Tackling Loneliness In Women Escaping Family Violence
This article by CEO of McAuley Community Services for Women, Jocelyn Bignold, and Board member Dr Anita Morris was published in the March 2018 edition of ‘Parity’, the journal of the Council to Homeless Persons.
Recently the UK government surprised many by appointing a Minister for Loneliness. Some laughed, others were cynical, and many were simply bemused. There was bewilderment and some degree of denial that the issue could have grown to such a proportion and scepticism that the concept of ‘loneliness’ was something a government could, or should, tackle.
But as an insightful article by Australian Senators Louise Pratt and Andrew Leigh pointed out, creating this unconventional portfolio makes sense. Inequality is rising; the strength of community is waning, and loneliness is a problem we must tackle together.
Their article struck a chord with me. It resonated with McAuley Community Services’ approach in working with women who have experienced family violence. We have long recognised that for women who’ve known this physical and emotional trauma to recover, their loneliness and isolation must also be addressed. New social connections and relationships need to be forged; old ones must be rebuilt.
Of all the pernicious effects of family violence, loneliness is one of the most under-acknowledged and damaging. There is loneliness coming from a sense that no-one will understand ‘why you’re putting up with it’; in feeling unable to share your story without judgment, incredulity or blame. There is a corrosive sense of being apart from other apparently successful and harmonious ‘picture perfect’ families; of being judged if you have been unable to protect your children from harm. And deliberate manufacturing of loneliness is a frequent strategy of perpetrators, who consciously use isolation from friends, families and neighbours to increase their power and control; it is a form of violence in itself.
In 2016-2017 186 women and 204 children needed McAuley’s safe house and refuges, leaving behind homes, friends and families; schools and classmates; pets, toys, clothing and possessions. These are experiences that, in themselves, bring about an acute sense of aloneness, disconnection and disruption.
A woman coming into our family violence crisis service (the first 24/7 service to operate in Victoria) needs practical, immediate support, often as basic as the need for clothing and nappies for her children. Health, financial and legal issues need urgent attention too. But we know for her longer-term recovery, she needs more than a temporary safe haven: she needs a continuum of individualised and open-ended, wrap-around support and connection to community.
This is one of our unique points of difference. Because there are well-known inter-connections between violence and trauma, mental illness, and homelessness, we build early intervention and prevention into everything we do. We aim to equip a woman with life skills, employment, housing and ongoing social networks, providing a safety net long beyond her direct engagement with our service.
In her first contact with us, this may seem far away; indeed, part of a woman’s healing may be the simple offering of a cup of tea and chance to talk, to be listened to and believed. It may be an enormously significant step for her, just to have the chance to sleep or shower for the first time in a long while, without fear for herself or her children.
The children who come into our safe house also need comfort, routine and familiarity. They might arrive, confused and bewildered, in the middle of the night — a time when most children are tucked up in bed, secure and safe. In contrast, the children coming to McAuley have experienced and witnessed trauma, and need the reassurance of being close to their mum. Settling back into the daily ebb and flow of eating, playing and sleeping are important steps in providing a calmer, more predictable environment.
Knowing that their own pain and trauma is different to their mothers, we begin providing direct support to children as victims in their own right. Their experiences are given space, acknowledged and addressed. We have a playroom with a specialist children’s worker, and through art activities, play and conversation, the child’s feelings about what has happened in their family can be explored. Sharing them with other children, as they play alongside each other, also helps them realise they are not alone. It may be that one can identify with the experience of another, asking: ‘Did your dad do that to your mum? Mine did too.’ The children’s worker can offer quiet reassurance to help them realise these dreadful experiences are not their fault: important steps in breaking the too frequent pattern of family violence recurring across generations.
Frequently, the child’s bond with his or her mother has been deliberately targeted and undermined by the perpetrator, a particularly damaging form of family violence. As Professor Cathy Humphreys points out it includes: “coercing children to insult their mothers, undermining the woman’s mothering through criticism and actions…ensuring that women are ‘punished’ for spending time with children particularly if it takes attention away from the man’s needs”. Humphreys also cites research showing that in more than two-third of cases, mothers and children do not speak about the family violence. For this reason, we also focus on strengthening the mother-child bond, rebuilding a mother’s self-esteem and confidence in her parenting, and encouraging mother and child to communicate about those experiences both may be afraid to broach.
Women and children generally stay an average of seven nights in our safe house before moving onto refuges, transitional housing, or – less frequently – home, but that is not the end of their connection with us. Recently additional funding for outreach case management and flexible support packages, has meant we can support more women for longer. Most importantly, they can access our McAuley House, purpose – built accommodation for women who are homeless. This was designed as a community hub, not simply a shelter, and is available to all women who have used our services.
A woman can continue to regain health, skills, social connection and economic independence through McAuley House. She might drop in to a Monday morning legal clinic, offered by WestJustice Community Legal Centre, and get advice on the tangle of legal problems that often trail along in the wake of family violence. She might take part in our welcoming, informal Wednesday community lunches. She may connect with our Skills for Life program, learning to shop on a tight budget and the basics of healthy cooking, or take part in yoga sessions or wellbeing sessions provided by volunteers.
She may join our employment support program, McAuley Works, getting personalised assistance and one-on-one coaching to join the workforce. In its first year this program has already achieved exciting outcomes in helping women, 88% of whom have experienced family violence. Getting a job for these women can be life-changing. Recently we saw this at first hand when McAuley Works supported a young mother, ‘Amber’, who had left school in year eight. At 24 she had already experienced a life she described as ‘chaotic’ – marked by a violent relationship, struggles with addiction, and a battle to manage as a single mum to two children, including one with special needs. Her delight and pride now that she has secured a job go well beyond her new financial independence; she glows as she describes now feeling she is a ‘role model’ to her children, talks about the friendships she has formed as she and her workmates joke around, and is thrilled to know that her work ethic and attitude are so valued by her employer that she is the first one called for extra shifts.
‘Amber’s’ story exemplifies what we mean when we use concepts like ‘holistic, inclusive and integrated’ to describe our approach. Amber has been able to remove herself from a situation of family violence; now she has new social connections, an enhanced sense of self and identity, and a new story to counter one of her as a ‘victim’ of family violence. She is building strengths which will help her to withstand further challenges that her life may very well throw up; her children are seeing a mother who is flourishing, in her own words more patient and present with them. The chances are much better that Amber’s children will be able to avoid a cycle of poverty and disadvantage.
Another core element of our approach which continues the theme of connectedness and inclusion is the development of a comprehensive ‘safe at home’ system. In the past the onus has been on women experiencing violence, not perpetrators, to leave behind their homes and communities. This is at a time when networks and friendships are even more crucial, not to mention the consequences for children of disrupted education and the upheaval of constantly changing schools. While there are real barriers facing women’s rights to return safely home, given the high numbers of perpetrators who breach intervention orders, the number of women using our services who have returned home safely has increased from just three to nine per cent in the last 12 months, mainly due to Victorian Government investment into additional case management and flexible support packages.
Achieving higher rates will depend on a raft of changes including the ability of the policing and legal system to hold perpetrators to account swiftly and consistently. But perhaps more importantly it requires a cultural shift within the community to stop hiding women and children away for their own safety, and for community conversations that ask the question: ‘Why doesn’t he leave?’ rather than ‘How come she stays?’
The March 2018 edition of Parity magazine: ‘The future of women’s refuges’ is available here.
Image above is from the book Smarty Pants, Kitty or Tiger? which features artwork and stories from women and children who stayed in our family violence crisis service. It can be ordered here.