Children need to be listened with regard to domestic violence, conference told

Adults need to avoid making assumptions about relationships with fathers

‘We know now children hear and see so much more than adults in the main ever consider,’ Dr. Stephanie Holt told an online conference on the impact of domestic violence on children. Photograph: iStock

‘We know now children hear and see so much more than adults in the main ever consider,’ Dr. Stephanie Holt told an online conference on the impact of domestic violence on children. Photograph: iStock

 

Children who don’t want to see or spend time with fathers who are violent towards their mother should be listened to, an international expert on children and domestic violence has warned.

Dr Katie Lambe, research fellow at the University of Melbourne, said domestic violence by fathers was “a parenting choice” and children’s experiences of it belied the narrative that it was “possible to be a violent and dangerous husband on one side and a good father on the other”.

It was not true that “all fathers are an important and positive presence in their children’s lives” she added. “We need to make sure we are asking children about their relationship with their father rather than making assumptions - and children say that we do this a lot.”

Dr Lambe was addressing a webinar hosted by Barnardos, titled Empowering Children: the impact of domestic violence on children, which heard children were not passive by-standers in households enduring domestic violence.

Dr. Stephanie Holt, head of the school of social work at Trinity College, Dublin, said: “We know now children hear and see so much more than adults in the main ever consider - particularly non-abusive parents who are trying to protect them. And they feel the violence in many ways beyond what adults often comprehend, and can articulate what that feels like and where they feel it.”

Áine Costello, coordinator of Barnardos’ childhood domestic abuse project, presented the definitions of domestic violence offered by children and young people living with experience of it.

One child said,: “It is shouting, name calling, crying, shattered glass. Sometimes it is punches, bruises and blood. It gets louder and louder. They don’t think we can hear it but we can hear it in our rooms when we are in bed even if it is in the last corner of the house. It is like a fighting match and we are worried mam might get killed.”

Another said: “Sometimes we are told whose side we are on and we don’t like it.”

Addressing an assumption that children who were not physically harmed were not impacted, Dr Lambe said: “In my experience, children experience the emotional abuse from their fathers as incredibly damaging and long-lasting.

“There’s also an assumption that all children feel conflicted about their feelings for their father. Some children do feel that way but other children are not conflicted at all. They are very clear about how they feel and I think we need to ask children how they feel so that we can respond in a way that builds ... trust and honours their lived experience.”

Referring to a tendency in social care and legal systems to place responsibility for keeping children safe on the mother, she said it was important professionals “place responsibility for domestic violence back on the person perpetrating it and not on the person experiencing”. The discussion should be “around the perpetrator’s behaviour and how it is placing children in danger,” she said.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact Women’s Aid: 1800 341 900, Dublin Rape Crisis Network: 1800 77 8888, Childline: 1800 666 666 or the the emergency services: 999/112