Children the unheard voices of this domestic violence plague

Herald Sun Article

24 Sep Children the unheard voices of this domestic violence plague

MY father was the trifecta of deadbeat dads — a violent, alcoholic gambler. A classic abuser who worked hard to cut us off from the rest of the family and controlled all of our relationships.

From an early age I suspected the verbal abuse, threats and physical violence were wrong, yet as it was the only family dynamic I had ever known, the violence became a normal part of my childhood.

Domestic violence awareness campaigns didn’t exist in the 1980s. We simply accepted that “Dad hits us, Dad loses it and Dad hurts Mum”. No kid ever came to school and claimed “domestic violence” was a problem. Nobody asked us about the abuse in our homes and we never brought it up.

During the 1970s and ’80s domestic violence was a politically unpopular issue. Little was done to support the spouse at that time and even less was done to support the children living and experiencing the fear and powerlessness of their mothers. In 1989, the Australian Institute of Criminology reported that as many as one in three to one in 10 families were living with domestic violence. The report goes on to say that attitudes towards domestic violence were almost at the point where they were a “normal, expected behaviour pattern in society”.

In my neighbourhood, it was not uncommon to hear angry voices and heart-stopping screams; like everyone else, we kept to ourselves. It was unthinkable to call the police on the neighbours or for them to call the police on us. It was an unspoken agreement; things had to be really bad before the police were called.

In other words, I had to sit there with the belief that my father was going to kill my mother.

But over the years, I did call the police. Many times. The same charade played out over and over — only the faces of the police and the colours of my mother’s blood-soaked blouse changed.

Children with front-row seats to unhealthy relationships watch and learn as fathers lie, mothers and children are covered in bruises and everyone makes necessary excuses. At school I feigned sporting injuries and clumsiness. On hot summer days I wore long-sleeved jumpers and tied jackets around my waist to cover the telltale bruises. A senior police officer told me that at the time “police were encouraged to keep the peace and not bog down the courts with domestic disturbances”.

Like the police, I also tried to keep the peace and sometimes found myself siding with my father; how come Mum didn’t remember to buy the bread? Why did she answer the phone? Why didn’t she answer the phone? Why did she keep setting him off? Didn’t she realise she made my job of looking out for her an impossible task? My kid logic was warped by the abuse.

When Apprehended Violence Orders became available to victims in 1982, my mother took out one against my father, withdrawing it soon after. What would be the point? She would battle on alone, living with her abuser and fearing the loss of her girls.

Mum wasn’t the only one. It would be another 14 years before courts appointed Domestic Violence Liaison Officers. While there’s no doubt AVOs serve prosecutors and police, it’s questionable as to how they help victims living in crisis.

My long-suffering mother found the courage to leave my father and move interstate after 15 years of terror. But she didn’t apply for a divorce, fearful he would find her.

The story of “men bashing their wives and children” should end here; however, the reality is that when kids are involved it doesn’t end when the spouse leaves. Children living with domestic violence become the next generation of victims, abusers and champions for change.

According to the organisation Adults Surviving Child Abuse, many children who silently suffer beatings, abuse and belittling alongside their mothers grow into adults with heightened anxiety, grief, sadness, shame, self-blame, guilt and alienation.

A third go on to repeat patterns of abusive parenting towards their own children. It’s possible those kids never experienced another “normal”.

Survivors like me have stumbled their way through unhealthy relationships and have been forced to teach ourselves about boundaries. We have experienced extraordinary depths of emotion, sometimes so deep it felt like we would never surface.

Today, we are parents, business owners, workers and leaders. We came out the other side with enviable resilience, courage, street smarts and a different perspective on domestic violence to our mothers.

So why don’t we hear more stories of the children born into domestic violence? Is it taboo because our parents are still alive? Is it because we classify abuse as something that happens to our mothers?

If we are serious about ending the cycle of violence against women and children, we need to break the silence and tell the whole story.

Today I work with teenagers who put on a brave face and wrestle with the complexities of living with domestic violence. It is important those kids know they are not alone, that there is another “normal” and as a community it is our responsibility to get them there.

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MELANIE THOMAS IS THE FOUNDER OF THE KYUP! PROJECT — GIVING GIRLS A VOICE

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