The voice of the seldom heard
“There are children all over Ireland living with domestic violence and abuse who never come into contact with specialised services.”
Those were the words of Áine Costello who is the national coordinator of the Barnardos Ireland Childhood Domestic Abuse Project. She is one of four speakers at a webinar taking place today, Thursday, on the often ignored impact of domestic violence and abuse on children.
It will focus on children and young people as victims in their own right with an aim to increase awareness and understanding of their specific needs.
Speaking to the Cork Independent, Ms Costello said although children are beginning to be recognised as real victims of domestic abuse, visibility needs to be raised across all services: “They might present to medical services with pains in their belly or feeling sick. Are we thinking outside the box, that this may be psychosomatic symptoms caused by trauma that this child has experienced?”
The webinar will hear children describe first-hand the physical ailments they have experienced due to trauma.
In 2018, Irish domestic violence service Women’s Aid released a report showing that more than 70 per cent of woman who contacted their service had children.
Exact figures of domestic abuse in Ireland are unknown as many go unreported, but Ms Costello said indicators point to worrying numbers.
“We know in Ireland that one in three women have experienced some form of emotional or psychological abuse in their life and one in four have experienced physical abuse. If you consider that 70 per cent on those women have children, that's a huge section of our society that are not heard or seen that we need to give a voice to,” she said.
In 2018, then Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan TD, announced the commencement of the Domestic Violence Act 2018.
The act allows for a ‘voice of a child report’ to be used in court in cases of domestic abuse and violence, however, according to Ms Costello, it is not widely implemented around the country.
Ms Costello said the impact of trauma for children lasts a lifetime and can lead in many cases to a wide range of physical and emotional issues.
“Trauma for children can manifest itself in many different ways across all stages of development – physically as psychosomatic pains, aches and bedwetting – emotionally they can be quiet, withdrawn and suffer from anxiety and low self-esteem,” she said.
Ms Costello added children often feel they are to blame for the fighting and hurting at home as well as feeling it is their responsibility to protect their younger siblings.
Also speaking at the webinar will be Helen Oxenham, a childhood domestic violence and abuse survivor originally from Cork.
Helen, now in her 90s, left an abusive father behind in Ireland to start a new life with her husband in Australia where she has been supporting victims of domestic abuse and violence since 1970.
Speaking to the Cork Independent, Helen said there is a lot of hidden emotion when it comes to domestic abuse, with many children afraid they will get in trouble if they come forward.
“When it comes out, they are very emotional and cry and hug me and want me to fix it,” she said.
Offering advice to those experiencing domestic abuse, Helen said they must never give up and never blame themselves for what has happened.
“Try to find someone to confide in and make a plan to get away from the abuse. Remember, it’s not your fault,” she said.
The Barnardos Webinar on the Impact of Domestic Violence and Abuse on Children runs from 10am-12pm today and is free to virtually attend. All are welcome to attend the webinar.
Tickets are available at barnardos.ie/empoweringchildren.