Since the ABC’s exposé of domestic violence within churches on the 7:30 program, I have watched with sadness, anger and dismay at the ensuing debate. I knew that when the program aired it would bring up a plethora of painful memories for many. I underestimated however, the intensity of the defensive vitriol that ensued from both inside the church and from those who like to look for cracks in the institution.
I have been a trauma counsellor for the last 27 years and have had substantial experience journeying with those who have been trapped in violent homes. A significant amount of my time has been working with children and young people who have been raised in a home where family violence is the norm. With that understanding and insight, it is devastating that many responses to the 7:30 program are from people who simply have little idea of what they are talking about. In particular, what appears to be missing from the ‘conversation’ is any mention of the significantly harmful effects of violence in the home on the children and teenagers, either witnessing the actions of aggressive parents, or who have themselves borne the brunt of violence.
The NSW Mandatory Reporter Guide (MRG) for child abuse includes in the definition of reportable concerns:
Physical, sexual and emotional violence against the child;
Witnessing violence against another member of the family, including extreme power/control dynamics (e.g., extreme isolation) or threats of harm to adults in household;
Threatening or harming with a weapon, attempting to kill a household member, injury including sexual assault, fractures, internal injuries etc.; and
A pattern of abusive power and control (such as violent behaviour, isolation, financial control or emotional abuse) that prevents one partner from making choices for the safety of self and/or child/young person and that the child/young person has either witnessed, experienced or is otherwise aware of.
The law of our land is very specific about what constitutes child abuse, which has criminal charges and jail terms attached to it. It is of great concern that 'the church', at times, does not respond to reports of family violence with similar understanding and supporting action for those affected.
The bulk of my professional therapeutic experience over nearly three decades has been in a Christian context. I have lost count of the number of children and young people who have told me their stories of fear and confusion in their ‘Christian’ homes. I have lost count of how many mandatory reports I have made around family violence in such homes. The stories emerging of women, like many of my clients, who have been betrayed by their husbands and then by their churches leaves me struggling to attend church myself at times. I have also lost count of the number of both women and men I have counselled because the effects of the abusive homes they grew up in has had lasting impact on their adult functioning. This is where I have seen lovely faithful men who have never learnt the skill of managing their own responses to emotional overload, rise up in anger and sometimes violence, as a learned response from their own childhood family violence.
We must recognise the impact of family violence on children without obscuring and neglecting their interests with theological gymnastics. Such debate has little meaning to children witnessing continual abuse that has invoked in them fear and mistrust. I have been dismayed that the debate seems to have hinged around the use or misuse of research to substantiate such claims and a few verses from the Bible which strongly reflect the culture of the day. I find it difficult to observe that the personal stories of thousands of adults and children have been disregarded in the name of making sure a correct theological stance is being observed. The debate around the correct exegesis of texts and the authentic use of research has little meaning to the thousands of children daily affected by violence in their homes.
How many churches have been complicit in placing children at risk by telling the mother that she should stay in the abusive relationship? Sanderson (2013) names this as spiritual abuse of both the mother and the children who have been kept in harm’s way. The betrayal of trust for young ones can lead to a range of relationship difficulties in time. These are likely to include the avoidance of intimacy which in turn can lead to isolation and traumatic loneliness. Furthermore, this can also have repercussions in forming a secure relationship with a Father God. How does a child make sense of a father who repeatedly denigrates their mother in the home and is the pillar of the church on Sunday, sometimes the one who stands in the pulpit or reads the Bible reading or attends every prayer meeting and Bible study group? Again, I have lost count of the ones I personally know who have such a mistrust of God as a result of this. Perhaps I might quote the Bible here: "If anyone causes one of these little ones--those who believe in me--to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Matthew 18:6. We can continue to debate using semantics and Bible verses, blame and defend but the missing element is care of the children.
What does the research tell us about the childhood exposure to family violence?
Prior to the early 1990’s, children were not seen as reliable witnesses to their own experience (Mullender, 2006). They were not able to talk to anyone outside the family home, and the rare few who tried, were commonly not believed. This has been validated also by the experience of thousands who have given testimony to the Commissioners in the Royal Commission into Institutionalised Sexual Abuse. Mullender’s study also found that even though parents tried to hide the adult abuse from children, the children invariably knew about it. The present day experience of many living in family violence is still one of disbelief within the walls of some churches.
Children show their distress in many different ways, but most often in physical, emotional, psychological and/or behavioural problems. Wolfe, Zak, Wilson and Jaffe (1986) found that children living with domestic violence exhibited well over twice the rate of psychological and behavioural issues than other children. Children who have had to cope with abuse can develop feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness, and helplessness, often taking the role of protector to the mother and/or younger siblings. More than one male client has told me that they could not wait until they were taller and stronger than their father so they could physically take him on. Some did. For one fourteen year old, a punch to the face meant the end of the physical abuse, and yet for others it meant being thrown out of the family home. Many of the homeless young people on our streets cite escape from family violence as the reason they left their childhood home. The words “it is safer to sleep on the streets than live at home” are often heard by those who work with these young people. Anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidal ideation, PTSD, substance use/abuse and dissociative symptomology are all prevalent amongst young people living in, or coming from violent homes, with these disorders following them into adulthood until addressed. It is important to note that finding a safe place to live and developing safe relationships is the key to resolving the mental health issues arising out of growing up in family violence. Developing safe relationships is often compromised by an implicit lack of trust in both God and people as seemingly historically neither has acted to protect the child when threatened.
Violence perpetuates a cycle of victimhood, suffering and violence. Whitfield, Anda, Dube & Felitti (2003) found that girls who had been exposed to family violence were more likely to partner with violent men, and boys were shown to have a substantially higher risk of becoming adult perpetrators of partner abuse. Cathy Malchiodi (2012), notes that religious beliefs impact how the violence is perceived, especially when belief systems prevent the victims from leaving the dangerous situation.
I am well aware that having highlighted the potential risks for children growing up in family violence there will be many non-offending, abused parents who will be weighed down with shame and guilt around having not protected their children in their family home. The self blame continues well into the future as blaming the victim is a significant tool of the abuser and is deeply entrenched in all who have been caught up in the cycle of abuse. There is no simplistic formulaic answer to absolving oneself of blame and guilt but the process of self compassion, self-forgiveness and kindness within the context of relationships is part of this journey. At times, this is helped though a deep relationship with God, a close friend, new partner or a therapist. Again building such deeply trusting relationships is a journey in itself for those who have learnt to trust no-one, not even themselves.
For the sake of the children, can we put aside the rhetoric and debate and corporately, as Christ followers, get on with making homes safer for children? Watch for the signs in the children. Believe them when they try to tell you what happens behind closed doors. They will not outright say “Daddy hits Mummy’. Mostly they do not know that what happens in their family is a stench to God, and will not understand that the norm in their family home is not what happens in other families until they spend time with such families. Those who do have a sense that something is wrong have been sworn to secrecy under the threat of death or injury. They will more likely blame themselves and wonder how they can stop it. It will show in behavioural and psychological difficulties. Be alert to these children in our churches, even if their father is the pastor or the senior elder and loved by everyone. This is not to say that every child in our midst with behavioural or psychological issues lives with family violence. Look for the signs but do not make it a witch hunt. We must pay attention to the evidence from the Royal Commission into Institutionalised Sexual Abuse. Religious institutions have been neglectful by not believing and protecting children. Let’s put an end to it in every way we can for the sake of the children, even if it means putting aside our theological interpretations.
Graham-Bermann, S., Gruber, G., Howell, K. & Girtz, L. (2009). Factors discriminating among profiles of resilience and psychopathology in children exposed to intimate partner violence (IPV). Child Abuse and Neglect. 33(9), 648-660.
Mullender, A. (2006). What children tell us: ‘He said he was going to kill our mum.’ In N. Stanley, L. Radford, B, Littlechild, K. Iwi, C. Humphreys, & E. Farmer (Eds.), Domestic Violence and child protection: Directions for good practice. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
NSW Mandatory Reporter Guide (2010). Retrieved from https://reporter.childstory.nsw.gov.au/s/mrg
Sanderson, C. (2013). Counselling skills for working with trauma: Healing from childhood sexual abuse, sexual violence & Domestic abuse. London: Jessica Kingsley publishers.
Steele, W. & Malchiodi, C. (2012). Trauma-Informed practices with children and adolescents. New York: Taylor and Francis.
Whitfield, C.L., Anda, R.F., Dube, S.R. & Felitti, V.J. (2003). Violent childhood experiences and the risk of intimate partner violence in adults: Assessment in large health maintenance organisations. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 18(2), 166-185.
Wolfe, D.A., Zak, L., Wilson, S. and Jaffe, P. (1986). Child witnesses to violence between parents: critical issues in behavioural and social adjustment. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 14(1), 95– 104.
Julie is a former primary and middle school teacher. She is currently Senior Lecturer in Counselling at Excelsia College in Sydney and a PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame.