Increasingly, many government and community programs designed to combat family violence are recognising the need to gain the perspectives of children in service planning. However, they are grappling with exactly how to do this. The accessibility of digital technology is providing exciting new ways to engage with children, and can have a powerful impact on how we view our responses to family violence.
The need to combat family violence in Australia is front of mind for many organisations – from government departments focused on child and family welfare, to independent agencies in the community (usually not for profits) that are working with perpetrators and their families in an effort to improve families’ lives.
These powerful statistics paint the picture of the family violence problem:
Across these organisations, there is strong awareness of the impact of the violence on children and young people, but there are few initiatives that actively bring their perspectives to the fore.
Stewart McMullin, COO, The Luke Batty Foundation, says that family violence campaigner Rosie Batty believes her son was often seen as an ‘appendage’ to her journey, and his needs were not actually considered by authorities in their own right.
“There’s ways and means to make sure we do capture the views of children and we respond to them,” McMullin says.
Through my PhD in the Social Work Department at the University of Melbourne (supervised by Professors Cathy Humphreys and Kelsey Hegarty), I explored ways to address this gap and embed the voices of children in programs for fathers who use violence.
It became clear that many government agencies and not for profits are either failing to see the importance of gaining children’s perspectives, or have concerns regarding how to go about it.
The good news is, through demonstrating how children can be engaged, it became clear that there are immense opportunities for service providers to rethink how they are approaching this issue, and to achieve stronger outcomes as a result.
Organisations are adept at capturing the perspective of the female adult victim, however children don’t believe they are adequately consulted, and feel that their voices aren't heard when services are designed.
In short – they are ‘seen and not heard’.
I wanted to know: what do children who have experienced family violence have to say about their relationship with their fathers and how might that influence the way organisations tailor programs to support fathers change their behaviour?
To encourage children and young people to open up in a way that they were comfortable, I turned to their comfort zone – technology. I conducted a ‘storytelling’ workshop at ACMI in Federation Square, Melbourne, in which a group of young people spent 2 days making digital stories to share with fathers who attend programs to address their violence.
The result of the workshop was eight digital stories told in the children's own words. Children as young as 10 could create a 2-3 minute narrative which would make an impact on the receiver. They wrote their own scripts, recorded their own voice overs, picked their own music and images. Safety mechanisms were built-in to ensure that each child’s identity was protected.
One program using digital stories is Caring Dads in Victoria. Caring Dads is a 3-year trial funded by the Department of Health and Human Services and Gandel Philanthropy where fathers attend voluntary group sessions over 17 weeks to learn parenting skills and the impact of family violence on their children as well as the importance of a respectful relationship with their children’s mother.
“The video had a profound impact on the group and opened up a reflective discussion on the impact of family violence.” Fiona Edwards, Clinical Practitioner and Group Facilitator – Children's Protection Society.
A key lesson from this research was that children and young people whose fathers use violence saw ‘reparation’ or engaging in a process of repair with their fathers as really important – regardless of whether they intended to have an ongoing relationship with him into the future or not. This sense of closure was seen as an important step which would assist them to move on with their lives.
Following the workshop, I consulted with practitioners who run programs for men to ascertain how they could use the stories. The majority said they would find it very useful as they often struggle to get children's voices into programs because of the safety issues.
When I asked why program managers didn’t make attempts to engage children, two answers prevailed:
‘We've never thought about it.’
‘Children are vulnerable, it's too hard.’
People believe that the ways they engage adults are unlikely to work with children, and so they will have to come up with a range of new approaches. However, there are some really interesting and innovative pieces of work being done to engage children using digital stories, photography and craft activities, which can facilitate some great discussions with children and provide really rich information.
Other perceived barriers to taking on the perspectives of children include the ethics application process. Ethics committees have traditionally been overcautious regarding children, fearing that any discussion with them would be too dangerous, or bring up issues that were too complex.
But the thinking is changing, particularly in Europe and Scandinavia and more recently in Australia, where it is becoming acknowledged that failing to engage with children goes against the principles outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and reduces the opportunity for vulnerable children to have their views heard about matters which impact their lives.
When children are consulted they often have creative ideas for how services could better meet their needs, so from a service provider’s perspective, this is a missed opportunity. By encouraging young people to talk about their experiences and by making changes to the way organisations provide support, we can all make greater steps towards improving life outcomes and ultimately break the cycle of family violence.
For those of us who have been working in the family violence and family welfare sector for a long time, it is exciting to see the current unprecedented level of investment by all levels of government into the issue. However, the voice of the child is a missing ingredient.
This research showed that it is time to move past the idea that asking vulnerable children for their perspectives is too difficult, and it is time to look at how we can do this in ways that are safe, creative and empowering. And crucially – how this can help influence the design and delivery of programs and policies that impact children's lives.