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Working with children and young people

Working with children and young people

Working with children and young people

Children and young people are impacted by family violence even if they are not the direct target of the violence.

Working with children is a highly specialised, complex practice. While this page provides an overview of some of the considerations, undertaking professional training will provide the comprehensive knowledge and skills you need to work effectively with mothers and children. 

Family Violence Protection Act 2008

According to Victoria’s Family Violence Protection Act 2008, family violence includes behaviour by a person that causes a child to hear, witness or otherwise be exposed to the effects of violence after the violence has occurred.

”Witnessing” family violence includes when a child or young person is exposed to:

  • Seeing the consequences of the violence (bruising, distress, damaged property etc.)
  • Witnessing their mother/father lying about how the mothers injuries occurred
  • Sensing their mother’s fear
  • Living with the effects of violence on the health and parenting capacity of their mother
  • Having favourite belongings destroyed.

A child or young person may also be used by the perpetrator as a way to maintain power and control. Tactics include:

  • Using the child as a hostage or as a means of ensuring the mother returns home
  • Forcing a child to watch or participate in assaults
  • Interrogating or involving the child in spying on mother
  • Undermining the mother by encouraging negative opinions of her abilities and appearance.

Impacts on children and young people

A recent Australian study found that close to 750,000 women had children in their care when their experienced violence by a former partner they lived with. More than three-quarters of these women said their children saw or heard the violence. According to 2016 crime statistics, children are present in one-third of family violence cases reported to police.

Children

Being exposed to or witnessing family violence can have a traumatic impact on children. It is a form of child abuse that creates trauma, disrupts healthy attachment, impedes childhood development and compromises the development of core neural networks.

These impacts are compounded by detrimental effects on parenting and on the mother-child bond. Family violence can be all-consuming, leaving the mother with little capacity or resilience to nurture her child’s emotional needs and development. She may feel a diminished sense of self as an effective parent. The father may also deliberately attempt to break down the mother-child relationship through tactics like telling the child that her/his parents would be together, if not for the mother.

Young people

Young people who have witnessed/experienced family violence may have complex needs related to mental health and behaviour management. They may exhibit depression, anxiety, violent outbursts, low academic achievement, eating disorders, absconding from home/school, risk taking behaviours, and substance abuse. Young people may also be using or experiencing violence in their own intimate relationships.  

In the young person’s relationship with their parents, there may be there may be conflict, abuse of parents and withdrawal from family. They may take on the role of caregiver/protector and may also try to step in to protect a parent, increasing their risk of physical harm. 

Practice applications

When working with women who are experiencing violence from an intimate partner, it’s important to consider how her children may be impacted and how they can be supported as well.

Working from a child-centred approach

While your primary client relationship is with the mother, you can still work in a way that acknowledges and provides support for the experience of the child.

Practical examples:

  • Where possible, facilitating a child/young person’s active participation in planning, goal setting and decision making. 
  • Ensuring children and young people understand what is happening and what your role is as a worker. 
  • Creating spaces that include age-specific resources (toys, books, games, magazines) to provide an inclusive, child-safe environment. 

Using a trauma-informed lens

Family violence practitioners need to be able to work sensitively and directly with the reality of children’s traumatising experience. This means:

  • Considering the impact of trauma on development and behaviour when engaging with a child/young person. 
  • Educating a child/young person about trauma and how it shapes their experience.
  • Educating a parent/carer on how trauma impacts behaviour.
  • Always validating a child/ young person’s experience. 

Strengthening the mother-child bond

As a worker you can help rebuild the mother-child relationship by:

  • Modelling healthy ways of engagement between mother and child
  • Facilitating activities between mother and child 
  • Bringing mum’s attention to her children by including children in the worker/client process. 
  • Developing a ‘Fun Day Plan’ so that mother and child can spend time together.

Assessing risk

Just as you would assess the mother’s safety, you also need to ascertain how the child may be affected. This will determine the safety plan and the referral pathways you will need to help protect their safety and wellbeing. A safety plan should include talking to children about any actions they may need to take.   

There is not yet a specific risk assessment framework for children but questions you could ask the mother include:

  • Have the children ever heard or seen the violence?
  • Have you talked to your children about the violence?
  • What impact do you imagine the violence may have had on your children?
  • Have you noticed what the children do when your partner yells at you/them or threatens you/them?
  • Has your partner ever hurt or threatened to hurt the children?
  • Have you ever noticed your children showing any signs of fear of their father or of not wanting to be near him?

If there is an adolescent in the family, undertake a risk assessment and safety plan directly with them where possible. Their self-care and safety strategies may be different to the mother’s.

Referrals and reporting

Child Protection

You have a duty of care to make a report to Child Protection if you believe there is a serious impact on the child/young person’s immediate safety, stability or development, or that the situation is persistent and entrenched and is likely to have a serious impact on the child/young person’s development.

This is sometimes not clear-cut so if you need advice on what to do, you can contact Child Protection directly. For more information on your legislative responsibilities, go to the DHHS website.     

Child FIRST

If you believe that the impact on the child/young person is low to moderate or that their immediate safety is not compromised, then a referral to Child FIRST may be appropriate to connect children, young people and their families to the support services they need.

If you have concerns about a child/young person and need guidance in deciding whether to make a report to Child Protection or refer to a Child FIRST service, you can contact the Child FIRST referral and support team in your region.

Police

Research indicates that children exposed to family violence are at greater risk of child sexual abuse. If you have a reasonable belief that sexual assault has been committed by an adult against a child, you are mandated to disclose this belief to police. Failure to disclose this is a criminal offence.

Specialist children’s support

For further support for children, including behaviour management, referral to a child-specific counselling program is recommended. Refer to your internal service directory for appropriate services in your region.

Youth-specific support services

Young people can be referred to the following services for therapeutic support:

It is important to ensure that with any referral, the service is made aware that family violence is underpinning the experience of the young person.

Building your skills to work with children

Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria offers a four-day nationally accredited training course that provides practitioners with introductory knowledge and skills to support children and young people who have experienced family violence, and strategies to strengthen relationships between mothers and children. The comprehensive training covers organisational requirements, therapeutic skills, relevant theories, models of practice, and stages of intervention, legislation and referrals.

While the accredited course provides specific training on working with children in the context of family violence, there are other courses you can undertake to learn more about working with children generally or working from a trauma-informed approach. See The Lookout training directory for a list of courses across Victoria.

Resources and further information

Practitioner guidelines and information:

Resources for your clients:

Information on children and trauma: