Help for children in refuges is a postcode lottery, charity warns

Four fifths of women flee domestic violence to protect their youngsters, yet support is lacking

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The Independent Online

A leading domestic violence charity will this week launch a hard-hitting campaign calling on the Government to make the needs of children in refuges a key part of its next national strategy on violence against women and girls (VAWG).

Hestia, London’s largest provider of domestic abuse refuges, says the ability of thousands of children to access specialist services is a postcode lottery because many safe houses in the UK lack the funds to provide them. The situation is made worse by the fact that children’s support services, including mental health services, are often among the first to be cut by cash-strapped councils.

New figures from the charity show that 79 per cent of women living in its refuges left their partners because they feared for the safety of their children.

The organisation is calling on the Home Office to offer direct support to all children at refuges, including boys aged 12 to 16, who are often refused places at safe houses due to their age, leading to families being split up or made homeless.

Hestia is also asking the Department for Education to consider granting children in refuges the same status as children in care who are given priority in school admissions and access to the pupil premium (the extra funding for schools to raise the attainment of disadvantaged children). It can take weeks or months for children in refuges to find a school place after fleeing to a new area, significantly disrupting their education.

Pamela Zaballa, head of Women and Children’s Services at Hestia, told The Independent on Sunday that the lack of support for children is partly due to the focus on helping the mother. “The belief has been that if you are helping the mother you are indirectly helping the child,” she said. “This is true but it is not effective enough.”

There is also a debate about which therapies are the best and confusion surrounding funding, which means children “are not accessing mental health services or any therapeutic services, even ones that are not complex, such as play or drama therapy”, she said. “There are no spaces and getting referrals only works for extremely complex cases.”

It takes on average 2.7 years for someone suffering domestic abuse to leave their partner. One in four children in high-risk situations is under the age of three, meaning very young children are being exposed to severe abuse during their early years.

It takes on average 2.7 years for someone suffering domestic abuse to leave their partner

A lack of specific support “may lead children who have survived abuse to suffer from behavioural and psychological problems, including difficulties at school, poor social skills, self-harm, developmental delay, depression and nightmares,” according to Hestia’s new report.

Maryam Shadmani, a counsellor at the charity IKWRO, which supports women from the Middle East and north Africa, said there is a “huge gap in the services to support children”.

“There is no one looking out for the needs of these children or looking at how they are impacted by the domestic violence they have experienced. These are kids that have been living in chaotic and angry families and even in a refuge it doesn’t mean the trouble is over.”

Ms Shadmani said that as the children grow older, the girls are often drawn to violent men similar to their fathers or can easily become victims of sexual exploitation, while the boys may become aggressive as they grow, sometimes becoming violent towards their own wives.

“These children are crying out for attention, affection and approval,” she said. “There is a lot of drug and alcohol abuse. But a lot of these issues could be prevented with access to counselling.”

One woman who she has counselled has three children who have witnessed domestic violence, while two had been beaten by their father – yet the children have been on a waiting list for five months to see a counsellor. Domestic violence represents “the most serious child safeguarding concern”, according to a report published by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, which estimated that 1.8 million children are living with domestic abuse in the UK.

Refuge, a national domestic violence charity, has called for a full-scale public inquiry into the state’s response to domestic violence.

Hestia is developing a policy document “Children: The Forgotten Victims of Domestic Abuse” which it intends to take to the Conservative and Labour Party political conferences later this year.