None of us wants to believe that the family home is a place of abuse and fear but, as Jane Evans discovers, domestic violence is no respecter of dreams and ideals
Most of us are brought up to believe that becoming a family will create stability, safety and a sense of belonging, precious memories and love for us and for our children. The suggestion that family life may not always offer this can be unsettling and unpopular. No one wants to think that the family home can be a place of fear, threat and violence. But domestic violence and abuse, and those who carry it out, are no respecters of dreams, wishes or ideals.
Domestic violence and abuse slither silently, secretly around the home, mostly hidden but creating a sense of impending fear and then striking swiftly from time to time with often deadly, or deeply wounding, consequences.
Fewer than one in four people who suffers abuse at the hands of their partner – and only about one in 10 women who experiences serious sexual assault – reports it to the police, according to government figures.
Recent photos in the media of Charles Saatchi with his hands around wife Nigella Lawson’s neck and his subsequent caution for assault have thrown up the notion that this can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Domestic violence can hurl families into crisis and chaos and is far from the aspirational scene of domesticity we are sold in our daily lives.
It’s clear that in order to thrive children benefit from a family life where they feel safe, loved and accepted. This gives them a great foundation for going out into the big, wide world to form friendships and relationships, to learn and to be happy and healthy. However, for too many children this is not the case. Abigail Sterne and Liz Poole, in their book Domestic Violence And Children, list some key facts that make for uncomfortable reading:
• At least 750,000 children a year in the UK witness domestic violence
• Most incidents occur when the children are in the same or next room
• Before a woman reports domestic violence to the police, she will on average have been assaulted 35 times
The very fact that most domestic violence often goes unreported would seem to suggest that this is not the full picture and that many more families are affected on a daily basis. What do children learn from witnessing repeated abuse and violence in their home from one parent/carer to another?
• The people who should love us hurt us and hurt those we love
• Adults lie (often the violence will be minimised, ignored or dismissed by adults to keep everything within the home)
• When bad things happen I must not tell anyone
• Accept, or use, violence to survive and keep safe
• Adults cannot be trusted to keep me safe
Secrecy is often maintained by adult and child victims at all costs; concerns that Social Services will become involved and remove the children, loss of face, embarrassment, or the fear that threats to kill will be carried out if others get involved stop many from reporting abuse. There is also a crippling sense of deep shame.
Recently I was told on Twitter by @bubbles3563: ‘I only involved police because my HV made me. Felt I was making big fuss over nothing & was all my own fault.’ This highlights the importance of just one person questioning if everything is OK and offering support to seek help. It can make a world of difference to victims in the short and long term and it can save lives.
“Violence in the home is one of the most pervasive human-rights challenges of our time. It remains a largely hidden problem that few countries, communities or families openly confront. Violence in the home is not limited by geography, ethnicity, or status; it is a global phenomenon” UNICEF
‘More than three-quarters of a million children in the UK are affected by domestic violence at home, but often parents and teachers don’t know where to turn to help them cope with the effects,’ says the charity Women’s Aid, which campaigns to end domestic violence against women and children. ‘Children often have a hard time understanding the abuse and coming to terms with it, even years after it happens. Frequently, children will feel guilty that the abuse was somehow their fault or that they should have protected their mother or themselves. Sometimes children will have been lied to by the abuser, and may feel conflicted about which of their parents to trust. Just feeling they have to keep the secret of what’s going on at home can be enormously stressful and lead to emotional and behavioural problems.’
A final word from X-Factor runner-up Jahmene Douglas, who grew up with domestic violence and had to keep the abuse ‘secret’ for fear of what might happen: ‘Never let another person redefine who you are,’ he says. ‘Only you are in control of your inner happiness. You are not afraid, be free.’