child. But it’s we get back into the saddle of parenting. We might want to make allowances for children who have experienced trauma, but ignoring poor behaviour, or allowing them too much leeway or freedom, will probably backfire in the end. The best way we can help our child is to parent to the best of our ability, have clear boundaries and take responsibility as their parent. This might be hard to begin with, especially if our child is emotionally scarred, or angry and resentful. Keep persevering, it pays off in the end.

    Fight for them

    We might need to fight to get our children what they need. There may be battles with schools, mental health services, or in the family court. Although you might not recognise it yet, you are a warrior. You are a survivor. You probably had to fight every day just to survive. Now it’s time to fight for your child. Keep advocating for them, keep fighting their corner until they get their needs met.

    None of the suggestions above are necessarily easy, especially when we are struggling to heal ourselves, but when parents ask, how can I help my child, there are no quick and easy fixes. The best way to help them is to be the best parent you can be. Although there’s no rule book, there are loads of books and online content to support and encourage us as parents. It’s the most important job we’ll ever have, and our efforts will ripple into the futures of not only our children, but our grandchildren and beyond. With luck, the cycle stops with us.


    Charlotte Woodward

    National Training Manager, NCDV

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    By Fiona Bawden, Times Online (8th May 2007)

    “Steve Connor, a student at City Law School, is a man on a mission. Six years ago he was a fairly directionless 27-year-old. Today, as well as taking the Bar Vocational Course, he is chairman of the National Centre for Domestic Violence, a ground-breaking organisation that he dragged into existence after a friend could not get legal help to protect her from an abusive partner.

    Connor’s route to the Bar has been circuitous. In 2001 he returned from a year in Australia (he says that he would not dignify describing it as a gap year), and took a job as a process server in South London. The job (“I just saw it advertised in the paper”) was not quite as dull as it sounds. On one occasion he was threatened with a machete, on another, he was nearly stabbed by a man he had arranged to meet on Clapham Common to serve with a non-molestation order: “He’d seemed really friendly on the phone…”

    The turning point in his life came when a friend, who was being abused by her partner, turned to him for support. Connor went with her to the police. She did not want to press criminal charges so the police suggested that she visit a solicitor to take out a civil injunction. “We must have seen 12 solicitors in a morning. We just went from one to the next to the next to the next. Everyone was very eager to help until we sat down to fill in the forms for the legal aid means test,” he says. The woman, who had a small child, did not qualify for public funding. But, Connor says, her financial situation as it appeared on paper did not bear any relation to her financial situation in reality. “She had a part-time job and she and her partner owned their home. Yet she didn’t have any money. Her boyfriend was very controlling and controlled all the money; he kept the chequebooks and didn’t let her have access to the bank account.”

    The injustice of the situation got under Connor’s skin. “I just couldn’t believe that there was no help available to people who did not qualify for public funds but could not afford to pay.

    I just kept feeling that this must be able to be sorted if only someone would address it.”That “someone” turned out to be him.

    In 2002, thanks entirely to Connor’s doggedness, the London Centre for Domestic Violence was formed. It started out with him and a friend, but is now a national organisation, covering 27 counties, and has helped approximately 10,000 victims last year to take out injunctions against their partners.

    NCDV now has nine full-time staff, 12 permanent volunteers and has trained over 5000 law and other students as McKenzie Friends to accompany unrepresented victims into court. We have also trained over 8000 police officers in civil remedies available regarding domestic violence. The National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) has branches in London, Guildford and Manchester and is on track to have branches in 16 areas within the next two years.

    NCDV specialises exclusively in domestic violence work and could be characterised as a cross between McDonald’s and Claims Direct. The high degree of specialisation means that its processes are streamlined: clients can be seen quickly and the work is done speedily and cheaply. “Sometimes, we will have one of our trained McKenzie Friends at a court doing 10 applications in one day,” Connor says.

    Clients are not charged for the service. NCDV staff take an initial statement: clients who qualify for legal aid are referred to a local firm; those that don’t get free help from the centre itself. It runs on a shoestring, heavily reliant on volunteers and capping staff salaries at £18,000 a year.

    Steve expects to qualify as a barrister this summer and hopes that having a formal legal qualification will give the centre added clout. “We are already acknowledged as experts and consulted at a high level, so I thought it would be helpful if I could back that up by being able to say I’m a barrister,” he says. He is just about to complete a one-year full-time BVC course at the City Law School (formerly the Inns of Court Law School) and, all being well, should be called to the Bar in July. Although Connor sees his long-term future as a barrister, he says that he has no immediate plans to practise. “I want to get NCDV running on a fully national level. Then I may take a step back and have a career at the Bar.”