Children: Vicious family circle

Children who witness domestic violence may be as damaged as their battered mothers. Sarah Lonsdale reports
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
AT THE AGE of nine, Simon still sucks a dummy, wets the bed and is a clingy, timid child. For years, he and his sister, who is 11, witnessed their father beating their mother. "He was scared of his dad," said his mother, Sheila, "and used to speak to him in a different voice, a lispy, baby voice, as if being like a baby would protect him from a beating." Sheila and the children left her husband two years ago. The only place they could find was a refuge. "Since we left I discovered that my husband was beginning to turn on my daughter. If I had known how much damage the experience was doing to my children I would have left earlier. But when you're caught in that situation, it's hard to think of anything but yourself."

Last week, the children's charity NCH Action for Children published the first national survey on the effects of domestic violence on children. The report, which surveyed 108 mothers who had experienced domestic violence, and their 246 children, found that 63 per cent of the children had seen their mothers being beaten. A quarter of mothers said their violent partner had also beaten their children. One in 10 of the children had seen their mother being raped. Apart from physical injuries, the survey found that children in abusive households have problems keeping up at school, wet the bed until very late on, and are generally frightened and timid. Around three quarters of a million children are affected nationally.

The failure of agencies such as the police, social workers and the judiciary to link domestic violence against women to its effects on children has had tragic consequences. In 1988 Sukina Hammond, aged five, was beaten to death with a kettle flex by her stepfather in her home in Bristol. The Avon social services department was aware that he violently abused Sukina's mother, but nevertheless Sukina and her sister were removed from the child protection register. A special review panel set up to report into Sukina's death concluded that the failure of the social services department to take into account her father's extreme violence towards her mother led them to underestimate the threat that he posed to the child.

New legislation that recognises for the first time the effects of domestic violence on children was proposed in last month's Queen's speech. The Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill, which extends and simplifies existing legislation, will make it easier to remove abusive men from the home. The new powers, stemming from a Law Commission report published in 1992, will extend current legislation in three main ways. People other than a wife will be able to apply for the eviction of a domestically violent man; resident and non-resident unmarried partners and other family members will now be able to do so too. The new law will also increase police powers of arrest if the man fails to obey the so-called "ouster orders". And simplifying procedures, and making the same remedies available in both magistrates courts and the county court, will make it easier to evict a man in an emergency situation, rather than waiting months for the order to be heard, as has happened.

While welcoming the Govern-ment's acknowledgement of the problem, Tom White, the NCH chief executive, believes the proposed legislation should go further, if children are really going to get the protection they need. "Until now, domestic violence has been seen as a woman's problem. I think the evidence we have gathered shows that children are also the victims," he said.

"If there is to be a sea change in the thinking of social workers and the police, then there must be a co-ordinated national strategy to raise awareness of the issue." He points to the tragedy of Sukina Hammond's death as demonstrating that in cases of known domestic violence, the children of the couple have not always been taken into account.

The new proposals should, however, help people like Pauline. She tried desperately to have her long-term partner, by whom she has two sons, removed from the house. However, as she was not Rob's wife but a cohabitant, Pauline could not apply for an exclusion order under the Domestic Proceedings and Magistrates Court Act 1978. She could have applied to the county court under another piece of legislation, the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976, but her solicitor advised her that because the mortgage on their home was in Rob's name, she would not succeed.

The beatings began when Pauline was pregnant with her second child, Will. Now she is fearful of the damage they have done to the boy. "I suppose it was my fault," she said. "I used to run into Will's room when he was very small, when Rob came after me. I thought that being in the child's room would make Rob stop. It did for a while, but then he started doing it just the same. One night I ran screaming into Will's room. It was about three in the morning and Will was fast asleep. Rob came at me with the belt. Will got out of bed, still asleep, and just stood there, staring, as white as a sheet. Then he peed in his pyjamas.

"I stayed until Will was nine. Then I came home from the shops one day to find Rob dangling Will over the top banisters, screaming at him. The next day, I left. Andy, the oldest boy, is 16 and a lot like his dad. He had started roughing me around a bit already. He has stayed with Rob."

Dr Jean Harris Hendriks, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, north London, said that until now the effects of domestic violence on the children who witness it have been underestimated. "Physical abuse, and subsequently sexual abuse, have been recognised in children, but this is an area that has largely been overlooked. Women who are abused by their partners are still expected to be responsible for the protection of these children."

Lee Donald is one of the children who has been treated at the Royal Free trauma clinic. He was referred there when he was eight, after years of witnessing his mother being beaten by his father. He was staying out late, making poor progress in school and at times soiling his pants. He put on a front as though nothing and nobody could hurt him, but during only his second meeting with a therapist he began to admit that he was horrified and frightened when he heard his parents argue. Then the family failed to turn up for any further appointments.

Dr Harris Hendriks next heard of Lee when he was 12, playing truant from school and sniffing glue. By 14, Lee had taken his first overdose of paracetamol and alcohol after an argument with his girlfriend.

The complexity of previous legislation covering domestic violence has prevented many women from applying to have their partners ejected from their homes. In the end, their only real option has been to flee, with or without their children, to a women's refuge. As a result, children suffer from disrupted schooling, lack of privacy and other problems associated with temporary accommodation.

Thangam Debbonaire, the national chil-dren's officer for the Women's Aid Federation, has seen this all too often. "When children come into a refuge with their mothers, they will have left behind their home and may have to leave their schools,"she said. "This will mean losing friends whom they will never see again. Other children will go with their mothers into temporary accommodation, which is often a cramped room in a bed-and- breakfast hotel with no facilities for children at all."

The new legislation is coming at a time when a Home Office-funded public education campaign is encouraging battered women to come forward, a sign that the Government is at last taking domestic violence seriously. Sandra Horley, director of Chiswick Family Rescue, a charity that runs a number of refuges in London, said: "The present legislation is a mishmash. The new orders would provide a streamlining of remedies currently available. However, these are still civil remedies. Some-one who has committed an assault has committed a criminal offence and police should make more use of their powers under criminal law."

8 The names of all the parents and children, apart from Sukina's, have been changed.