I am delighted to speak to you this evening in Cookstown as both Children’s Commissioner for Northern Ireland and as a mother and grandmother for I know very well the invaluable support and assistance that women’s aid have given to many women and children during some of the most turbulent and trying periods of their lives.

We know that reports of domestic violence are becoming more prevalent in NI and there may be many complex reasons why this is the case, not least society emerging from years of violence and moving away form ‘ keeping things behind closed doors ’ . The PSNI attend, on average some 46 domestic violence/abuse cases a day, abuse which can take many forms beyond violence, bullying, intimidation and financial control. Often, significantly, it will involve children both directly and indirectly. Estimates suggest that some 11,000 children in NI are in the same or adjacent room when domestic violence occurs. We also know that 1 in 4 children in a domestic violence situation will also be hit or physically abused and at the extreme end domestic violence can lead to the death of a child or a parent.

Sadly we know that very often children are the silent witnesses with no opportunity for a voice.

Role of NICCY and how it supports Woman’s Aid

So as Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People my job is to:

Promote and safeguard the rights and best interests of children and young people to help them challenge and change the world in which they live. But most importantly- to give children and young people in Northern Ireland a voice.

And that’s all children and young people up to 18 in Northern Ireland. No exceptions. No exclusions.

I can also work on behalf of young people up to 21 in two special cases – disabled children and young people who have been in the care system.

In doing my work I must have regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UNCRC.

The UNCRC as you will know is a list of 42 promises made by governments from almost all countries in the world to children and young people including the right to education, equal treatment and the right to an opinion.

Part of my work is to see that the Northern Ireland Assembly includes the convention in practice, policy and the law.

My Role as Commissioner for Children and Young People is therefore three fold:

  • To act as an Ombudsman for children and young people, through our legal and complaints work;
  • To carry out research and reviews into services to ensure the rights of children are met.
  • To communicate widely with children and young people and with the general public about the work of the office and about the rights children in Northern Ireland are entitled to

Effects of Domestic Violence on children and young people

Children suffer a wide range of both physical and emotional effects as a result of domestic violence. When a child experiences domestic violence it is essential that child protection measures are implemented immediately to assess the risk to the child, and to ensure that all children and young people in the home are kept safe from harm. Children should feel safe and secure in their home, yet when violence happens, home becomes a frightening and unsafe place to live.

Children and young people react in different ways to being brought up in a home with a violent parent. Most are disturbed and upset, feeling stressed and unable to concentrate on school work or sleep, some become angry and blame one or other of the adults involved, others copy the violence and actually bully or hurt others.

Some children may fail to show any negative signs at all, in fact, some may even show positive signs such as a sudden improvement in schoolwork. However, we should not make any assumptions about how children have been affected by domestic violence (NI WAF website info on domestic violence). There are no set patterns of how a child who has experienced violence at home will behave.

Direct services need to be available that focus on the unique needs and situation of the child including their age, stage of development and understanding of the situation.

So how can we give a child who experiences or witnesses domestic violence a voice?

Woman’s aid has to been to the fore developing programs and strategies to support children and young people who have experienced domestic violence, such as Helping hands for primary school children and Heading for a healthy relationship for post primary. But how can we support these children further to express their opinions, feelings and worries when in this situation.

In research commissioned by NICCY and carried out by Queens University into the state of children’s rights in Northern Ireland, some children commented on the effects of domestic violence one boy age 15 commented

‘I would like dads to stop hitting their wives and kids’

Too often children are the hidden victims of domestic violence- caught between court disputes; anger, conflict, and disagreements between families; in cases involving children they ‘must not been seen as a pawn between parents’.

Although research currently exists which clearly outlines the extent of domestic violence against women and the effects and context on their lives, relatively little is known about the impact of violence in the home on children (Women’s Aid, QUB Research page 76) and every child’s experience will be different. Also every child will use different coping mechanisms to deal with the situation.

Statistics on children and young people are all very well for quantifying numbers but we need to look at the real experiences behind each and every child.

Learning from these experiences we can build on and maintain good practice, change the current service provision to meet the needs of children; develop a pathway of support and services for these young people. We need a holistic wrap around package based on the individual child; their circumstances and needs.

We must recognise the adverse effects for some children living with domestic violence as a child protection issue. This includes poor educational achievement, social exclusion and youth offending, substance abuse, mental health problems, homelessness and suicide. But we need to start acknowledging the positive experiences of those children and young people who were once affected by domestic violence but now have progressed to a happy and stable life.

Most children however can and do recover from adverse effects of domestic violence. Some find coping mechanisms, some may find it difficult to come to terms with and will seek unhealthy ways of coping.

Support appears to be crucial in the overall process of empowering children to come to terms: support for the mother, to enable her to protect and look after the child, but also for the children themselves. Policies and procedures need to be developed and put in place to ensure this support is available. Also awareness-raising (Awareness of signs and symptoms of domestic violence) and open discussions.

Finally

Can I say that the emotional impact of domestic violence needs to be met by a government policy that is both cohesive and strategic. The government has done much to protect women and children and raise public awareness of domestic violence through the Domestic Violence Strategy.

However the emotional impact of domestic violence on children warrants further dialogue between government and agencies working with children. Policy development and legislative change needs to be addressed, and initiatives in different parts of the UK compared and learnt from.

As Commissioner I what to see tangible changes to the lives of our children and young people, especially those who have been subject to domestic violence in their lives.

And in order to see tangible changes we need a greater awareness around children and young people’s needs and concerns when they experience domestic violence. Projects run by voluntary organisations like woman’s aid are much needed and welcome but these services must be made more widely available if the needs of children are to be met. We need to see joined up Government and a government that recognizes the contribution and practices that organizations like Women’s aid give. It’s also important that government adds value to Women’s aid projects not duplicate or reinvent them in other ways-. But equally important government must recognize the need for early intervention and prevention, supported by long term mainstream funding. Because then we will see the real change in the lives of children when it comes to Domestic Violence.