Children speak out on family violence

Interviews with children and young people whose fathers use violence reveals that they require their Dads make amends so they can move on. Their voices are now being used in fathering programs

Andrew Trounson, University of Melbourne

Published 13 June 2017

Readers are advised that the following story is about family violence and may be distressing.

Children and young people believe that fathers who use family violence need to be made more accountable, and it should be up to them, not the community or the courts, to decide whether they have anything to do with their Dads.

That’s the message from a new study into the perspectives of children and young people whose fathers have used family violence, whether it is physical and/or emotional abuse.

These feelings of children and young people who have suffered family violence are seldom listened to, but University of Melbourne researcher Dr Katie Lamb discovered that when asked they had plenty to say - some of it harrowing in the way it provides an insight into what it is like to fear your father.

“It’s kind of like having a monster in the closet who sometimes buys you a Christmas present” said one study participant.

“Children’s perspectives on their relationship with fathers who use violence rarely figure in the research literature or in the legal processes dealing with family violence. But when I came to talking to them I was blown away by exactly how strong their views were, whether it was an older young person or a child as young as a nine year old,” says Dr Lamb. “They all in some way wanted their fathers to acknowledge that what they had done was wrong and apologise.”

Some told her that they just wanted their father to go away, to prison preferably. Others wanted to rebuild their relationships with their Dads, but only on their terms.

But she found that common to all of them was a demand that their Dad make reparations in some way - to try to make amends - whether as a precondition for rebuilding trust, or just so that they could move on with their lives.

Some of the participants have since gone on to record their experiences as ‘digital stories’ for use in programs designed to change the behaviours of fathers who use violence, in a project funded by the Luke Batty Foundation.

“Even those children who wanted no further relationship with their fathers still saw reparation as being important to their own healing and giving them closure,” says Dr Katie Lamb, who carried out the study as part of her doctoral research in collaboration with University of Melbourne’s Research Alliance to End Violence Against Women and their Children (MAEVe), supervised by Professor Cathy Humphreys and Professor Kelsey Hegarty.

The problem is, she says, there is little opportunity in the social or legal system to make fathers who use violence accountable to their children, and this needs to change both for the sake of the victims and the perpetrators.

A criminologist who is now a Human Services management consultant at KPMG, Dr Lamb says her study, while small and qualitative, provides an important insight into how the system is failing to acknowledge the needs of children and young people who have experienced family violence.

She says many told her they felt pressured by community expectations to forgive their fathers and accept them back into their lives. And they felt left out of processes attempting to hold fathers who use violence to account.

“They had really strong views on what they wanted their fathers to learn and what their fathers needed to know about how they had hurt them. And they wanted their voices to be heard in programs for fathers who use violence.”

Dr Lamb says that the children and young people she interviewed felt frustrated that they weren’t consulted on what should happen to their fathers, and they felt that authorities put pressure on them to accept their fathers had a right to stay in their lives.

Dr Lamb says an important message from her study was that all the children wanted to be in control of what their future relationship with their fathers looked like and when it occurred. “They didn’t feel currently that was how it was looked at by adults, and that it was very much expected the child would simply forgive and forget.”

“He denied all the abuse and stuff...and maybe if he’d done some time in prison and apologised for what he did I’d probably - you know, I might think about seeing him” - study participant.

“Once I thought an apology was all you needed. But I don’t think that would even be enough. I need to see your actions have changed” - study participant.

Dr Lamb interviewed 16 children and young people aged between 9 and 19 who had been the victims of family violence perpetrated by their fathers. The study was partly motivated by her experience working with male prisoners during her previous work managing programs in the Victorian justice system. She realised that fathers in prison were often concerned about their relationship with their children.

“It was sometimes very surprising to see these pretty rough looking men hanging on the every word of a support worker who was giving them advice on how to interact with their children. I could see it was a pivotal issue for them and was something that could help motivate fathers to change.”

Dr Lamb said it was critically important for fathers who use violence to hear the voices of children to combat the still pervasive idea that men who are violent to their partners can still be good fathers. She says the existing research is clear that experiencing family violence is bad for children. She says fathers who use violence can sometimes try to avoid facing up to their actions by thinking they can still be good fathers, and it is an idea still given some credence in the court system.

“There is an assumption that a man who uses family violence can still be a valuable father, but the evidence doesn’t support that and this study doesn’t support that. Significant acts of reparation may be required.”

It is why she says it is important that fathers who use violence be made to feel accountable to their children, and the children themselves also need to know that their fathers are accountable for the hurt they have inflicted on them.

The Children’s Protection Society and UnitingCare ReGen have begun using the digital stories from the study in one of their intervention programs for fathers who use violence and according to a CPS clinical practitioner, the effect of listening to children speak is proving to be a cathartic experience for many of the men.

“The video had a profound impact on the group and opened up a reflective discussion on the impact of family violence,” says Ms Edwards, who is facilitating a pilot of the Canadian-based Caring Dads intervention program. “One of the men said he felt like crying to think that his actions had badly affected his children, and the group generally was shocked by what they heard.

“It is one way of motivating them to change because they don’t want to hurt and alienate their children,” Ms Edwards says.

“We were products of her (our mother), so we got that watered down hatred that he held for her” - study participant.

“When I’m angry, I’ll want to hit stuff and want to act out because that’s what I’ve seen my father do...And like I don’t want to be that person” - study participant.

When Dr Lamb approached the young people to anonymously record their views as digital stories for use in rehabilitation programs, she says many of them jumped at the chance. She says they were “bursting” to be heard and to make a difference.

“People ask me if this work was depressing or sad but I didn’t feel that way,” she says. “It has been really inspiring. These young people have been through so much yet they have such clarity of thinking and such mature views on what they have been through.

“Those who agreed to make the digital stories were passionate about having them used and making a difference. Given what they have been through it was an amazing show of strength.”

Dr Lamb’s study is part of the University of Melbourne’s broader “Fathering Challenges” research project that is funded by the Australian Research Council and led by Professor Humphreys.

The University of Melbourne has been contracted by the Victorian Government to evaluate the pilot of the Caring Dads program.

If in need of help you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800 737 732

Banner Image: Keri-Anne Pink/Unsplash

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