Tackling Domestic Violence from the Inside

By Julie Boyd (C)

When working as a psychologist there were two cases which had a more profound impact that the hundreds of others I was involved with at the time.

The first was a teenage girl who was pregnant. She was referred by a teacher who was concerned about her. At the time mandatory reporting had not been introduced, but she became a strong motivator for me to be involved in that introduction later.

Teenage pregnancies were not, and are not, unusual in themselves. This one was different. We began very gently, by me spending lots of time with her, and being available whenever she wanted to talk. She was afraid of everyone, particularly of anyone trying to help her. Because of her age there were issues of parental consent we had to address.

Eventually I learned that yes, she was pregnant, to her father, at the time a ‘respected’ local policeman. Her mother was also pregnant with the latest of five children. Her mum’s pregnancy turned out to be the result of incestuous encounters with the girl’s slightly older brother, he was just sixteen. The three younger children were eight, six and four years old. At the time, the only possible removal mechanism, according to the social workers at the relevant government department, with whom I worked closely at that time, was a placement. Not in a loving family, but in a women’s prison.

The details of dealing with this case, including the way I dealt with the parents, are another, lengthy, story. But the one incident which remains burned in my mind, was a confrontation I had with her parents, in my office. They stormed in. The father- a large man, in uniform, with his hand on his hip, possibly a gun, I didn’t know, screaming all kinds of violent retribution which had my worried staff clustered at the door with chairs in hand, the only weapons of protection they had as they couldn’t call the local police! Eventually the mother screamed the one sentence that has haunted me the rest of my professional life ‘you with your middle class ways, you can’t tell us what to do. We’re good parents, it’s our job to break the kids in.’

The second case was a young boy who was expelled from kindergarten for picking up a two drawer filing cabinet, throwing it at the teacher, and breaking her leg. I was told by the then, Regional Director of Education, to ‘fix that bloody family’ as the boy was six and had to, by law, go to school in the new year. Two teachers had already resigned out of fear he would be in their class. There were two younger siblings and one on the way. Mum, when threatened with removal of the kids responded ‘take ‘em. I’ve already lost six, taken by you lot. I’m a good breeder, I’ll just have more.’ Visiting that home I would always take a social worker with me, and insist he walked in front! While I didn’t say anything to the RD to the time, I did think ‘when you refuse to help with in-school support in future, you WILL meet this child, and look after him for a morning when I drop him at your office while I go to a meeting, and see how you cope.’ I did, he did and I had my additional resources by the end of that day.

Other truly heart-breaking cases involved kids as young as five, not being subject to any type of physical or sexual abuse, but finding parents who had committed suicide. That happens more often than you might think.

At the time I was working as an educational psychologist, employed by a government department and leading a team which provided interdisciplinary support services to 95 schools across the three systems. Now what ed psychs we still have are corralled in schools, managing oppressive case loads, being paid appallingly, faced with expensive annual ‘professional development’ requirements to maintain their registration, and being told an untrained ‘chaplain’ can do the same job. But I digress.

One of the things my team was doing was focusing on preventative strategies, while supporting specific cases. We tried to ‘break the cycles’.

At the same time as this was happening, my own children were very young and in need of childcare. As a single mum with no family living close and needing to work to support my kids, at the time one and three, I had to do something. So with the help of a group of people from the department, the community and the local council we started what may have been the first ‘commercial’ childcare centre in that State. The woman who was employed to run it was amazing. As president of the Board I knew instantly that my babies were safe with her. Her qualifications were a lifetime of raising terrific kids, her own, fostered and adopted, and her ability to immediately quiet a distressed child with a cuddle and a word. Kids, staff and parents all loved and respected her. She had no paper qualifications and. today, would be considered unemployable.

So she was the one to whom I went to discuss what we could do about kids, and families at risk. Between her, me, and the council social worker, a wonderful man, we came up with a brazenly innovative idea.

We knew all too well, about confidentiality issues and subjective judgements, and the risks we were taking. Between the three of us we were able to identify five families each of us had independently worked with who were considered high risk. All of them had two parents, a mum and a dad in the family.

We also identified, highly subjectively, five families we considered were managing parenting really well. Their kids were happy, sociable and well nurtured. These included one and two parent families, a widowed young dad and a single mum. The local council came up with the princely sum of five thousand dollars for the project and we were away.

All were invited to a family barbeque, with free childcare and all food and drink provided as an incentive to come. They all did. And so began a journey where the ultimate aim was not to provide ‘parenting classes’ but to provide a forum for these families to talk to and learn from each other. A facilitator was employed to help with logistics, but the grant money mainly went on food over the next year. There were a lot of barbequed sausages consumed.

We met once a fortnight, and after three months there was a glimmer of success. We were discussing bathing kids, who did it, what they did etc when one of the ‘at risk’ dads said to the single dad, who had two young daughters ‘Geez mate, I wouldn’t know how ta bath my kids, that’s wimmins work. How come the cops aren’t sus about you.’ The single dad responded with ‘I’d be really happy to come over on Saturday and talk you through how I bath my daughter if you like. I love bath-time and so do my kids. Maybe we could have a beer afterwards.’ And so it began. At risk parents finally started to admit they didn’t know how to parent. Offers of ‘we’ll come and give you a hand and bring a beer’ came from the other parents. We sat back and only intervened when asked to. Following the bath incident the ‘at risk’ dad responded by going to the single dads place and showing him how to fix his leaking taps. And so the reciprocity started.

Over a period of twelve months this group became firm supports and advocates for each other, to the degree that they had a shared Christmas party that year, and continued to meet at least for Christmas for the next ten years. We started another two clusters, which became self sufficient even more quickly.

John moved, I moved and Vee retired. We didn’t maintain close contact but a watching brief for several years afterwards. In the first cluster of families we considered at risk, there were a total of eighteen children who were early candidates for perpetuating the cycle. Between the three groups there were sixty two children. If even one or two had ended up in the judicial system and became incarcerated, the cost to the community would have been immense.

Instead, an investment of five thousand dollars, and the genuine intent of community based people, broke the cycle, at least in twelve families. Now, that’s being passed on to a new generation.

Like all good programs, it doesn’t need to cost a lot, we don’t need to establish more bureaucracies and ‘training’ requirements.

What we do need is for people to realize that within their community there are people who need help. People with disabilities, a disabled child, mental health, physical health challenges, older folk and young parents with no family living locally. We all need help at some point in our lives, and that’s one thing we can all offer, in our own way.

We’ve gone backwards. We need to get off our phones, and tablets and start talking to each other again. Unfortunately the African proverb ‘It Takes a Village to Raise a Child’ has been hijacked and seems to have lost its meaning. But if kids do not grow up to understand community and trust and who they can ask for help, then the future of the human race really is dire.