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Young girls are being told who to talk to and where to go by their boyfriends

Domestic violence can happen to anyone- regardless of their age, writes Alex O’Keefe.

Alex O'Keefe

IN 2014, CHILDLINE responded to over 36,000 contacts from children in relation to abuse and welfare. Many of these were from children and young people who had experienced domestic violence.

The stark reality of life for a young person living in a violent home is one of stress, trauma and worry. It is all pervasive- affecting their ability to learn, to socialise and to play. For this reason, and for the thousands of children and young people across Ireland who have a right to be safe, we are urging decision makers to be far-reaching in their aspirations for the Domestic Violence Bill. We believe Irish children deserve nothing less.

And we are not alone. In June of this year, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights delivered a clear appeal to the Irish government to strengthen its response to domestic violence in Ireland. Criticism of the Irish legal system and its response to domestic violence dates back to 1995 and many of the issues are equally salient twenty years on.

‘Children themselves are in violent relationships’

The time has come for the government to make long-lasting change and transform the system to one in which everyone who is subjected to domestic abuse are shown due concern and dignity. So the ISPCC welcomes the publication of the General Scheme of the Domestic Violence Bill 2015 and acknowledges this as an essential step in enhancing supports and protections for victims of domestic violence.

However, while most people accept that children who witness violence must be protected, there is considerably less public debate on the need to protect children who are themselves in violent relationships.

Europe–wide research proves this point- girls from age 15 onwards have reported experiencing violence in their own relationships, and I have experience of working with children as young as 13 who had begun abusive relationships. While these relationships are often short-lived, they can be experienced as intensely as adult relationships. However, these relationships are not always taken seriously.

In the ISPCC we have heard from children as young as ten who are experiencing abuse in their relationships. They feel pressure to have sex knowing the legal age is 17. However, they feel if they do not then there is the possibility that the person will no longer be interested in them. Peer pressure and influences from friends can often push the young person into doing something they are not comfortable with, and not ready for on an emotional level.

‘Punching became normalised over time’

My work with children in this situation has taught me that children lack experience in constructing healthy relationships and often fail to recognise the abuse that is taking place. I have worked with clients, as young as 15 and 16 years of age who experience high levels of coercive control in their relationships; over who they can talk to and where they can go.

shutterstock_85125751 Source: Shutterstock/auremar

Working with one young person, violence such as aggressive arm twisting and punching became normalised over time, with the issue of self-blame becoming prominent. The experience of abuse within this relationship was slowly articulated over time through one to one support, as the young person became more aware of the issue and how this was not healthy relationship behaviours.

Throughout the relationship the young person explained that they had felt confused and deeply isolated- feeling unable to speak with parents or friends. Often, young people have grown to recognise the situation as just another example that a jealous partner is protective and may think that it is acceptable behaviour. In other circumstances they are too scared to challenge their partner’s behaviour or to end the relationship. But in all cases that I have dealt with, the young person has disclosed their feelings of fear, uncertainty, anxiety and powerlessness within these relationships

The proposals in the Domestic Violence Bill do not sufficiently provide for this child- and they should. The Bill applies too narrowly to circumstances where couples co-habit and in its current form does not recognise that a young person may themselves be a victim of an abusive partner, instead only providing for young people as ‘dependent children’ of a victim. This is a missed opportunity, and a failure to reflect the lives of young people in Ireland.

While we welcome the inclusion of provisions that will both support individuals and expedite the processes for dealing with domestic violence, we have concerns about some of the messages the Bill gives to children and young people. For example, the Bill does not allow for the application of for a safety order from a person under 18 in their own right. Clearly the lack of insight into the origins and reality of domestic violence needs to be emphasised. Unhealthy relationship patterns usually start young and last a lifetime.

One of the most important lessons we can teach our children is their right to be safe. This includes in their own relationships. This bill could underscore this principle by enabling young people to be proactive in securing their own safety, rather than depending on others. It would be a real ‘game changer’ to send out a strong message to young people that domestic violence can happen to them, that they can get help, and that they can take action.

2015 could be the year in which Ireland rectifies its failings to children and individuals affected by domestic violence, if government listens to children and young people and clearly demonstrates that it values a child’s right to be safe.

The ISPCC provides services to children who have witnessed and been the victims of domestic violence. Alex O’Keefe is the Regional Manager for the South and South East.

  • Childline can be reached free of charge, 24 hours a day at 1800 666 666
  • Childline’s free text service runs from 10am to 4am, text “talk” to 50101
  • Childline’s online chat service runs from 10am to 4am, accessible at www.childline.ie.

Read: Getting a barring order against a violent partner is about to get easier>

Read: Domestic violence: Number of people applying for safety orders has SHOT up>

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Alex O'Keefe

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