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“Stop Fighting”

A Report into 30 Families seen by the Child

Crisis Team

By Rachel Williamson and Jane Drumm

July 2005

It is always with great hard work and trepidation that new services are launched and the
Child Crisis Team has been no different. While we were always extremely optimistic, at the
beginning we didn’t know if the programme would be beneficial to children nor if we could
obtain sufficient funding to make it sustainable. We are now in the happy position of being
confident that we have made significant positive change in the lives of many children and
we know that funding sources are willing to support us.

We would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the wonderful, encouraging people
who either contributed to the initial development of the Child Crisis Team, or who have
greatly supported us through these first few years of implementation. Some of the many
people who have been extremely kind include: Dr Cindy Kiro, the Commissioner for
Children; Dr Ian Hassall; Siti Mavoa; David Kenkel; Elenore Byrne; Deborah Malcolm; Alby
Rean; Sarah Brown; Meike Couling; Annette Presley; Iain Hines; Tim Antric; Betty

Without the generous financial support of many different funding sources, this new service
would never have started nor continued to thrive. We would like to acknowledge and give
our extremely grateful thanks to the ASB Charitable Trusts, the Children’s Commission,
Accident Compensation Corporation, JR McKenzie Trust, Safer Auckland City, New
Zealand Police, Ministry of Justice, NZ Lotteries Grants Board, the Anonymous Trust,
Callplus, Perry Foundation, and Catholic Caring Foundation.

ASB Charitable Trust


New Zealand has shameful statistics of child abuse and child deaths. For many abused women,
concern for their children figures heavily in their decision to remain with an abusive partner.
Unfortunately, however, staying often results in the children being deeply traumatized by their
childhood experience. Often these children are left to deal with this by themselves, as, effectively,
neither of their parents are available to comfort and reassure them. Unlike most people who can
escape violence by simply switching off the television, these children cannot turn off the real life
violence happening in their own home. Instead, they are subjected to truly horrific experiences
that nobody, especially not a child, should ever be exposed to.

These children are silent observers of deeply vicious acts, which are perpetrated by the exact
people who are meant to love and care for them. Recent research indicates that children exposed
to domestic violence do not merely passively “witness” the abuse, but actively attempt to process
and make meaning of the frightening reality they are faced with (Blanchard, 1993; Mullender et al,
2000). Dr Bruce Perry of the Child Trauma Academy in Texas, has found that a child’s brain
development is profoundly influenced by childhood experiences, particularly in the first three or
four years of life. These experiences shape the emotional, social, cognitive and physiological
potential of the developing brain. The implications of this research for some of the children we
work with are extremely disturbing as they point to lasting and serious dysfunction, impacting on all
aspects of their lives, unless these children have long term intensive therapy (which is outside the
scope of the Child Crisis Team).

While Preventing Violence in the Home was initially set up to work with adult victims of family
violence, after having seen many children living in nightmarish realities we now provide a service
specifically for children, called the Child Crisis Team. We decided that we could not wait any
longer hoping some other organisation would help these children, while they were left to suffer
alone with their trauma and fear. It was important to the success of the programme that major
barriers to using the service were overcome and for this reason, we go to homes at times that suit
the families, which often include weekends. Our programme objectives are to provide immediate
support to children, give them ways to cope with their situation, support parenting and assist with
referrals. But the programme also highlights to the children’s custodial parent the serious impact
of the abuse on their children. Often when parents realise this, they feel motivated to take action
to protect their children, thereby reducing the time the children are exposed to violence.

The new child focused service works in tandem with our existing adult focused emergency callout
and advocacy service. Child advocates provide four sessions with the child(ren) in their own
home, the first one ideally being within 72 hours of the incident being referred to the agency. In
the initial visit two advocates visit the family, so one is able to speak with the parent whilst the
other concentrates on working directly with the children. Thereafter, only the Child Advocate visits
and while they obviously do spend time talking to the children’s parent, the purpose of the visit is
to listen to and support the children. In the Auckland City area our community advocates are also
available to work with families and support the work of the Child Advocates. The community
advocates assist with crisis counselling for the mother, and help to alleviate a range of practical
matters confronting the family, for instance, housing, arranging for locks to be changed, fast
tracking benefit applications, liaising with Court and Police, referring to lawyers etc. The difference
in overcoming obstacles to safety and stability between the families who had this support, in
addition to the Child Crisis Team, and families where the community advocacy service does not
operate was noticeable.

Advocates liaise with any external individuals and organisations working with the family. They
assess the level of trauma and help children formulate safety plans to keep themselves as safe as
possible during future incidences of violence. When the advocates have completed their first three

visits, they write a case report and make referrals for long term assistance where necessary to
external agencies. A considerable strength of the service is that the advocates assist families
access a range of services which they would not necessarily have been aware was available to
them. They also make this as easy as possible for families by such things as arranging
appointments, helping families fill in application forms which they bring with them and sometimes
accompanying them to initial appointments. We do this because we know that at a time when
people are in real crisis, they can not realistically be expected to be able to cope with the
additional burden of something extra to do. A fourth visit occurs some weeks later to assess any
follow up that may be required.

In February 2004 a formal evaluation by the University of Auckland’s Injury Prevention Research
Centre, was published. This found that the Child Crisis Team model ‘demonstrates a positive
impact on improving the health and wellbeing of children who have been exposed to domestic
violence (and that) family/whanau members consider advocates to be supportive, genuinely
empathic, and providing a useful service to children.’

The following is a report, which is predominantly qualitative, based on 30 randomly sampled case
files of families visited between July 2004 and November 2004. No families were contacted and
details contained in this report were ascertained exclusively from the written files. It should not be
read as indicative of all other cases, although there are some strong trends which were relevant to
many of the families’ files.

Geographical Location

• 22 families lived within the Auckland City region

• 8 families lived outside the Auckland City region
• 18 families were already clients of Preventing Violence in the Home
• 8 families of the 12 families who had no prior contact with Preventing Violence, lived outside of
the region the agency provides other crisis services to and were therefore ineligible for
additional community advocacy support.

The Child Crisis Team is provided to families across the Auckland Region, as there is nothing
similar in Auckland (or elsewhere). However, the vast majority of the families visited were located
within the Auckland City region. This is due to the fact that Preventing Violence in the Home crisis
and advocacy services (with the exception of the Crisisline, which is Auckland wide), operate
specifically within the Auckland City Police District. The agency has a formal protocol with the
Auckland police, which ensures that Preventing Violence is contacted every time an arrest is made
for a domestic violence related offence. Family Safety Advocates, or trained volunteers respond
immediately to notification of a reported arrest and visit the victims in their home, at hospital or in
another safe place, to provide support and information. Most of the Child Crisis Team referrals are
received from police reports, which is the reason why the majority of families who receive the Child
Crisis service are located within Auckland City and its surrounding areas.

The remaining eight families lived outside Auckland City and were therefore not referred to the
Child Crisis Team by the Auckland City Police. Referrals, in these instances, came from other
agencies, including the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services, North Harbour Living
Without Violence, and a range of counselling services. Two were self-referrals by mothers made
via the Preventing Violence in the Home regional Crisisline.

Ethnicity (by family)

The ethnicity of families was evenly distributed over four main ethnic groups1:

• 8 families were Maori

• 8 families were Pakeha
• 7 families were Indian or Asian
• 7 families were Pacific Island

This equal distribution shows a disproportionate ethnic representation that is not reflective of
numbers of each ethnicity within the Auckland City population. While Auckland is identified as a
city of great cultural diversity, Maori, Pacific Island and Indian/Asian are all over-represented in
referrals to this agency, as victims of domestic violence.


A total of 62 children were provided a programme by the Child Crisis Team, with the majority of
families visited having three or less children in them (with the exceptions being one family of five
children and one family of seven children). In addition to these 62 children, an additional 17
children were ineligible to receive the service as a result of no longer considering themselves as a
child and/or expressing disinterest. The behaviour of very young children was reported to the child
advocate by the mother or other primary caregiver.

Of the 62 children:

• Three (5%) were under six months

• One (2%) was between seven months and one year
• Three (5%) were between 13 months and 2 years
• 16 (24%) were between 3 and 5 years
• 12 (19%) were between 6 and 8 years
• 10 (16%) were between 9 and 11 years
• 15 (24%) were 12 years or older

Trauma symptoms experienced by children notably varied significantly between the various age
groups, manifesting within the children’s body and behaviour differently, although often in
accordance with noted trends between age groups (Margolin, 1998). In general, younger children
exhibited their stress in the form of sleep disturbances, bed wetting and psycho somatic symptoms
such as stomach aches and headaches. By the time they reached teenage years, their behaviour
had often become extremely difficult and causing considerable stress to other family members.
They were very angry and many had become a serious physical threat to their mothers and
younger siblings. Older children had self directed aggressive behaviour (for instance, self
mutilation), problems with their relationships with peers, as well as truancy. Mimicking the abusive
adult’s behaviour was exhibited across both age ranges, such as bullying, hitting siblings and
saying cruel words to others. It is clear that many need intensive, highly skilled and long term
therapeutic support for them to ever have a chance of a reasonable life outcome and not offend

Note, however, that ethnicities were not subdivided into more specific groupings (ie Samoan, Niuean, Thai, Pakistani,

Gender and the offender’s relationship to the family

Overwhelmingly, the offender was cited as male, with 28 of 30 cases listing a male abuser (94%).
For this reason, custodial parents are most referred to as ‘the mother’, ‘woman’. In only two
instances (6%), was the primary offender female. It should be noted, however, that in these
exceptions, she was also occasionally a victim of abuse herself. In the first instance, the woman
was subjected to physical, sexual and psychological violence from a plethora of family members,
including her father, uncle, sister, husband and various boyfriends. The second female offender
suffered from severe mental health problems and it was significant that her husband had begun
attending a men’s stopping violence programme for his prior abusive behaviour towards her.

Of the 30 offenders:

• 2 (6%) were the mother of the children

• 2 (6%) were the brother of the children
• 3 (10%) were the stepfather or boyfriend to the mother of the children
• 23 (77%) were the father of the children

As the offender was most frequently cited as the father of the children, not surprisingly the children
tended to have very confused feelings about him and his place in their lives. During one session
one child said “I get sad when I don’t see my dad” and also “I don’t care if I never see him again”.
Nearly 50% expressed distress and uncertainty regarding him, citing extreme fear of their father,
mixed with love and a desire to protect him. In one family visited by the Child Crisis Team, the
children refused to consider calling the police if they began to feel unsafe, or if their father became
abusive towards either themselves or their mother, due to a desperate wish to keep him out of jail.
This was despite the fact that they had witnessed their mother being slapped, or hit on the head at
least daily; had spent time in refuge twice over the past year; and were themselves the victims of
their father’s violence and humiliating punishments.

Unfortunately, we have found that children who observe their father being violent towards their
mother often experience conflicted loyalties, which become increasingly pronounced the less
regular their contact with the offender becomes - “when I grow up, I won’t leave”. For instance, of
the 30 families visited, children from eight separate families reported that they missed and loved
their father. In all of these cases the mother had recently separated from the offender.

In 66% of the 30 cases (20), the mother was either separated or divorced from the offender (a
child reports this as a temporary situation until “daddy forgets about shouting”). A further two
families were separated from the offender through circumstances rather than choice (in both
instances, jail). This leaves only eight instances where the mother and offender were still living
together. Despite this, offences and abuse continued in almost two thirds of the 30 families visited
by the Child Crisis Team. We have noticed that the level of violence often intensifies after
separation and many women live in great fear not knowing if their ex-partner is lurking outside.
Thirteen of these families held current Protection Orders against the offender, with many domestic
violence assaults occurring over the period that the child advocate was meeting with the family.
As McMahon and Pence state, separation does not signal the end of the violence but rather
merely signifies that “the site of the struggle shifts and the experience of abuse changes” (1995,
Most mothers want their children to have ongoing relationships with their father and feel very guilty
that separating leads to the children not seeing him as much. Despite this another issue that was
a common thread amongst the stories of families where the parents had separated was problems
resulting from access visits. These varied considerably with examples being:

• Children returning to their mother “smelly and hungry”
• Problems with the father turning up unexpectedly wanting access to the children outside of
pre-arranged times
• The father using severe physical discipline and children refusing to stay with him
• The father refusing to use car seats and taking children out of Auckland for extended periods
of time without prior discussion with the mother
• Threats to take the children
• Parents using drugs or alcohol during access with children
• The parent telling the children threatening things he says he intends to do to their mother
• The children exhibiting disrespectful and disobedient behaviour upon their return
• Frequent breaches of protection order, including at the time of access handover
• Children being frightened about being left alone with their fathers

Violence between adults experienced by the child

The vast majority of mothers visited by the Child Crisis Team (73%) identified themselves as being
the victim of extensive physical abuse at the hands of the offender. One pregnant woman
sustained severe head injuries, causing her to lose consciousness which required hospitalisation
and 20 stitches. Horrifyingly, nearly half of the children spoken to (27 out of 62) were exposed to
their father’s abuse of their mother, consisting of hitting, kicking, strangling or choking, pushing,
and being thrown into furniture. One seven year old girl spoke of seeing her father repetitively
pound her mother’s head into a wall, while one child recalled her mother’s appearance after an
incident, with “all blood came out of her face.”

Seven offenders made threats to kill either the mother or her children. One father viciously beat
up his wife before threatening to slit the children’s throats because “they’ve mucked up my life”.
This mother of three children then spent the night awake on the floor outside their bedroom,
beaten and covered in blood, to ensure that her husband didn’t harm them in order to punish her.
Five children from separate families reported seeing their (step) father attack, or threaten to attack,
their mother with a weapon. In all five instances the weapon was a knife. A teenage girl described
an early memory to a child advocate of standing in the kitchen watching her father sharpen a Fijian
knife, to have him then turn to her, a tiny, frightened six year old, and conversationally say, “I’m
going to kill your mum tonight.” This same girl is now being harassed by her father, who is
currently writing her emotionally abusive letters in which he claims he will kill himself if he does not
see her. She has been put through appalling ordeals throughout her short life and, not
surprisingly, confessed to experiencing thoughts of committing suicide.

In addition to the large number of children who had directly observed incidences of domestic
violence in their homes, a further 17 of 62 children had vividly heard abuse, although they may not
have been present at the scene. Virtually always in these cases, the children possessed an
exhaustive knowledge of the violence and could recount specific details (unless very young). For
example, a four year old boy clearly described an incident to a child advocate where “daddy hit
mummy, mummy called the police. He beat mummy in the face. He had to go the police. He was
naughty”, while an eight year old boy could precisely describe fights, repeating swear words and
insults verbatim. This ability to recount the violence was usually a surprise to the mother who
frequently believed that because the children were in another room, they were safe and unaware
of the extent of the abuse occurring (Edelson, 1999; Jaffe, Wolfe and Wilson, 1990; Mullender et
al, 2000). Furthermore, children who may not necessarily have been present during an assault,
could still be aware of its occurrence through a number of ways, including being woken in the night
by the noise, or seeing bruising on their mother’s face and broken furniture in their home.

Child’s attempts to intervene

Working with families for so long we know that children know as well as their mothers, when things
are escalating towards a fight. They frequently are actively involved in the early stages trying to
stop the escalation by trying to distract their fathers or telling their mothers to be quiet. However,
the extent to which they became involved during an assault is apparent from these files. Of the 62
children interviewed, 43 said they had tried to intervene during a domestic incident. The majority
of these attempted to stop the abuse through physical intervention. In these instances, the
children were usually at least eight and most typically 11 or older. Other means of intervening
included calling the police, running to the neighbours to get help, or verbally speaking to or yelling
at the offender to stop. Instances in which children tried to protect their mother include:

• A two year old boy who ran between his parents in an effort to prevent his father from hitting
his mother. He was hurt in the process.
• A four year old girl who went to her mum during parental fights trying to cuddle her.
• A three year old girl who ran outside the house at midnight and screamed for help.
• Another three year old who dialled 111 to tell the operator “mummy needs help”.
• A 14 month old baby who ran outside shouting “stop fighting”; “no no no no”.
• Teenage brothers who deliberately provoked their father in an effort to get him to redirect his
violence from their mother and onto themselves.

The behaviour of the remaining 19 children typically consisted of either hiding (in their bedroom,
under the table, etc) or freezing. This was particularly common amongst children under the age of
five. One mother remarked that her four year old boy “used to cry but he doesn’t anymore. He
now just stops what he is doing and freezes up.” One poor child would have liked to have left the
room, but couldn’t as he has a disability and so was forced to sit and watch.

Violence exercised against the child

The direct relationship between partner abuse and child abuse and neglect has been clearly
demonstrated in a number of studies conducted in New Zealand and overseas, with child abuse
co-existing alongside family violence in 30-60% of instances (Edelson, 1999). The correlation
between these two forms of abuse is so high that each could be considered a strong predictor of
the other (Stark and Flitcraft, 1988; Stacey and Shupe, 1983). Trends from the 30 sampled
families strongly support these findings with 21 offenders reported to have been violent towards
their children as well as their partner. Of these, eight offenders verbally abused their children
(typically calling them stupid, ugly, useless, and so forth); one father sexually abused his daughter;
and 13 offenders were physically violent towards their children. The impact of this elicited fearful
statements such as “he smacked us” “he pulled my ears” “(he) always shouts at night time”.
One very little child said “I cry too, cause my dad. Really scared of dad when he smack us.”

For many children, violence begins in the utero, as pregnancy often represents the onset of
violence, or at least a significant risk period. Small infants are also at risk of being dropped or
injured in the crossfire, if their mother is holding them whilst she is assaulted. Assaults on
pregnant women, or women holding infants, are a regular feature of referrals to Preventing
Violence in the Home, by the police and the hospitals. Of the 30 families in this report, seven
mothers were abused during their pregnancy. This typically consisted of being punched or kicked

in the abdomen. Of these seven women, one woman’s baby was born pre-term. In addition to
this, 10 women cited incidences of domestic violence that occurred whilst they were holding an
infant. “He’s hit me at times when I was holding her. She would whimper or get scared.” One
baby was hit by the offender during the assault, while another child was harmed when the offender
pushed the mother into a wall.

However, most instances in which children were hit were described as incidences of disciplinary
punishment rather than abuse. In accordance with Section 59 of the Crimes Act, which stipulates
that “every parent of a child and … every person in the place of a parent of a child is justified in
using force by way of correction towards the child, if the force is reasonable in the circumstances”,
such punishment is acceptable. The issue, of course, becomes problematic when considering
what forms of force are, and are not, “justified”. As a consequence, certain incidences read more
like child abuse rather than acceptable parental discipline, including:

• a 10 year old boy being “beat up like a rugby ball” (i.e. placed by his father in a head lock and
repetitively thumped in the face and head)
• two brothers who were hit and then forced to kneel at an alter for 2-3 hours
• a seven year old boy being hit with a jandal until his back was covered in open welts
• a five year old girl frequently covered in bruises from being hit with either a spoon or a belt

Disturbingly, many children identified this behaviour as appropriate punishment incurred by their
own naughty behaviour or general disobedience.

Instances of physical violence that were not described as disciplinary were much fewer. They
included seven cases where the children had been inadvertently harmed while the offender was
beating the mother, and four instances in which the offender exercised an “arbitrary” violence upon
his children (arbitrary in the sense that there was no “cause” or supposed justification for the
abuse). In 75% of these instances, the abuse was directed at girls, who were hit when the son
was not. The reasoning behind such discrepant and different treatment was always attributed to
the gender of the child, reflecting the offender’s belief that females are of less worth. One
particularly terrible example of a child being abused because she was a girl, saw a father hire a
professional hit-man to kill his wife, whom he suspected of having an affair, and his teenage
daughter, whom he perceived to be in collusion with his wife because she was also female.

In total, nine out of 30 offenders subjected one of their children to far more abusive treatment than
the others. Four of those children who suffered worse were step children as opposed to the
offender’s natural birth children; one was the middle son; and four were females, one of whom was
also being sexually abused by the offender, her father.

It should be noted that many of these families had been referred to the Department of Child, Youth
and Family Services, prior to the involvement of the Child Crisis Team, by the police. This was
usually done at the time when the police were investigating the most recent offence of assault on
the custodial parent.

Child’s relationship to the mother

An overwhelming proportion of children were purported to be extremely fearful of leaving their

mother alone in the house. Nearly two thirds of the children seen by the Child Crisis Team (38 of
62) expressed great distress at leaving her to attend school, stay the night with friends, visit family,
or engage in other childhood activities and socialising; sadly, as noted by Herman, “the social lives

of abused children are profoundly limited” (1992, p100). Younger children (pre and primary school
level) were frequently very clingy, needing constant physical reassurance and contact.

One quarter of those who expressed trepidation about leaving the house and their mother also
experienced anger directed at her. Their anger most often took the form of mimicking the
offender’s behaviour and consisted of extreme jealousy at her spending time with anyone other
than themselves, extensive questioning of where she’s been, who she was with, why she went,
and general disrespectful language. These responses, of fear in regards to the mother’s safety
and anger at her behaviour, while seemingly at odds with one another, can both be directly
attributed to the children’s exposure to domestic violence and a desperate wish to try and keep her
safe. One child frequently got up during the night to check on her mum. She was awoken by
nightmares about her being hurt and begged to be allowed to sleep with her.

Case Example:

Adam grew up in an environment marked by violence and terror. He very rarely saw his mother
without a black eye and was frequently forced to sit and watch his father beat his mother up.
While, his dad very rarely hit him, Adam was told that he was “stupid”, “thick” and an “idiot”. When
he was eight years old he began to wet the bed and suffer horrific nightmares. In punishment, his
father would strip Adam and make him sleep in his soiled sheets. A year later, Adam’s mum left
the violent relationship taking her children with her. This did not, however, mean that the abuse
began to stop.

At age 13, Adam began to hit his younger sister and his mother. It was also at this time that he
started to self-mutilate and shortly after attempted to slit his wrists. At age 18, Adam’s violence
and aggressive behaviour escalated and began to resemble that of his father’s, including repeating
insults and threats directed at his mother, such as “you’re hopeless, a stupid bitch” and “no wonder
dad hit you, you’re a fucking idiot.” However, in spite of this vicious anger, Adam is still very
clingy. At age 18 he is still experiencing nightmares and cannot go to sleep without the television
on; he has a total lack of confidence in himself and his abilities, and requires his mother to do
everything with him, including attending driver’s licence tests, job interviews, Work and Income
appointments, and doctor’s visits. It is highly possible that with earlier assistance, Adam’s future
may have turned out radically different. As it is, his behaviour has become beyond his mother’s
ability to cope and she took her younger child and left, shortly after our visits to the family

Trauma Symptoms

Adam’s trajectory shares many commonalities with other children who have been subjected to
prolonged periods of violence in their home lives. Over half the children interviewed (34 of 62)
experienced sleep disturbances. “I am scared when I sleep in my bed”. Typical of these children
is an 11 year old who won’t go to bed unless his mother lies down with him until he goes to sleep.
Of the 34 children, 21 of those consistently had nightmares, including typical childhood bad
dreams about monsters, but also less common repetitive nightmares about mum being taken away
or baby brothers and sisters dying. One child cried a lot, especially at night and found it difficult to
sleep as she was terrified her mother would be injured again in an assault, but this time would not
come home. “When mum was in hospital I was really scared and worried she might not be alive. I
thought her head was split open really bad.”

In addition to this, eight children wet the bed, and one young boy had reoccurring “night sweats”
from which he would wake up to sopping wet sheets, duvet and pillows. The majority of these
children were 10 years or younger.

Many children were experiencing problems at school, typically these included acting aggressively
to others, finding it hard to settle, lack of concentration, over reacting to loud noises such as the
teacher yelling, truancy, achieving poorly, finding it hard to make and keep friends and being a
disciplinary problem. As an example one child said that he regularly got detention for not finishing
homework which he finds it hard to do because of the fighting at home and finds it generally hard
to concentrate. He said that he feels frightened a lot and this feeling of fear didn’t go away when
he was at school.

Feeling generally unhappy and miserable was unsurprisingly, a common issue identified by almost
all of the children visited. 15 children reported crying frequently and feeling overwhelmed by
sadness. Several of them were identified as crying in their sleep by their mothers and several
children found themselves crying at school. One child cried non-stop throughout the first session a
child advocate had with him.

Nearly one third (20 of 62) of children spoken to, were seen to have become increasingly naughty,
aggressive and disrespectful. The majority of these were reported by mothers to be mimicking the
behaviour of the abuser, either physically or verbally through threats and insults. One child said
his head hurt with angry thoughts and required referral for psychological counselling. Siblings
tended to become increasingly violent towards one another when fighting amongst themselves
and five of the 20 children had been in trouble for bullying other children at their schools. Other
instances include:

• A pre-schooler who had begun to kick, bite and punch other children and adults.
• A ten year old boy who told his mother that he would “call my dad so he’ll come over and
smack you up again”.
• A seven year old girl and her nine year old brother who would repeatedly use the words,
“bitch”, “nigger” and “mongrel”.

75% of these children who were displaying increased aggression had, to a large extent,
normalised the violence they had been exposed to, with one child describing it as “a natural
reaction to anger”. Another child said he was not scared of anything because his father taught him
how to fight. Disturbingly, he considered his father a hero after seeing him fight and hurt a police

Many children are constantly on alert, hyper-vigilant for some new threat, becoming extremely
anxious when hearing sudden, loud noises. These children can become extremely distressed
and/or withdrawn when hearing normal events such as a loud telephone conversation, or the
teacher at school reprimanding students or people talking excitedly.

Trauma symptoms varied accordingly in respect of the age of the child, with much younger
children (primary and pre school ages) experiencing somatic complaints of headaches or tummy
aches. One child bit herself really hard which distressed her mother greatly. Another child
smacked himself as a form of self imposed discipline, when he considered that he had been
naughty. Five of the older teenagers interviewed reported that they self-mutilated. This usually
took the form of cutting or burning themselves, most commonly on the arms. For instance, a 14
year old girl carved “FUCK OFF” into her arm shortly after an incident in her home. A 13 year old
put pins in his arm, burnt his skin with cigarette lighters and said that it didn’t hurt. He would say,
“My dad can beat me and beat me and it doesn’t hurt.”

In these cases, self-mutilation is usually understood as an attempt to exercise control over
uncontrollable circumstances through regulating the body’s response to pain – a negative and
temporary solution for these teenagers who have experienced violence, uncertainty and fear
throughout their childhoods.

Support for the child and mother

Support for a child who has been exposed to domestic violence plays a pivotal role in maximising
their resilience (Jaffe, Wolfe and Wilson, 1990). Unfortunately, 17 of the 30 families reported
having only minimal support systems in place. In these instances, the mother was often more
isolated than the children, who were able to draw on her, relatives, or their school for support.
Mothers described themselves as frequently struggling to cope with the sole responsibility of
raising the children, and most received very little help with the children, or time out from them. The
major source of support reported by both mothers and children was their maternal relatives. For
many, this was their only source of support. Other sources include:

• Paternal relatives
• School
• Church
• Advocates from Preventing Violence in the Home
• Other service providers
• Neighbours
• Family friends
• Work colleagues

Over half of the children listed their mother as the main support in their life. This is in line with
recent research which stresses the very positive and important role the mother frequently plays
through her efforts to compensate for the violence her children have experienced (Levendosky,
Lynch and Graham-Bermann, 2000).


Child advocates provide assistance in a number of ways, including making safety plans for the
children and attempting to assuage immediate trauma symptoms, working with the mother to
develop positive parenting strategies, and making referrals to ensure the family receives long-term
counselling and practical assistance if desired, or deemed necessary.

Safety Plans

The unfortunate reality for these children is that their homes are not safe havens, but the site of
uncertainty and fear. Both they and their mothers are at risk of physical injury and both adults and
children suffer from extreme trauma. In the circumstances the most critical thing that we could do
is to help these children feel and become safer. Therefore, safety plans were devised and taught
to every child the Child Crisis Team met with, as a way of ensuring their immediate safety during
an incident of domestic violence. Advocates found that many children already practised a type of

safety plan by removing themselves and their younger siblings from the scene. For instance, the
oldest child in one family, would take the younger ones out to a shed during a fight where they
would hug each other and cry until they felt able to come back inside.

Keeping away from the scene of the fighting was always encouraged by the child advocates and
was made part of the safety plan of 22 families. Children most commonly found a safe place
within their own home, such as their bedroom, but were also directed to run to a nearby
neighbour’s, friend’s or relative’s house providing safety permitted (ie they were old to leave the
house). Mothers were happy at the idea of the children being taught to remove themselves from
the scene, as they couldn’t protect them and were usually very upset about the children being

The children often met the idea of removing themselves with initial resistance, born out of a
reluctance to leave their mother in a dangerous situation. “What if mum needs me?” As a
consequence, advocates spent time talking with the children about the importance of keeping
themselves safe and better helping their mother by calling 111 from a safe location. However, one
child needed reassurance from the advocate and his mother as he was worried to use the phone
as “they might get angry with me and give me a smack.” A number of children had a mobile phone
which they carried around with them. Several children had a phone line installed in their
bedrooms, arranged by their mothers. In total, 19 families were taught how to dial 111 to ask for
assistance, including asking the operator to be put through to the police, stating clearing what was
happening and their name and address. Many children did not know their address. The remaining
third were excluded from this based on reasons pertaining to their circumstances; for example,
several families did not have a phone in the house, or it was unsafe to access during an incident.

Another issue for older children to deal with was what to do about their younger siblings. Many
children who were the oldest in their families (regardless of their own age) felt very responsible for
looking after their younger brothers and sisters and were distressed at any plan that involved
leaving them behind. This is always respected by the advocates and so as far as possible, the
plan would always include all the children remaining together and leaving the scene. Some
exceptions were agreed to in families where there were many children and also where there were
small babies. Generally, it was thought best for babies to be put in their cots rather than be carried
away, particularly by young oldest children. Mothers were always encouraged to put their child
down in a safe place, rather than risk holding them whilst they were being assaulted.

The advocates make their initial three visits in quick succession, usually a week apart. The final,
fourth visit is then made a month to six weeks later. This last visit is to reinforce previous work
done with the family, assist with any new problems which have arisen and ensure that referrals
which were arranged have proceeded without problem. Notably, only five families were unable to
recall the details of their safety plan, leaving 25 who remembered it effectively, eight of whom had
used it. One of these children, a three year old, now also goes to her room and shuts her door if
her mother or anyone else is annoyed – which her mother commented actually defuses many
situations. This child has also told her mother that ‘this home is a no hitting home”, which her
surprised and proud mother is accepting. Another child, aged five, immediately picks up the baby
and leaves the house if the parents so much as raise their voices. He has also rung the police
each time – which has had a huge positive effect on his parents!

Parenting Strategies

Discussions concerning parenting strategies differed significantly between families due to the fact
that advocates tried to cater specifically to the very distinctive needs of individuals, and also to the
varying degrees of successful parenting already being demonstrated. “I needed assistance and
reassurance especially as I didn’t have any other support. It has also helped a lot with parenting”.

A recurring trend that can be noted in the advocates’ reports, is the vast amount of information that
children have concerning adult matters. This often tended to be a result of overhearing fights and
violence, although it could also be a consequence of the mother’s own lack of support from other
sources and her mounting reliance on the child due to their increased maturity and desire to help
her. In these instances, the advocate recommended an increase in play time between the mother
and the children; monitoring more carefully what is said in front of the children (mothers were
overwhelmingly surprised at the extent of knowledge their children possessed regarding the
violence); and giving the child fewer responsibilities.

In one family a seven year old boy had taken on the role of protector, or man of the house, as dad
is in jail and his teenage sister has gone to live with grandma. He was very protective and caring
of his little sisters, but the pressure of this self-imposed responsibility was onerous for such a
young child. The Child Advocate recommended that his mum tell her son that he is boy in the
family and its lovely that he is so caring towards his sisters, but that it is mum’s job to support the
family and be the boss/protector and a boy’s job to be carefree.

Advocates discussed disciplinary techniques to help mothers whose children were exhibiting
increased aggression and disruptive behaviour. This discussion also occurred in families where
physical punishment was the main form of discipline adopted. Alternatives talked about included
practicing time out, consequences, and developing clear rules and boundaries. In cases where
the mother reported herself as having “lost it” at times, she was almost always very remorseful and
receptive to learning new parenting strategies, or attending a parenting programme.

Other conversations with mothers focussed on practical parenting issues, such as the need for
prioritising prenatal care (for a pregnant woman) and techniques for coping with stress. Many
mothers saw the advocate’s visits as an opportunity to discuss issues concerning them such as:
their children’s lack of a good male role model; how to accept that her daughter doesn’t want to
see her father any more; sleeping strategies for children who have trouble sleeping; importance of
routines and structures, for instance a bed time routine which never varied - story, bath, teeth
cleaning, bed etc.

Women living in a state of fear resulting from violence from their (ex)partner, tend to lead socially
isolated lives, with little support and the families visited frequently have attendant problems of poor
housing, poverty, lack of basic household resources and sometimes food. In these circumstances,
when just getting through the day can be a struggle, naughty or distressed children can add to
their burden. Despite this, almost all of the custodial parents expressed the desire to be a good
parent and were eager for assistance and advice. The Advocates raised a number of issues with
parents such as the importance of not giving children too much information about adult matters.
Every parent was aghast at the impact the violence had had on her children, most had thought
their children knew very little of what was going on, were too little to understand to be affected, or
that their children’s feelings of distress would be transitory. The Child Advocates helped the
parent understand her children’s sometimes difficult or distressing behaviour was the result of the
trauma they have experienced, which saw her becoming less angry with them. The Advocates
also talked about ways to encourage the child’s social independence and confidence, suggesting
lots more physical affection, cuddles etc. Many parents responded well to the idea of pro-actively
scheduling a fun activity with their children every week – sometimes activities which they had
imagined they would do routinely when they had previously looked forward to parenthood, such as
visits to a park, had just never happened.


A key function of the Child Crisis Team is to provide an immediate and pro-active intervention
service focused around trauma reduction, risk and needs assessment and safety planning.
However, a critical part of the service is also to help the family find out about other services

available to them and facilitate easy access to these. Most of the referrals were made to help
families obtain long-term assistance, counselling or other support. Of the 30 families:

• 14 were referred to a Domestic Violence Act approved women’s or children’s programme

• 10 were referred to other forms of counselling
• Four were referred to the Ministry of Education’s Group Special Education, for instance to
• Three were referred to the Preventing Violence in the Home advocacy team (18 were already
• Three were referred to a men’s stopping violence programme
• Six were referred to a parenting programme
• Three were referred to the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services
• 16 were referred to other services, including lawyers, community health services, Work and
Income, Housing New Zealand, Al-Anon, Accident Compensation Corporation (the mother
can’t work as a result of a severe head injury), Police Communications Centre (the advocate
filed a special situation report on behalf of a family in extreme danger)

19 families took up all or some of the referrals made. Three families chose not to follow up on the
recommendations made by the Child Crisis Team, while five families were declined assistance by
the provider approached, usually due to a lack of resources. All three of the referrals made to the
Department of Child, Youth and Family Services were not followed up by that department.

Effect of intervention and relief from trauma symptoms

Positively, 74% of the families visited noticed improvements in their children. 50% of families
noted a very significant improvement in the behaviour of the children visited by the Child Crisis
Team. Trauma symptoms were largely alleviated through the coping techniques and strategies
advocates practised with children. Many children who were experiencing sleeping difficulties,
nightmares and bedwetting reported an alleviation of these problems. Several rated their
happiness as much higher than in the earlier visits, with feelings of sadness and anger decreasing
dramatically. One child thanked an advocate for “teaching me about safety and how not to let
anger take over me”, while another said, “I haven’t been angry at all since you visited”.

Many children said that they felt so much better after having the opportunity to discuss what had
been happening in their family and their anger and confusion about this. Mothers confirmed these
trends having also observed a general decrease in aggression and behaviour that resembled that
of the offender. Children attributed this largely to changes occurring in their mother’s behaviour,
noting, for example, her efforts to increase play time or practise alternative methods of discipline
from physical punishment. This led a six year old girl to happily state that “talking is better than
fighting” and another said “since you came, I’ve been getting help for everything that I was being
naughty for”.

Other families had followed suggestions to extend their social contacts and children reported
feeling happier having made new friends and visiting neighbours and the homes of friends.
Several children joined sports teams and enjoyed being involved in activities outside the home.
One child told the Advocate how much had improved for him since her visits and that he was now
getting good grades at school, had joined a soccer team and has cell phone.

Another seven families (23%) said that the effects of the intervention were mixed. Two families
reported noticeable improvements in the behaviour in one child but at the expense of negative

deteriorations in another. In both instances, the child who was displaying the more overt trauma
symptoms was seen to have made significant positive developments (i.e. sleeping better, making
fewer threats), while the behaviour of the quieter child, who was initially perceived to have been
less affected by the violence, began to worsen. In these two cases, one child began to have
nightmares and extreme difficulty sleeping and the other exhibited increased physical aggression
and crude language.

The remaining five families found that the Advocate’s intervention had alleviated the specific
problems addressed, but that new ones had taken their place. For example, a teenage girl had
given up taking drugs and alcohol, although she had significantly increased the amount she self-
mutilated. Similarly, a nine year old boy had ceased wetting the bed but had begun directing huge
amounts of anger at his mother instead, holding her directly responsible “for making dad angry and
putting him in jail”.

The final 26% of families (eight of the 30 families), reported the behaviour of the children to be the
same or worse since the Child Crisis Team visits, marked by worse nightmares, the onset of
bedwetting and increased aggression and misbehaviour. Boys in these families continued to
behave badly after returning from access visits to their fathers.

Case Example:

Five year old Poppy is the eldest of three siblings. She and her two brothers have been exposed
to extensive violence between her mother and her father, and her mother is a high risk client of
Preventing Violence in the Home. With support from the agency’s advocates, Poppy’s mother
obtained a Protection Order and left the offender a year ago. Not understanding the full
circumstances and reasons behind their parents’ separation, the children worried obsessively that
something would happen to their mum and she would leave them suddenly like their dad did.

Four months ago, Poppy began to wet the bed. She started having more dreams, both good and
bad, and her mother reported her to frequently complain of stomach and arm aches. Her little
brother was very easily agitated and cried frequently. Poppy was usually the one to give him
cuddles when he got upset. She appeared as a very sober little girl who had also become
obsessively tidy, arranging all her toys into rows with as many right angles as possible. When the
house got messy, Poppy became very angry or overanxious that her attempt to exercise some
control in her life had failed.

Through the intervention offered by a child advocate Poppy’s situation improved drastically. Her
mother began to set aside special play time with the children and made sure that the responsibility
of caring for her younger brother was lifted from Poppy. Poppy quickly became less serious and
worried and no longer keeps her toys in rigid order. She still has very vivid dreams and
nightmares but wets the bed far less regularly. Ultimately, with the support of her mother, the
Child Crisis Team gave Poppy permission to be a normal five year old girl.

Parents – impact of intervention

The impact of the programme on parents was profound for most of them, with many making
significant changes which they felt noticeably improved their situation. This is very pleasing as

the timeframe between the violent incident that prompted the Child Crisis Team becoming involved
and the last visit (the last recorded information on these files) was at most two and half months.
Five women seemed to use this as a catalyst to build a new life for themselves and their children
by setting themselves major life goals such as obtaining a driver’s licence, moving to a nicer rental
or buying a house, becoming confident enough to apply for better paying employment and
commencing tertiary study.

Many women told the advocates that they had implemented the parenting strategies suggested
and had noticed a big improvement. One woman said she was really trying hard to only say
positive things about their dad to her children, despite him saying mean things about her. For
several there was much less stress now that their children were going to bed with no fuss.
Parents were particularly relieved in families where nightmares and bedwetting had been a
problem and now they were occurring less frequently.

More consistent and confident parenting was clearly being undertaken by many parents and their
initial success trying new ways to interact with their children reinforced this feeling of being more
on top of things. One woman, who had been extremely anxious about leaving her husband
because of the loss to her child of his father not being around, arranged for him to spend time with
a positive male role model. Another woman introduced weekly family meetings which were used
as a time for the family to talk together about how things were going. She also used this as an
opportunity to congratulate her children on positive changes about behaviour she noticed.

Parents reported being much more aware of the impact of the violence on the children and were
being more gentle, patient and understanding with parenting. One woman said that she had felt
so concerned about how much her children needed her that she has cut her working hours so she
can spend more time with them. Another woman said that her children were much happier and
she was now proactively expanding their social network by enrolling them in music lessons and
attending church etc.

When parents separate, particularly when the circumstances are as stressful as those experienced
by these families, access arrangements frequently become a source of ongoing stress and
confrontation. Several women noted that access arrangements were constantly breached by the
children’s father and in one case, the father had just obtained access and the children were very
frightened and didn’t want to go. She said that there was a lot of physical discipline at their dad’s
house and that their behaviour upon their return to her was very naughty. Another woman had
seen her lawyer and stopped all access as her children were so distressed about having to go.

More positively, many mothers reported that with the support of the advocates, access
arrangements were now working well. One said that her child can now choose when to stay with
dad and that her ex-partner is being more civil to her. Another said that her ex-partner was now
calling before visiting and that there was now far better communication with her.

Things had not turned out so positively for every family. Many women found the poverty,
loneliness and struggle to parent by themselves very demoralising and hoped that they could have
a new start with their partners. Five women had either taken their partners back or were
considering it. Another said that she felt extremely lonely and her husband promised her he would
change and so she took him back when he started attending a stopping violence programme.
However, he gave up this up immediately and within a few days of moving back into the house had
assaulted her again. This woman said that although she “threw him out”, she feels weak for giving
into loneliness and giving him another chance.

Eight women had experienced a further assault during the period of the programme. Some of
these women are still living in extreme fear and depending on their circumstances are either able
to function and get on with lives, or are simply focussing on trying to remain safe. One decided to
move in with relatives for protection and another moved suburbs in an unsuccessful attempt to get

away from her husband. One was experiencing a lot of pressure from her husband’s family and
was only just able to maintain an unconvincing façade with the advocate that all was going well.
Another woman appeared to be severely depressed, looked terrible and had quit her job.

Unfortunately, two women left their teenage children, feeling unable to cope with their behaviour
any longer. One of these actually left the country, taking the two youngest with her overseas, to
ensure the older children couldn’t join them.


It is clear from the formal evaluation and from this study, that the Child Crisis Team is providing a
service which is needed by families in crisis as a result of violence in their homes. By the time we
have become involved, the violence has often been an ever present feature of some children’s
whole lives. It was shocking to the writers to find that around 75% of the children have been
exposed to episodes of extreme violence and the same percentage have actively tried to intervene
– including a 14 month old baby. This is even more horrible when considered that in 66% of the
cases, the parents had separated, but still mothers and children were being subjected to violence
and were not able to get on with their lives in peace. However, it is important to be aware of the
stage at which the Child Crisis Team provides it service to families. This is during a period when
the violence is still currently occurring, and we know that in time, for most of these families, the
violence will stop and with our support will conclude more rapidly.

Children have to rely on their parents to look after them and love them – domestic violence
completely disrupts a parent’s ability to parent properly - even those with the best of intentions.
These children typically have overwhelming levels of emotional distress caused by their feelings
about their mothers and fathers. They often love and miss their father, whilst greatly fearing him
and being severely traumatised by his violence to their mothers and often themselves. They need
constant reassurance and enormous amounts of emotional support from their mothers, and are
terrified to let her out of their sight in case something happens to her – but are also angry with her,
blaming her for being the ‘cause’ of the fights, leaving dad, staying with dad, not being able to stop
the violence.

Sadly, the reality is that we cannot always immediately stop the violence from happening in these
children’s lives. What we can do, however, is give these children ways to protect themselves and
to help them understand what is happening. We have to help them by building their resilience to
endure the intolerable. We can help mothers by letting them know how the violence is impacting
on their children and by teaching them alternative parenting strategies to help their children cope.
By implementing an intervention strategy that prioritizes child safety, we believe we have a very
real chance at protecting children and interrupting the intergenerational cycle of violence from


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