Children are going homeless, but there’s something you can do to help

In our cities and rural areas, domestic and family violence is ruining lives.

It is a leading cause of homelessness for women with children.

Other associated impacts include illness, disability, mental health conditions and even premature death, particularly for women ages 25-44 years.

Disappointingly, there is limited data regarding the extent of the impact of family and domestic violence on children in Australia.

What is clear is that childhood should be a time of innocence and fun, but sadly, for many Australian children, fear and family violence is all they know.

In 2016–17, about 72,000 women and 34,000 children seeking homelessness services reported that family and domestic violence caused or contributed to their homelessness (AIHW 2017d).

CatholicCare Social Services Hunter-Manning’s Director, Gary Christensen, said children are extremely vulnerable when witnessing domestic violence and, in some instances, were even the intended target of the abuse.

“Experiencing violence within a relationship is traumatic, particularly for children. It can be difficult to know where to turn to for help,” Mr Christensen said.

In 2016 CatholicCare Social Services commenced its Integrated Domestic and Family Violence Service, funded by the NSW Government. A dedicated caseworker assists victims of domestic violence in various capacities including advocacy, counselling, co-ordination of support, family law support, Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders and, significantly, education. 

Since the program’s inception, CatholicCare has assisted 149 women and their families.

“Educating children about respectful relationships from an early age is vital to changing societal values that allow domestic and family violence to occur,” Mr Christensen said.

“Ultimately, we hope that - over time - our programs designed to assist victims will become redundant. Key to achieving this is shaping young people’s perceptions about acceptable behaviour and teaching them what do to if they suspect someone is experiencing domestic violence,” Mr Christensen said.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2017b) 1 in 9 men reported having experienced physical and/or sexual abuse when they were boys.

CatholicCare Senior Case Manager, Alysha Jones, works on the frontline with victims of domestic violence and said the cyclical nature of the epidemic is one of her greatest challenges and one that is not limited to women and girls.

“I’m currently supporting Adam,* who at 17 years of age, is beginning to address the extensive trauma he experienced throughout his childhood,” Ms Jones said.

Despite the limited data on the extent and impacts of family violence on children in Australia, qualitative research has shown that children exposed to family, domestic and sexual violence can experience long-term effects on their development and have increased risk of mental health issues, and behavioural and learning difficulties (Campo 2015).

“It is likely that the early-life adversity that Adam was exposed to, as a witness and victim of violence, has contributed to pervasive developmental delays. These delays include difficulty with impulse control, rational decision making, processing emotions and forming and maintaining relationships,” Ms Jones said.

Children can experience family violence as a witness and/or a victim.

“Adam’s reflection on his upbringing is timely, as he is now a proud father to six-month-old son, Elijah. It is important we support Adam through this period of reflection and transition to fatherhood so that he can make positive choices that will shape not only his life but just as importantly Elijah’s too.

Family and domestic violence can have far-reaching consequences.

“In addition to counselling, Adam is currently investigating the role that medication can play in assisting him to manage his diminished cognitive, emotional and social functioning which will continue to impact his ability to participate in family and community life,” Ms Jones said.

Since 2017 CatholicCare has been a sponsor of the Hunter White Ribbon Day Breakfast. This community event attracts over 400 people each year including approximately 100 students from various high schools across the region.

CatholicCare’s sponsorship ensures that students, like Adam, can attend the breakfast free of charge.

“Domestic violence affects more than just the immediate victim. It affects entire families including children and young people. It also affects those in social circles and workplaces. It does, without doubt, impact our entire community.”

Mr Christensen said that CatholicCare will continue its commitment to educating the community about domestic violence - how to prevent it and, if it does occur, how to identify it as a bystander and how to ask for help as a victim.

“Today’s children deserve to grow up in a world free from family and domestic violence, and we all have a role to play to ensure that,” Mr Christensen said.

“Education and awareness are essential. Domestic violence is not just an issue for the individual but a whole-of-community issue.

“We must rally around all victims of domestic violence, particularly children, empower them and break the cycle,” Mr Christensen said.

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Lizzie Watkin Image
Lizzie Watkin

Lizzie is Team Leader Content for the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.