"Children speak truth" wrote Anthony (age 6) on his postcard to Margaret Hodge MP, Minister for Children, Young People and Families and it was precisely with this thought in mind that the Women's Aid Listening to Children Campaign, supported by the Ragdoll Foundation, came to life.
At least 750,000 children witness domestic violence every year and three-quarters of children on the child protection register have experienced domestic violence. At this time of great legislative opportunity Women's Aid is concerned that the needs of these children may be overlooked both in the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill and in the Children Bill. There is still no statutory funding stream for children's support services in refuge organisations. There is still no legislation requiring the courts to ensure that contact and residence orders are safe for children.
The Women's Aid Listening to Children Campaign aims to facilitate that these children's voices are heard directly by Government.
Postcards to Margaret Hodge
In April 2004 Women's Aid asked children all over the country who had experienced domestic violence, to complete postcards with the phrase "I want the government to…". We asked children of all ages to write and/or draw their feelings, wishes and needs. We encouraged them to express what helped them in their situation and what they thought might help other children in a similar situation. Hundreds of children, predominantly between the ages of 4 and 16, participated in the campaign. The postcards were sent to Rt. Hon. Margaret Hodge MP, Minister for Children, Young People and Families.
The messages on the postcards should not be new to any of us. They reflect what research findings have already indicated. Children want the violence to stop, they want safety for themselves, their mums, and their siblings, they want support and they want the government and the courts to listen to them.
"Stop me being scared." (age 8)
Children wrote about how domestic violence makes them feel, "It gets me down
sometimes" said one boy (age 9) and a teenage girl stated: "Domestic violence makes me feel angry, frightened, scared to do anything - to save another argument - like I want to kill myself." (age 15) The confusion that children feel when their family is uprooted by the trauma of violence was also evident in their messages. One boy asked: "Why doesn't my daddy love me? My friend's daddy loves her. I feel alone. Is it my fault? Why is he nasty?" (age 9)
"Give more support to children and people to talk to who have been in the same situation." (age 6 ½)
Children spoke out about feeling sad and angry when they had to leave their homes and belongings to come to a refuge. One twelve year-old boy stated: "I hate living here and as I left home I knew I had left everything behind (e.g. friends, family, school, football team, home). I'm sad." (age 12) Another child commented on the frightening experience of being uprooted "When I moved to the refuge I felt very scared because I didn't know anybody and they all felt like strangers." (age 10)
"Make sure there are places to stay when we are all sad at home." (age 9)
While refuges provide safety, and children clearly appreciate this, they requested help to improve these safe houses. Comments included: "We need more storage space. A storage space for each woman. We need it a lot. We're having to leave everything behind." (age 11) and "Help make refuges bigger so women and children can take all their belongings." (age 8)
"Refuges need workers to talk to for adults and children." (age 8)
Children cited the children's support services available in refuge organisations as a key factor in their ability to move on from their traumatic experiences: "The workers in the refuge have helped us to carry on together, " said one teenager. However, again children noted that there are not enough services; they asked the government to improve this: "Have the playroom open more often." (age 6) and "Provide more money for playworkers so I can see them a lot more." (age 16) Moving to a refuge also means changing schools for most children - another challenging transition. Children asked the government to "Help us to get a school quicker." (age 8) and they asked for "computers with internet to do our homework." (age 12).
"Stop my dad hitting my mum right now!" (age 8 ½)
Children want help to keep them safe and to protected, one teenager wrote "Protect my mum. I've tried, but I'm only 15 and I can't do it on my own." (age 15) Children ultimately called on the government to stop the violence happening: "Stop fighting because it doesn't solve anything. Violence is horrible, mean and it makes me feel not good." (age 10) In their pleas for help, many of them specifically asked for the government to help abusive fathers in order to protect children from further harm: "I think you should help daddys to stop being angry. Help children in a bad situation." (age 7), and another plead to "Make my dad stop hurting us." (age 10)
"Help mums and children to find somewhere nice to live quicker." (age 6)
Many children commented on the extremely long time it takes to find a new home. Other children expressed their wish to stay in their own homes; they believed the abuser should have to leave instead of them: "Make daddy leave, not mum. I can stay in my own bedroom." (age 6).
"Take daddy to the police station for giving mummy so many bruises." (age 10)
Children voiced specific views about the government's responsibility to punish abusers for their behaviour. Like this eleven year-old child who said, "Help victims of domestic violence feel safe that the person who has hurt them will be sentenced to prison," many commented on stricter criminal justice laws and consistent prosecution.
"Stop daddy from finding me." (age 10)
Children's messages spoke loudly about their desires not to see their abusive fathers. They voiced their views about contact being ordered against their wishes, asking the government, "Not [to] force children to see their dads if they don't want." (age 14) They cited their own experiences, "My little brothers and me are safe now. We don't want to see daddy anymore." (age 12), asking again for safety and protection: "Make mummy safe so daddy will not find us." (age 5) Children addressed the courts and asked them for protection: "They should get the court to stop my dad hurting us." (age 9)
Part 2 of the campaign - Public meeting at Portcullis House in London
In an effort to have as many people as possible hear children's voices and also to give children an opportunity to receive a response from Government first-hand, Women's Aid invited all children who had participated in the postcard campaign to attend a meeting in the House of Commons on June 16, 2004, where they could themselves ask questions of ministers in attendance. Hilton Dawson MP did a fabulous job of chairing the meeting and facilitating the question and answer session.
Unfortunately Margaret Hodge was unable to attend due to diary pressures, however Paul Goggins MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Correctional Services and Reducing Re-offending from the Home Office and Laura Moffatt MP, Private Parliamentary Secretary to Lord Falconer of Thoroton as Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs attended to answer children's questions.
The turnout was tremendous, with approximately 150 people attending the event. Fifty children and young people came, accompanied by their mums and children's support workers. Additionally, over fifty individuals attended from voluntary and statutory organisations, as well as MPs and Peers. Various media reported on the event including The Sun and the BBC. Young people from Article Twelve of the Children's Rights Alliance were also in attendance and Newsround covered the event on their website. Four members of Kidz Krew, Newham Council's Advisory Board to the Children's Fund, assisted in the planning of the meeting and presented on behalf of other children at the event.
The event began with a multi-media presentation of the postcard campaign that included the track "Take Control" a song about domestic violence by Will Young, Women's Aid Ambassador.
The core of the meeting was the question and answer session. Children's courage and confidence when asking their questions was impressive, and the content was moving. Their questions reflected their confusion about particular decisions that had impacted their lives - they sought answers and explanations for example, about contact orders and about giving evidence in court. One child inquired "Why do the courts force children to see their dads when they are frightened of them?" Several questions addressed the criminal justice system, one boy asked "Why do men only go to jail for one night and get released in the morning, when they have done domestic violence?" Another child inquired about the unsupportive environment of the courts, demanding that when children are asked to give evidence they should be allowed to go first instead of having "to wait five hours and get upset." Children posed direct questions about the power of judges, putting forth their views that they feel judges are abusing their powers by putting children's lives at risk, for example when they give out addresses of domestic violence victims in court. One girl asked "Who tells the judge off when he doesn't' listen to the children?"
Children inquired about the need to develop awareness of domestic violence in schools and to further develop support services within schools for children who have experienced domestic violence. Finally, children also posed questions about the need for increased funding for all types of children's services. In the words of one girl: "Why is domestic violence not a priority when it comes to funding?"
Paul Goggins MP spoke about the complexities of the criminal justice system and that cases should be able to go back to court, if there are problems with contact orders, for example. He emphasised that it is the role of CAFCASS to keep children safe, and remarked that he was "deeply moved" by children's messages.
Laura Moffatt MP acknowledged that there is not enough funding for children's services. She also admitted that sometimes CAFCASS does not get it right, but they are trying hard to do so. She added that Lord Falconer is in charge of judges and where judges get it wrong, he should hear about it. She noted suggestions that children's questions be forwarded on to other Ministers. Women's Aid will be following up with both the offices of Paul Goggins and Laura Moffatt to seek further explanations about their responses to children's questions, as there was not much time for in-depth answers.
Finally, members of Kidz Krew presented two poems about domestic violence that they had written themselves.
During the buffet lunch, children had the opportunity to write further comments/questions on a "Children's Graffiti Wall".
Following the event, all children enjoyed a ride on the London Eye, made possible by Kids Out.
What now? Taking the Listening to Children Campaign forward
"Ask kids what they want. Listen to what kids say. Make the judge listen to us. Be tougher on nasty people. Don't make kids do what they don't want to. Help kids more." (age 9)
Children are demanding that someone champion their rights and wishes - this is Government's opportune chance to live up to this responsibility. Their needs, wishes and fears seem to have become irrelevant - cases of children being killed on child contact visits must no longer be ignored. We must hear what children are saying and act to protect and to support them.
What Women's Aid is doing
The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill and the Children Bill are expected to receive royal assent before the end of this parliamentary session in the autumn. Women's Aid will continue the campaign:
- To ensure that contact is safe for children who have experienced domestic violence.
- For consistent, reliable funding for specialist, domestic violence services for children (and women), both community and refuge-based, in every local area.
We will convey children's messages as widely as possible, showing the postcards and asking children's questions on their behalf.
Keep checking the Women's Aid website at www.womensaid.org.uk for further news and developments about our campaigning efforts.
What you can do
- Encourage children to write a letter about their experiences (for example regarding child contact arrangements) to government - perhaps to your local MP, Margaret Hodge, Minister for Children, Young People and Families or even to Tony Blair.
- Contact your local press/media about children and domestic violence - seek coverage of children's needs and experiences in your local area.
- Have your local MP meet and talk with children who have experienced domestic violence - encourage children to share their experiences, provided it is safe to do so.
If you would like further information about the campaign, how to campaign/lobby on a local level and/or maintaining the safety and anonymity of a child when seeking publicity, please contact Women's Aid on 0117 9444411, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org