As presented by Dr Alan Campbell, Curtin University at the FDV Conference.
Children who experience family and domestic violence can often be placed in danger as the violence occurs. Those who are in contact with these children can feel a need to protect them. There are tensions, however, in developing protective measures for, and with, children who live with family and domestic violence. In this paper, I will explore some of these tensions, for both adults and children, in negotiating children’s safety and in understanding their experiences of FDV. The paper will focus on children’s lived experiences with these tensions and the impact of violence on their lives, and pose some questions about how we might help children to cope with their situation in an effective way.
When considering how best to address children’s experiences of FDV, a number of tensions arise. These tensions include determinations of a child’s ‘best interests’; and how a child’s ‘wishes’ and ‘views’ contribute to these determinations. An additional tension centres on how adults socially construct children. Some of these constructions are very helpful while others may be considered detrimental to the child’s overall development. I will discuss these tensions in a little more detail before considering how adult helpers may act to best address them in effective ways.
The concept of a child’s ‘best interests’
In law, this concept differs to reflect the specific interests of ‘adults in charge’. In Family Law, for example, the focus is on deciding children’s future arrangements following separation. In determining a child’s ‘best interests’, the Family Law Act 1975 provides a list of matters to be considered. Two ‘primary considerations are set out in S60CC of this Act: the “benefit to the child” of a meaningful relationship with both parents, and the need to protect the child from harm. While the second consideration shares equal importance with the first, the way in which the Family Court determines safety over benefits of meaningful relationships can result in a child spending time with a violent parent despite indications that this may place the child in direct harm.
In child protection, the focus is very directly on the child’s safety. In the Western Australian Children and Community Services Act 2004 places a top priority in the need to protect the child, and makes no mention of the importance of a relationship with both parents. This would presumably provide the decision-maker with more freedom to refuse a request from a parent for the child to spend time with them.
In other Acts (such as the Western Australian Young Offenders Act 1994), no direct mention is made of a child’s or young person’s ‘best interests’. This suggests that if you offend, you forfeit any opportunity to receive a decision based on this concept (Coppins, Casey & Campbell, 2011).
The literature suggests that concepts of children’s ‘best interests’ are fluid, subjective and open to broad interpretation (Campbell, 2008). Indeed, many authors have criticised the concept for the subjective nature of the concept, requiring decision-makers to use a significant amount of discretion in their determinations of any child’s best interests.
What do children think about their ‘best interests’? In my research I asked children this question and found that as children grow their understanding of the concept appears to become more concrete. For example, a 9-year-old girl reported “…some kids don’t know what’s best for them,…” . She argued that it is sometimes important for adults (parents and teachers) to take control and decide for children. By the age of 13, however, the children in my research argued for the importance of hearing from children as part of making a decision for or about them. A 13-year old male stated: “…children’s best interests, what really are they, it’s kind of so unbelievably general…I think that in best interests is not really the children’s opinion at all, it’s what other people think is best for them. So it’s kind of making the decision for them and not listening to what they have to say…”. Another 13-year old, this time female, agreed: “…everyone I know always knows what they want…I think maybe you should talk to your children about this…”. (Campbell, 2008)
So the tension for adult decision-makers seems to be in defining the ‘best interests’ of a child who has been exposed to domestic violence. There are a number of issues to consider in response to this tension. They include:
- Should adults rely on principles of ‘best practice’? The tension with this is how ‘best practice’ is defined. What about objective viewpoints?
- Adults could consider research findings? Many research reports are, however, contradictory. How does a decision-maker gain a balance of consensus through relying principally on research?
- Legislation (the list of matters to be considered) can provide a strong starting-point for determining a child’s ‘best interests’. However, the legislation is hardly ‘foolproof’, and can sometimes help to place a child in more danger?
- Paying attention to parents’ concerns about their children’s welfare may provide the decision-maker with some clues about the child’s ‘best interests’, but sometimes these concerns can be influenced by parents’ personal experiences, their subjective understandings of their children’s needs and their own ‘best interests’.
A combination of these approaches may provide more certainty in determining a specific child’s ‘best interests’. However, children themselves consistently say that decisions made about them should include adult consultation with the children themselves. Their own understandings are therefore important for them. The question then is, what do adults need to know from children?
The child’s wishes or views?
I have argued (Campbell, 20143 that the concepts of a ‘wish’ and a ‘view’ are qualitatively different. A wish can be described as a ‘desire’ or ‘hope’, while a ‘view’ can refer to “opinions, beliefs and ideas”. Tensions exist regarding the question of which of these concepts is more useful for decision-makers when children are exposed to FDV. For example, Family Court judgments are still referring to children’s wishes despite changes to the law in 2006 that removed the reference to children’s ‘wishes’ from the list of matters used to determine a child’s ‘best interests’’ and replaced it with a reference to the child’s ‘views’. In contrast, the WA Children and Community Services Act 2004 refers to both ‘wishes’ and ‘views’. This reference has the potential to confuse decision-makers about the relative significance of each of these concepts.
The tension presented by this possible confusion is thus: “At law, how can a child’s ‘views’, rather than their ‘wishes’, assist a decision-maker to reach an appropriate decision about the child’s best interests? Is it better to simply ask them what they wish for?”
Children say that they do not often expect to be asked about their ‘wishes’ in relation to matters of family concern. Their reasons for not expressing a ‘wish’ include fear of the consequences for doing so; feelings of loyalty to each parent; and concern about what expressing a wish will mean for them. They do, however, strongly suggest that they need to talk about how they feel, and what they have experienced. These matters constitute their views on issues that directly concern them.
Children’s and young people express a number of concerns about their experiences of FDV. They include feeling responsible for the violence; worry about their siblings; concerns about being bullied by other children; keeping safe; the unpredictability of their parents’ behaviours; ongoing fear, which follows them wherever they are, every second of their waking lives; and an ongoing question about why the violence happens (Cossar, Brandon & Jordan, 2011; Bagshaw et al; 2010; Hines, 2015.
The question for decision-makers is then “How might a child’s views be useful in helping children to cope with their experiences, or in making decisions about their future post-FDV?” It seems that their views may provide deeper, more comprehensive and clearer understandings for decision-makers about children’s concerns than would be possible when seeking a ‘simple’ ‘wish’.
The social construction of children
A third tension that arises for adults when deciding on how to help children who have experienced FDV relates to how we socially construct children. While there are many constructions of children, two of these are perhaps more relevant for this discussion. They are the constructions of children as innocent and vulnerable, and as lacking the competence to care for themselves and to understand ‘adult’ matters such as FDV. A third, alternative construction of children is that of independent social actors in their own right.
Innocence and vulnerability
The concept of innocence can be constructed either as “not guilty” or as “not knowing” or “not understanding”. If the construction of ‘not guilty’ is applied to the concept, there is an implication of some guilt. A subtle blame approach can begin, suggesting that children somehow contribute to their parent’s violent behaviours, through their own ways of behaving or being in the family. Research has identified that children sometimes report “feeling personally responsible” for their parents’ behaviours, both for causing the violence and for their inability to stop it from occurring. We must ask, however, whether a construction of “not guilty” is appropriate appropriate. Constructions of children as ‘innocent’ under this definition may therefore work against adult efforts to keep them safe.
An alternative construction of children as vulnerable may suggest a significant openness to harm or attack. Adults who work from this construction may think of children as in need of protection. Research has indeed found that children can be at risk of being both harmed and attacked. Children report feeling “scared”, “not safe” and “worried”. They sometimes blame their parents for not watching over them. The violence also travels with the child; it’s ever-present.
The evidence suggests, however, that children do try to protect themselves and their parents during episodes of violence (Hines, 2015). They may protect themselves by running away, locking their bedroom doors, pretending they’re not hearing what’s happening, becoming super-vigilant, or thinking ‘happy’ thoughts. They may also try to comfort younger siblings through reassurance and physical contact with them. They may try to ‘protect’ their parents through attempts to behave ‘perfectly’, to get between the parents during arguments, to agree to do things for the perpetrator to keep him calm, to call the police, or to yell for the violence to stop. Some researchers have pointed out that while many of these protective approaches may not be considered by adults to be effective measures, children are nevertheless using them to gain some distance from what is happening to them.
The tensions that these findings raise for adults can be significant. When adults construct children as ‘innocent’ and ‘vulnerable’, they can deny the child’s own agency to protect themselves. They can also assume responsibility for ‘keeping the child safe’ through trying to shield them from the reality of what is happening (a ‘happy families’ approach). This denies the reality for children who can feel unsafe no matter what adults try to do.
A further construction of children is that they lack the cognitive skills and competence to both care for themselves and understand ‘adult’ matters such as FDV. This construction rises from developmental theories that argue that children do not achieve ‘adult’ skills until late in adolescence (e.g., Inhelder & Piaget, 1955). While it is useful to remember that much of children’s cognitions develop over time, from an early age they are beginning to experience the world and learn about their environment. They become ‘experts in their own lives’ as they grow and interact with the world around them. When children have been asked about their lives, they have demonstrated an awareness of the violence within their families, even if they are not present when it occurs. This raises the question, “How does not addressing the situation with children keep them safe?”
When asked for their thoughts on safety, children respond with a number of thoughts. They have reported their needs for someone trusted with whom they can talk. Trusted people include friends, family (and especially their mothers) and professional people and positive adult role models (e.g., parents) who are coping (Hines, 2015) and demonstrate positive relationships. Children also say they seek help to build appropriate coping mechanisms, and especially information that is clear, appropriate and understandable to them.
Children also express a need to be believed. They want to be heard, and treated with respect rather than being dismissed. Being heard and respected, according to children, means that adults will act upon what they have heard from children, and that the children will be informed about the outcomes of action taken. Children have also asked that efforts be made to stop the violence. Additionally, despite the presence of the violence, some children will still express a desire to have both their parents in their lives (Hines, 2015). The challenge for adult decision-makers then becomes whether the presence of a perpetrator in a child’s life will be of benefit to the child, and if so, what is the safest and most appropriate for the child to interact with the perpetrator.
Hines (2015) has identified a number of approaches children use to cope. They include active intervention when the violence is happening; attempts to protect family members; actively seeking support (friends, neighbours, police); trying to solve the problems themselves; hiding: a quiet place, bedroom, outside the house; using fantasy and detachment: e.g., a diary; using diversions, such as sport or reading; and talking to pets development.
Children also report the value for them of talking to school professionals, such as teachers, counsellors or child protection workers. Hines (2015) suggests that these professionals may be instrumental in helping children to develop and implement workable safety plans for them.
The tensions outlined in this paper suggest that attending to children’s concerns can be difficult. Determining a child’s ‘best interests’, deciding on how to act in their ‘wishes’ and ‘views’, and providing appropriate and effective safety for them, without including them, seems inadvisable. A construction of children as ‘experts in their own lives’ and as having the ability to provide valid and useful views and opinions on their own worlds has the potential to work collaboratively with children to make positive and workable decisions that will help them to cope with and overcome their concerns about the FDV to which they have been exposed.
There are a number of ways in which children can included in strengthening their own safe responses to their experiences of violence. Three professional approaches, representing different levels of interaction with families, have been identified: child centred, child focused and child inclusive approaches. The level of contact with children themselves varies between each approach, with the child-inclusive concept representing possibly the most direct. There is still a long way to go, however, before Australian children are able to fully participate in decisions that directly affect them following separation in a safe, respectful and collaborative way.
Professional child workers have a range of approaches available to work with children. These include the use of drawing and other art work, performance and puppets. Many children, however, have said they value just sitting with a trusted person (both adults and other children) and talking (Campbell, 2008). It may be that when we begin to listen to children and include them as equal partners in decision-making greater protection of them will occur.
Bagshaw, D., Brown, T., Wendt, S., Campbell, A., et al. (2010). Family violence and family law in Australia: The experiences and views of children and adults from families who separated post-1995 and post-2006. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
Cossar, J., Brandon, M., Jordan, P. (2011). ‘Don’t make assumptions’: Children’s and young people’s views of the child protection system and messages for change. London: Office of the Children’s Commissioner.
Inhelder, B. & Piaget, J. (1955). De la logique de l’enfant à la logique de l’adolescence. PUF ; English translation (1958). The Growth of Logical Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.