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Domestic Violence

'I felt like I was special': Children in refuge want more time with support workers

Meath Women’s Refuge provides a support worker for children, but most refuges don’t have the resources to offer the service.

LAST UPDATE | Nov 20th 2023, 1:00 PM

CHILDREN LIVING IN a domestic violence refuge in Co Meath have told researchers that having a dedicated support worker made them feel “special” and welcomed, leading to calls for the service to be available in all refuges across Ireland.

The ‘Where I’m At’ project is part of the Children’s Programme at Meath Women’s Refuge and Support Services. 

The programme sees dedicated children’s support workers (CSWs) helping young children to adjust to life at the refuge, and setting up a programme of play with them. 

The Ombudsman for Children Niall Muldoon launched the findings of a new report carried out by researchers from Trinity College Dublin which evaluated the project today. 

He said that the research clearly showed that there is a need for CSWs in refuges, and that this needs to be reflected in Government policy. 

One woman who works with victims of domestic violence spoke at the launch about children who come from homes where they have experienced violence or lived “under the threat of violence” can still find coming into a refuge “intimidating”, because it’s a complete change of setting, whereas their homes were “at least familiar” to them. 

“This research clearly highlights that children are also victims of that abuse and need to be considered in the design and resourcing of domestic refuges,” Muldoon said. 

The ‘Where I’m at’ project was funded by the RTÉ Toy Show Appeal at Community Foundation Ireland. Last year, the project engaged with 80 children. Though the refuge gets core funding from Tusla, it has to fundraise for its children’s programme. 

Refuge fundraising to cover light and heating bills

Established in 1987, the Meath Women’s Refuge and Support Services (MWRSS) operates on a 24/7 basis. 

MWRSS says it needs to raise additional funds each year “to cover critical day to day expenses, like heating and light, as well as investing in additional services”. 

Last year, the organisation provided refuge accommodation to 57 women and 74 children, an 11% increase from the previous year.

Due to capacity limitations, it was unable to accommodate 300 women and 184 children in the same period, marking an 11% increase in unmet requests compared to 2021.

It also experienced a 62% increase in the volume of women and children accessing therapeutic services from the previous year.


The ‘Where I’m at’ project is designed to serve “as a sanctuary for children” where they are encouraged to explore creative activities such as art, music and sensory play.

Small group activities are also organised to allow children in similar age groups to bond and find solace in shared experiences. 

The report states that the role of a Children’s Support Worker is “instrumental in facilitating this creative journey, offering individualised support to each child, and fostering positive sibling relationships”. 

One child who spoke to researchers said that their support worker Emma is “A good listener”. 

“She listens to me more than anybody else here,” the child added. 

A mother living at the refuge explained that having a support worker made a huge difference for her on a day when she had to go to court. 

“I didn’t have to worry about the girls because I knew they were going to be safe, and I just had to focus on court. The day in court was very intimidating. But even when I got home [the support worker] just said ‘go and get yourself a cup of tea and get yourself together and we’ll bring the girls down in forty minutes or so’. They were really really good like that,” the woman said. 

One-to-one sessions were carried out with children while they were residing in refuge, which included supporting children to regulate their emotions and to offer a safe space, to facilitate children with the transition into refuge and to enable mothers to attend key working sessions, counselling sessions and other appointments.

In total, 13 children participated in the research, along with seven mothers and five staff members. 

Children were asked about the availability of, and quality of, space within the refuge for activities, and encouraged to give their views in relation to how they spent their time at the refuge, which were documented through interviews and through their drawings. 

Findings from the evaluation state that the project is “a significantly valuable component” of the Children’s Programme at MWRSS.

0240 No Place Like Home_90569177 Ombudsman for Children Niall Muldoon will launch the report today. Leah Farrell / Leah Farrell / /

The report states that the combination of skilled staff and the project offerings collectively eased the transition into refuge for many of the women and children interviewed.

It states that the project has had “a positive impact on the children and women who participated in the evaluation and is a welcome addition to the current Children’s Programme according to refuge staff”. 

A finding from participating women was the sense of relief associated with having made the decision to come to the refuge, with some describing “feeling safe”, “gaining peace of mind” and “gaining a routine for my child again”.

They also described the transition into the refuge as a positive experience. One woman explained how she did not realise the level of abuse that she was living with daily until staff at the refuge helped her. 

Many of the children spoke about how they felt welcome at the refuge from how staff communicated with them and through the activities that they got to experience, with one boy saying: “I felt like I was special with everyone else being so nice.”

Children’s Support Worker

The findings also highlight the significance of the role of the Children’s Support Worker (CSW).

Participating children unanimously expressed that they would like more time with the CSW as they enjoyed and valued their sessions greatly.

One mother said the CSW had been “great” and that she could now see her child “thriving” as a result of the one-to-one sessions, saying:

That’s the support and we didn’t have that at home.

The evaluation states that the role of the CSW allows MWRSS to offer a superior service to women and children in their transition into the refuge and give support to them individually and as a family.

It states that it also gives children “the much needed one-to-one time to engage in play and creative activities”, while giving women private time “to be able to engage with their own key worker about their safety plan and family requirements”. 

The evaluation states that although MWRSS does not receive any core funding for therapeutic services from the State, “they believe that such services are central to recovery and conducive to ensuring that women and children can move on with their lives and away from domestic abuse”. 

The report recommends that funding for the project should be mainstreamed “so that the programme activities provided by the ‘Where I’m At’ project can be resourced adequately”. 

It also recommends that the role of the CSW should be extended for longer hours and at weekends, that it should be available to children in all refuges in Ireland and that the significance of the role be reflected in relevant government policy. 

Maximising the range of play that is offered to children who use the service and including play suitable for children with disabilities or neurodivergence was also recommended in the report. 

‘Hope research will lead to better services’

The Ombudsman for Children said the research “spotlights the important role that a Children Support Worker has in helping children to cope with trauma of having to flee their home and seek refuge within the care of others”. 

“I believe this research marries well with the commitments made by the state to recognise and support children as victims, in their own right, within the Third Domestic, Sexual, and Gender Based Violence Strategy,” Muldoon said.

He commended MWRSS and the researchers from Trinity College for their work, adding: “I hope it will lead to better services all around the country where children are a core part of the refuges and their support is fully resourced.”

Sinead Smith, CEO of Meath Women’s Refuge and Support Services, said: “The third National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender Based Violence published last year recognises for the first time in Ireland that children are victims of domestic violence in their own right.

On World Children’s Day, we are asking that their right to safety, wellbeing and to be heard by decision makers under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are recognised and fully resourced.

Smith said the findings of the research “clearly show the huge impact of professional support for children who have experienced domestic violence” and that the CSW roles should be continued as a key component of refuge services going forward.

“We ask Tusla and the new Domestic, Gender and Sexual Violence unit at the Department of Justice to give serious consideration to mainstreaming these roles into local domestic violence services across the country.”

- Additional reporting from Eimer McAuley. 

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