Monday, August 2, 1999 Published at 01:46 GMT 02:46 UK
Child victims of violence 'ignored'
The needs of child victims, particularly the very young, are sometimes ignored
Children traumatised by seeing their mothers subjected to domestic violence are being ignored, says a leading charity.
The needs of children - who make up the majority of residents in women's refuges - are often not recognised, particularly if they are very young, says Refuge.
A report by the charity says domestic violence, endured by some 680,000 UK women in 1995, can have a devastating effect on children.
As well as witnessing extreme violence, they are often uprooted from their homes, moved from school to school and lose their friends.
Refuge has been championing services for children across the country but it says little research has been done into the subject.
The government's recent £6m strategy on violence against women, Living Without Fear, only mentions children in passing.
Ruth Aitken, a child psychologist at Refuge, says children experiencing violence often suffer a range of emotions associated with severe trauma, such as visual flashbacks, nightmares, constant anxiety, sleep disturbance, eating disorders, panic attacks and loss of hope for the future.
For many, their schoolwork suffers, but others try to suppress their emotions in order to hide that there is anything wrong.
For example, they may do very well at school or try to be "perfect" in the home. This can also be attempt to avoid more violence in the home.
"They may think that, if they are perfect, their mother will not be hit. They may think they are in some way responsible," said Ms Aitken.
She added that people tended to think very young children did not suffer as much as older ones, but Refuge's experience was that children could recall witnessing violence when they were only two or three.
"They assume that young children by virtue of their age will be okay and will forget, but they do remember and they need an opportunity to talk about what has happened."
Refuge tries to provide that setting. It assesses every new admission and constructs a psychological profile.
Young children are helped to express how they feel using toys and dolls to act out their emotions.
In the dark
One four-year-old had spent four months living in the dark with her mother. The mother had put blankets on her windows and doors so her father would not know they were in.
Ms Aitken said: "People think women do not leave abusive partners but they do.
"The problem is their troubles are not over when they leave as they get little support. Many say injunctions are not worth the paper they are written on."
The four-year-old was very anxious when she came to Refuge. "Even the slightest creak or door opening made her jump out of her skin," said Ms Aitken.
Using dolls and a toy police car, she acted out confronting her father, shouting at him and arresting him.
"She experienced some control over an overwhelming experience. She had to go through things several times, but the most important thing for her was to feel safe," said Ms Aitken.
She added that pressure for children to maintain contact with fathers who had abused their mothers sometimes undermined that feeling of safety.
It tended to be assumed - and sometimes mothers made this assumption - that it was in children's best interests to stay in contact with their fathers if they had not abused them.
But each child's needs have to be considered separately, say Refuge.
It wants to see more awareness about the effect of domestic violence on children, including better training of staff dealing with children and violence awareness classes in schools and priority admission to schools for children living in refuges.
It also wants secure funding for children's refuge services, including resettlement services and guaranteed psychological support.
And it says there is an urgent need for more research into the effect of domestic violence on children.
Refuge runs a 24-hour national crisis helpline on 0990 995 443.