“It’s a cold winter’s night in Melbourne. Six-year-old Jenny (not her real name) cuddles up to her mum whilst they sit close together on the couch. They are not watching TV or reading a book. Jenny is trying to soothe her mum who has been crying on and off all day. Jenny is trying to erase the marks from her mums’ face, without hurting her. What you don’t see is the how Jenny feels every time she sees her mum crying and how scared she is every time her father shouts at her mum, every time she hears them arguing late at night when she is supposed to be sleeping or every time she goes to school without her homework.”
Jenny’s story, is unfortunately, one of many that reach the Greek welfare organisation, PRONIA. Stories about children forced to grow up abruptly as they face the fear and trauma of abuse in their home.
Though we often hear about women who fall victims of violence in their homes, the children in these families are rarely mentioned, nor what becomes of them as they grow up traumatised, and live with the consequences that may last a lifetime.
Kathy Barbakos, Client & Community Services Coordinator in PRONIA, understands deeply the impact domestic violence has on children, as she has spent the last 30 years working for the Children’s Protection Crisis line. In addition to her work in PRONIA she is currently completing a degree in Clinical Psychology, hoping to further support families and children recovering from the trauma of domestic violence.
“Every day I come to work trying to make a difference to someone’s life. Even if I help one person, I feel like I have done something, because no one deserves this. We need to be there for our children, because they are tomorrow’s future,” Ms Barbakos told Neos Kosmos.
That is also why she chose to work for PRONIA, she adds, because she understands how much harder it can be to escape the abuse, when you have arrived from another country, with scarce knowledge of the language, and no one to turn to.
Ms Barbakos is concerned that we are taking too long to intervene and provide the psychological support children who live or have lived in an abusive environment are in need of. She also believes that too many many cases still go undetected.
From her experience in the Family Court proceedings, she explains that while efforts are made to resolve issues such as custody, parental visitations, and restoring family relationships etc, a huge issue that she sees too often is that the trauma suffered by the child is not addressed until much later in life.
“We need to come in a lot sooner and provide the professional support whether it is counselling or even just taking them out of that family situation. Because if these are not addressed early enough, we notice that later in their life they have the trauma but in addition they have other issues, such as drug or alcohol problems, prostitution, forming abusive relationships.”
The impact of domestic violence on children has been compared to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but it is considered even more complex and hard to treat, because there is wide range of mental issues that result from the prolonged exposure to trauma, where the child has no control over a situation that repeats. Due to its complexity it has recently been defined as Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Giving kids a voice
The Family Court decides about custody and chooses the child’s living environment but we need to take this one step further, Ms Barbakos said.
“We have to allow children to have a voice, to express what they have been through and what they want, when decisions are made about their life,” she said.
Unfortunately, Ms Barbakos stressed children are, at no age, given a say, or have their voice heard in Family Court. They express their wishes through psychologists, who many times, do not have the full picture as they might have met with the child only once.
Family Court might consider that their main objective is to protect the children, but in Australia, children are nearly never heard or given the stand to express their wishes.
“A child who is five and has been abused, even sexually, does not lie. And when they go to the family court they face a long and frightening journey, where the court assesses what the parents say, but not the child. Even when the child is 12, and begs not to visit or live with one of the parents, they are still being assessed, they are still not believed,” she said.
There are tragic accounts of adults who describe how as children, despite their desperate pleas not to live with the abusive parent, their wishes were not considered, and despite their objections, the police would be called to take them by force to the place they feared most. (Accounts described in Jess Hill’s book “See what you made me do”).
“This adds to the powerlessness a child already feels in this sort of situation. They are powerless and they are not believed. There is so much pain there which they will suppress, often reverting to drugs. We see them in their 40s and 50s as drug addicts but they all have a story, and once you start unravelling it all, you see that it all came from when they were 5-6 years old.”
“I would love to do more work in the early years, because if children have the tools to deal with it and they are not alone, I think their lives will be very different in 30 years’ time.”
“Perpetrators need to identify that there is a problem, and then, they need to seek help. You don’t know the history. The perpetrator may have grown up in such an environment and believe that it is normal.”
That is why these issues of family violence should be addressed early in life, so that it won’t continue into the next generation.
According to Ms Barbakos, most of the reports of family violence come from friends, neighbours or schools, but rarely from the parents.
If Children’s Protection services deem that the child’s safety is at risk in their home, they will be taken away to a foster home. The parents have visitation rights and the services will assess how they are doing, with counselling or rehab, before the child is returned.
“The majority of the children do not return to the family. We find that even if their parents go into rehab, they tend to fall back into it,” Ms Barbakos explains.
“This is why we need to hear the voice of children at a young age, because once they become 20-30 years old and they have children of their own it becomes a double issue.”
“If we give children a voice, we ensure a better future for all of us. It is crucial to give them the power to participate in decisions about their life. Otherwise they lose hope. And when you lose hope, you start to die.”
Supporting, guiding victims
There are many crisis lines available for people facing domestic abuse. There is even a lifeline dedicated to children, the Kids Help Line (1800551800).
PRONIA has been empowering, supporting and caring for the Greek community in Melbourne for decades.
“We have been working on these issues at PRONIA for more than 50 years. We have professionals, social workers, counsellors, case workers, free legal aid, so that the members of our community dealing with family violence can be guided through the dark moments until they can stand on their feet.”
When the issue cannot be addressed by PRONIA alone, the victims will be directed to specialists and social organisations we work closely with, Ms Barbakos adds.
“We know the journey may seem a long and difficult one but there are many benefits at the end of it.”
If you need support or more information, contact PRONIA, visit www.pronia.com.au or call (03) 9388 9998.
Anyone with concerns about suspected child abuse or exploitation should call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.