Witness to domestic violence: creative ideas to help children


There are many ways of raising awareness of domestic violence within the education system, but can any bring home the realities more effectively and powerfully than drama?

Heartstrings is a play written by Simon Firth, artistic director of Gripping Yarns, an association of storytellers working in schools. Focusing on the damaging effects of physical abuse at home, it has been performed to over 3,000 secondary school children in Cheshire and is now touring the country. Performed by actress Jane Dickens, it enables a detailed exploration of complex ideas in a form which is easily understandable to a young audience.

“Heartstrings was inspired by feedback from primary school-aged pupils in evaluations from a previous storytelling project in Cheshire primary schools on disclosure and violence at home,” says Firth. “This suggested that many children faced by violent behaviour at home would be likely to take action placing them at increased risk.”

The county’s education service has been part of the Cheshire Domestic Abuse Partnership since it was set up in 1993.

“Education has a unique role,” says county child protection adviser Chris Greenwood. “The young people of today are the adults of tomorrow, and if children can inculcate our belief systems we might be able to head off domestic abuse in the future.”

For Firth, storytelling enlists the emotions of the audience. “This makes it possible to empathetically explore situations and potential escape responses, from the perspective of a young person witnessing domestic abuse,” he says. “Because the drama is scripted, audiences’ experience and reactions are controlled, making it possible to address the most difficult themes safely.”

➔ For more information contact simon@grippingyarns.co.uk

What do you think?

“I enjoyed the drama Heartstrings. It definitely got the message across – very powerful.”
A domestic violence worker

“Jane Dickens’ performance was superb the best I have ever seen. She portrayed every member of her household and the dynamics so well. To deliver the performance alone and condensed into such a time frame was miraculous.”
A domestic violence worker

The ‘Proud’ Labyrinth

Therapeutic work can help survivors to recover and find new life chances.

A recent workshop, facilitated by art therapist Clare Campbell, founder of Wild Woman, followed the journey of a group of women and young people in their pathway to recovery from domestic abuse. They produced a Labyrinth walk highlighting what makes them proud about their journey.

This artwork, celebrating the support families give one another in hard times, contains something of every person who was involved – a footprint, a story, an image of hope, a word of comfort.

The women who created the labyrinth experienced many types of abuse, from physical violence (“He grabbed hold of my hair and held my face to the fire”) to being kept captive (“I was locked in a room and only allowed out to pick up my daughter from school”) to psychological abuse (“He would call me a fat ugly cow, a bad mother and a useless piece of shit in front of anyone”).

The Labyrinth was made over five days: a two-day residential course for young people, who also enjoyed outdoor activities, and three separate days for the women.

➔ The Labyrinth can be borrowed for use in community events, schools and public spaces in the North West. Please contact Janette Lovell on 01928 787226 to make a booking.

What do you think?

“The moment I stepped onto the labyrinth I became lost in the lives of those I need to help a piece of art that can inspire and yet make clear to me my failings as a police officer and a human.”
Garry Shewan, assistant chief constable, Cheshire Police

“As I walked the Labyrinth pathway I felt in touch with their courage I felt very humble but uplifted by the power and humanity of the experience.”
Chris Greenwood, senior safeguarding adviser in education, Cheshire

Peer Educator Pilot Project

A survey last year found that a worryingly high proportion of young people believe it is acceptable to hit a partner, while 42% knew at least one girl who had been hit by her boyfriend and 59% did not feel that they had sufficient information and support.

For Jo Sharpen, children and young people’s services development officer with The Greater London Domestic Violence Project (GLDVP), this is why it is so important to educate young people as early as possible through prevention work in schools.

The GLDVP has teamed up with the National Youth Theatre (NYT), Domestic Violence Responses and other partners to develop a peer educator pilot project on domestic violence and safety in young people’s relationships.

Peer educators have been widely used in helping young people develop their own ways of understanding complex and sometimes difficult subjects, such as health education.

The project involved training 12 peer mentors from the NYT on the subject of domestic violence, adapting their skills so they were able to lead drama activities around the subject with young people, and creating with them a piece of original drama to be performed in schools.

“We have found that peer education seems to really work with young people,” says Sharpen.

➔ To find out more, contact Thangam Debbonaire, DVR, dvr@blueyonder.co.uk or 07894 472376

What do you think?

“This really got the pupils to think and get passionate – it created a really positive heated discussion.”
A head teacher

“Because they were young people using the same language as the pupils, they had credibility with the pupils and helped the pupils connect with the work.”
A domestic violence prevention officer in Islington, north London

“I always thought domestic violence was just physical until I got involved with this project.”
A school pupil

Contact the author
Graham Hopkins

This article appeared in the 12 July issue under the headline “Creative help for troubled homes”

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