Lost childhoods for children who experience domestic violence

New research shows the damaging effects of domestic violence on children and recommends services must be developed to specifically cater for these children. By Emma Browne Children who experience domestic violence can have trouble making friends, suffer fear and anxiety during their childhood and often feel they have lost childhoods, according to a new report on the effects of domestic violence on children. The report entitled Listen to Me – Children's Experience of Domestic Violence was conducted by the Children's Research Centre, Trinity College Dublin for the Mayo Women's Support Services.
The researchers talked to 11 women, 22 young people and children and service providers in the area of domestic violence in Mayo. They researched how domestic violence impacted children, the needs of those children and what services the children need. The research is the first of its kind in Ireland – research has concentrated on the effect of domestic violence on women previously. It is also unique in that it involved interviewing children for the study. They studied three different age groups – under 6, 12-16 and 16 and over.
Effects of domestic violence on the under 6 group were identified as: sleepless nights, restlessness, clingy behaviour, regression, some behavioral problems such as tantrums. Some children lacked empathy to other children.
The effects on the children in the 6-12 age group, were a lack of confidence and self esteem, sometimes bullying of other children, or sometimes they  withdrew into themselves. This group was more protective of their mother than the younger group.
In adolescents they noted that many of them had a problem establishing intimate relationships (this was identified as a problem in all age groups). Mother-blaming was also more common in this group than the other ages. There were some extreme examples where self harm or alcohol abuse was involved. Many of them felt they had missed out on “normal” lives because they may have felt they were taking care of their mother and or siblings. An interesting finding amongst this group was that separation from the violent partner did not mean an end to behavioral problems in the children.
A Women's Aid study conducted in 1995, Making the Links found that one in five women surveyed had experienced abuse at the hands of a male partner. Out of them almost three-quartres, 71 per cent reported broken bones, head injuries and loss of consciousness. On average there are 8,000 per year calls to the Women's Aid helpline. The Mayo Women's Support Services (MWSS) saw 197 women in 2004, although a study done in 2000, based on the population of women in the county, estimated that there may be 2,500 women in Mayo who are experiencing domestic violence. International research shows only 10-15 per cent of women experiencing violence report it.
Listen to Me also identified some of the needs of children who have experienced domestic violence. A place to talk is important; some children needed compensatory education; a range of needs relating to contact with their father was identified – a theme amongst all the children was a wish to be consulted about access. A major problem identified was long waiting lists for counselling services. Another major issue was a lack on integration between services and a lack of awareness among women about what services there are for themselves and their children.
The main recommendation of the report is that services are developed to specifically cater for the needs of these children. Key to this is early interventions involving school teachers and Garda Síochána. The report also recommends that services should be tailored on an individual basis as reactions amongst children, even siblings, to domestic violence are very divergent.
Listen to Me – Children's Experience of Domestic Violence by Helen Buckley, Sadhbh Whelan, Stephanie Holt, Children's Research Centre, Trinity College Dublin
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