Domestic violence ...A childhood trauma

By Karen Elzinga 6/6/2018

Child protection policies within Australian states and territories including the Family Law Act 1975, and the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-2020 (Council of Australian Governments [COAG], 2009), describe the exposure by children to violence within the family unit under the banner of 'child abuse'. 

The official definition of domestic abuse described by the United Nations (UN) 1993, is 'any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty' (Campo, 2015). 

Violence can be directed at any person with whom the abuser shares/shared a physical relationship, or a family member or person/child in their care. It is inclusive of physical and sexual suffering, psychological and economic abuse, threatening, domineering and controlling behaviour that causes the recipient fearfulness in their wellbeing (Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services, 2015). 

This violence whether perpetrated directly or indirectly onto children, is an early childhood education and care (ECEC) issue because of the inherent risk to children's safety and well-being. It is also due to the fact that a legal mandate exists on teachers as a profession to legally and ethically report suspicions of abuse to relevant authorities (Queensland Government, 1999).

 This will be addressed in this blog post along with how children, educators and families are affected by domestic abuse within the home and ECEC centres. It will also express concerns and difficulties associated ECEC educators implementing measures to aid and resolve cases, parental early intervention, and how domestic abuse issues could be resolved in the future to alleviate intergenerational abuse. 

According to the Tennessee Commission for Children and Youth (TCCY) (2016, pp. 1-2), any issue that is immediate, actionable, clear and specific, unifying, builds the organisation, is winnable, and has a clear target, is an issue of importance to ECEC (TCCY, 2016).

 Domestic violence meets this criterion by effecting families, children, society and professionals. The effects of violence by direct subjection or secondary exposure may have short and long term consequences to a child's mental health and physical well being. But it doesn't just effect those defined by it, it has astronomical costs to society with a study by Access Economics (2004), who estimated the annual financial cost in Australia, to be 8.1 billion dollars (Crawford, Brown,Walsh & Pullar, 2010). 

Another issue is that domestic violence is also a wide spread societal problem in Australia, with thirty six percent of the population having experienced physical or sexual assault by perpetrators known to them, from the age of 15 years. Other studies including meta -analytic, population based and longitudinal research have acquired evidence that supports links to children's developmental outcomes (Campo, 2015). These can include:

Sleep issues

Fighting/hurting people or animals

Obstinate behaviour

Depression or Low energy tolerance

Behaviours that are risky

Bedwetting/regressive behaviour

Anxiety to be apart from non perpetrating parent

Inferior academia (CASA, 2016).

Post traumatic shock disorder

Respiratory ailments

Limited concentration and focus ability (Unicef n.d; Campo, 2015).

Stomach or headaches

Temper issues/tantrums

Isolating behaviours

Substance abuse

Suicidal tendencies

Feelings of inadequacy

Over achieving

Worrying excessively

Dissociation (CASA, 2016).

Gastrointestinal issues

Diminished cognitive function

Eating disorders (Unicef n.d; Campo, 2015).

Along with physical and mental side effects for abused children, educators have a responsibility to ensure their safety not only at the centre, but in their home environment. ECEC staffs are required to document any evidence relating to perceived domestic violence as mandated by division 2: Mandatory reporting by particular person and section 13: E-J of the 1999 Child Protection Act.

 The act states that any persons related to the care and provision of children including service industries are bound by law to report suspicious behaviour related to child abuse or neglect, to the reporting authority. Under 13E section F of this act, it highlights ECEC personal as being included in these mandatory reporting activities (Queensland Government, 1999).

Whilst all states are guided by this Child Protection Act 1999, various states and territories whilst similar in their reporting, have differences in their individually derived obligations. These include, what age is deemed a child, what extent of abuse is deemed reportable and what is judged as the 'duty' of reporters.

 Australian statistical information shows that teaching professionals are one of the highest reporters of abuse and neglect due to their training, placement and relationships to children (Mathews, Walsh, Butler & Farrell, n.d.).

 Whilst this can be a positive life changing opportunity for a child, it is with a degree of trepidation or reluctance that some educators are willing to report instances or suspicions to relevant authorities (Falkiner, Thomson & Day, 2017).

 A study of teachers from 30 Queensland primary schools detected that less than 50% had reported cases of suspicious maltreatment (Walsh, Farrell, Schweitzer & Bridgstock, 2005).

 A lack of training was one reason provided for this absence of reporting confidence, with an acknowledgement that a level of uncertainty exists in correctly identifying abuse or neglect. Teachers report that they feel the need to speak to the child first to harness a concrete case so that they know they are 'doing' the right thing.

 Unfortunately, this need for affirmation could impede an investigation with some jurisdictions stating reporters are not to conduct investigations with children, because this may negatively impact, influence or contaminate children's responses. Other issues that define teacher reporting are legislative and policy definitions, ill explained reporting procedures (Falkiner,Thomson, Guadagno & Day, 2017), and fears of retaliation both towards the child and the teacher by the family. 

These genuine fears can lead to a 'perception' of being sued in unsubstantiated cases, and if wrong that it will cause undue stress and emotion to the family, and the teacher (Abrahams, Casey & Daro, 1992; Kenny, 2002; Mathews, Walsh, Butler, & Farrell, 2010; Schols, De Ruiter &Ory, 2013 & Zellman, 1990). 

From a family perspective however, when educators are forced by law with the inclusion of large fines and in Victoria jail terms for failure to report instances of abuse (Falkiner, Thomson, Guadagno, & Day, 2017), this approach whilst heavy handed, l believe may actually help family members secure help. 

When a parent refuses or is too frightened to help their own circumstance, having a professional who is defined by law to legally step in and put counteracting measures into place, may prevent future abuses from occurring. I believe this early intervention could produce numerous benefits for families including ways to manage a child's safety. It could assist the family to break intergenerational cycles of abuse and neglect, save families from financial stress, prevent child/ren being forcibly removed from the house, or even prevent the incarceration of a parent. 

 Domestic violence is a social issue; it does not discriminate to class or profession, and can cross over to even those professionals most sort out to protect the communities' safety.

 The Queensland Times newspaper recently reported a case of a police officer who was arrested for punching his 10 week old son so hard, it pulverized his liver, the child consequently died (Mann, 2018).

 Whilst a police officer due to his profession maybe overlooked for an early intervention, these programs can identify those at risk, no matter what the type of abuse, be it physical violence, verbal or emotional abuse, or the withholding of financial resources.

 Through mandated reporting and intervening with practical future measures put into place for families and children, flow on effects such as intergenerational abuse can be negated (Partnerships against Domestic Violence 2001, 7; Tolman.Wang 2005, 148).

The effects of domestic violence can have long term and intergenerational affects for families especially indigenous Australians, who ascertain a higher ratio of domestic abuse cases when compared to non indigenous people. 

Children who witness abuses, experience it first hand, or feel the effects of parental trauma, can grow to think it normal behaviour taking on parental traits experienced as their own (Atkinson, 2002).

 These trauma related symptoms can include:

Self esteem and self concept issues

Social isolation

Poverty and homelessness

Dependencies of welfare

Substance abuse issues

Post traumatic stress disorder

Flash backs/ nightmares

Ill health

Intergenerational abuse can be alleviated however, and that is where ECEC centres and staff can help. 

A longitudinal environmental risk study out of the United Kingdom conducted research on 1,116 sets of twins to see how intergenerational abuse cycles could be broken. The study concluded that families who maintained safe, nurturing partnerships and found stability in intimate relationships, including between mothers and children, and who retained lower stress levels were associated with breaking the cycle of abuse (Jaffee, Bowes, Ouellet-Morin, Fisher, Moffitt, Merrick & Arseneault, 2013).

 ECEC educators can help aid this process of recovery by utilizing practicing guidelines. The National Quality Standards (NQS) standard 6- Collaborative partnerships with families and communities, establishes that educator create close partnerships with families, in order to support them in their roles as parents (ACECQA, 2017).

Another way educators can help alleviate intergenerational trauma, is to implement at a local level what governments continue to do at a state or territory level, and that is a more effective coordination system designed to create improvements in achieving faster and more proactive action earlier (Hollonds, 2016). 

The 'National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children' for example has put into place an action plan that encumbers a 20 year period from 2009 to 2020. This plan has been divided into 3 year periods, to help prevent and alleviate domestic and sexual violence.

 The aim of the framework is to create changes to legislation so that it addresses the importance of programs such as:

Early intervention and support to families

Abuse is adequately addressed so children can receive appropriate help and support

Children are able to live at home safely whilst supported

The exploitation of children and abuse of children are averted (Council of Australian Governments 2009). 

I believe this is an effective way forward, the more governments can do, the better, but l also believe that change starts at that local level. 

This issue could be improved by ECEC educators understanding that children have a fundamental right to be heard without dismissal, that means without hindrance, fear of retribution or intimidation, or an Australian colloquial 'she'll be right' attitude.

 If a child has something to say that affects their life they must be allowed sufficient time and engagement without interruption to speak what is on their mind good or bad. These children must also have the trust and confidence that they will not only be heard, but be believed!

 This right to be listened to is written into Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC), which states that children have a right to an opinion, and for adults to take that opinion seriously. 

This article is considered to be a major underlying children's right that is utilized to interrupt and execute other all other rights (Mitchell, Lee, Patterson, Townshend, Kay & Holden, 2017; SA Government, 2006).

 In line with an openness to speak l also believe that every child has the right to grow their mind, body and spirit inclusive of holistic and spiritual incorporation within their ECEC setting, as addressed in the EYLF Practice- Holistic approaches (DEEWR, 2009). 

This could be practiced by having a retreat section within the ECEC where children can go to feel safe, supported, and experience quiet time. This space could end up being the location where children express issues pertaining to abusive instances, or difficulties in the home (Thomas & Lockwood, 2009). 

When educators look after children's all round health and wellbeing like this and as stated in the NQS- 2, they understand children's personalities and know when something is wrong (Falkiner, Thomson, Guadagno & Day, 2017). 

I believe educators must have a firm understanding of the children in their care to address when they suspect something isn't right. Procedures like the NQS 2.2.3- Child protection, can provide educators with the knowledge to provide the one in four children directly or indirectly exposed to domestic related violence, adequate protection under the law (ACECQA, 2017; White Ribbon, 2014).

In conclusion a concerted effort must be made to highlight the incidence of domestic abuse and its consequences in Australia. 

Children's short and long term developmental outcomes as described in this blog due to violence cannot be dismissed. Additionally we need to educate professionals so they have confidence in reporting suspected abuse, and work collaboratively with parents supporting them to make good and safe choices for their children.

 This can be aided by early intervention; we as a community need to change policies, speak out about, educate and help stop the associated effects, such as the consequences for children's developmental learning and intergenerational trauma. 

These infractions will not subside without intervention, we as a society need to continue the discussion and highlight domestic violence as an intolerable act whilst helping to promote positive generational change through the changes legislative practices.  

This video is a very good reference and well worth watching the whole way through.


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