Expert warns of impact of domestic violence on children

Damage to children can last beyond parental separation, Tusla webinar hears

Dr Stephanie Holt says abusive behaviour needs to be understood as a parenting choice and not a relationship choice. Photograph: iStock

Dr Stephanie Holt says abusive behaviour needs to be understood as a parenting choice and not a relationship choice. Photograph: iStock

 

Children experience domestic violence in their homes “in their spinning heads and their knotted tummies”, a leading expert on the issue has warned as reports of incidents soar during the pandemic.

Gardaí and domestic violence organisations have reported an increase in calls since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic of up to 30 per cent.

Stephanie Holt, head of the school of social studies at Trinity College Dublin, said children’s experience of domestic violence must be heard for the issue to be fully understood. They were not just bystanders, and perpetrators target the whole family including them, she said.

“Children don’t need to be awake, they don’t need to be in the room, they don’t need to be directly hit to experience fear and anxiety,” she said. As one boy told her, “I feel it in all of my bones.”

A recent Safe Ireland report shows that between March and August, almost 3,500 women called a domestic violence service for the first time. Earlier this month, Tusla announced an additional €4.7 million to support domestic, sexual and gender-based violence (DSGBV) services next year.

Speaking at a recent webinar hosted by Tusla, Dr Holt said the majority of homes where there was domestic violence contained children. She said children under five were most likely to witnesses the violence, and children’s presence increased the risk for domestic violence.

“Children are very often the reason why women stay, why they leave, why they return and why they eventually leave. And, from a post-separation perspective, they are also the tie that binds a woman to her former partner. They are centrally involved to the experience and, therefore, to any intervention.”

‘Entirety of experience’

Living with DSGBV was not an “episodic” experience but “an entirety of experience which is dominated by fear, control, isolation and very often degradation”.

“We already know … living in this state of fear for women is utterly exhausting. How must it be for children, particularly very young children, to live in that state of constant fear?” she asked.

“It is critically important we maintain the position that the perpetrator’s behaviour is not limited to targeting the adult victim and the understanding that the whole, entire family is targeted.”

The damage to children can last beyond parental separation in the context of access, according to Dr Holt.

“Abusive behaviour needs to [be] understood as a parenting choice and not a relationship choice … As such, men should be held accountable for their parenting not just for their partnering.

“If we are really serious about taking meaningful action to end domestic, sexual and gender-based violence then we need to make serious efforts to include the experiences of children … They can positively influence outcomes not only for them but also for the families they live with.”