Chris Goddard and Neerosh Mudaly report on Australian children’s experience of unhappy lives at home through abuse, domestic violence and neglect through the words of the children themselves
Inquiries into child deaths, in Australia as well as the UK, invariably list organisational issues as contributing to failures. Whereas child death inquiries criticise communication failures between professionals what we should be examining is our failure to communicate with children.
Children have the ability to eloquently describe their experiences of abuse and their views of professional interventions. Despite concerns about the limitations of their cognitive and emotional ability, the voices of children provide compelling insights and understandings about their experiences and the dynamics of abuse.
We will be better practitioners if we give children the chance to speak, and if we listen carefully to what they have to say.
Don’t pressure children into making a disclosure
It is important to recognise how difficult it is for children to reveal abuse. This young boy reveals how hesitant he was about disclosing:
“I didn’t, like, want to tell. I wanted to but I didn’t want to at the same time. I was thinking, if I told and he found out, I would be in serious trouble…” (13-year-old boy).
Don’t forget that there are many ways of silencing children
Some children complain that even when they try to disclose, professionals don’t want to hear:
“The problem with (children’s court counsellor)… was that she didn’t want to believe the truth and that’s always been the problem with these people, they don’t want to believe the truth, they just want to believe the easiest side… so then they get paid and go on to the next one and just pick the simplest out of that. They don’t want to hear the truth because the truth is so much harder to understand and so much longer than a lie about the truth…” (12-year-old girl).
Don’t forget that children are capable of great insights
Children can show great insight into child abuse; for example, how it may be transmitted across generations:
“They don’t know any way to channel their anger, because their parents or their parents’ parents have lashed out at them, and they don’t know how else to express their anger” (12-year-old girl).
Do make it easy for children to communicate
Even teenagers who have been traumatised by abuse may benefit from play and drawing, as both an aid to communication and as a diversion. Creative responses to their pain can be therapeutic:
“I had all my feelings bottled up into this box and I had to draw the box and then we burned the picture and that sort of, it… made me sort of relieved. Which I know sounds really weird because I burned this picture of something and it sort of made me a little better” (11-year-old girl).
Do be aware of the terrible violence that some children experience
One boy was often beaten and punished by being made to sit naked in a corner for hours. He was a hostage to his stepfather’s brutality and saw his mother beaten:
“…he said he was going to blow us away. I did shit my pants. I thought about if I would survive, and in the end, would Mum live?” (13-year-old boy).
Do remember that children and young people respond in different ways to abuse
Suicidal and self-destructive behaviour is more common among females looking for ways to express their fears and anxieties:
“I didn’t have any control over my life then so I started controlling my food, I would either eat it and throw it up again, or I just wouldn’t eaÉ” (11-year-old girl).
Boys are more likely to act out their pain:
“..my attitude at school was really changing; like, I was getting in a lot of trouble, getting in all these fights…if someone said just one thing to me…if someone said like one word I’d be hitting him..” (12-year-old boy).
The children’s voices are taken from The Truth is Longer than a Lie: Children’s Experiences of Abuse and Professional Interventions by Chris Goddard and Neerosh Mudaly
Professor Chris Goddard is director of the National Research Centre for the Prevention of Child Abuse at Monash University, Australia. Dr Neerosh Mudaly is senior practice consultant at the Australian Childhood Foundation