I grew up in a home that was plagued by domestic violence for much of my childhood. From my earliest memories, my father abused my mother, my four siblings and me.
This violence did not stop when we migrated to Australia. But after some time, our mother made the difficult decision to rescue us. She managed to save up the bond for a small flat, and with the assistance of a borrowed shopping trolley, we quickly packed up our few possessions and moved out.
Very few of the people who knew me as a child would have known about this abuse. As is so often the case with domestic violence, it was not something we talked about. I certainly didn’t tell my classmates or teachers at school, where I struggled each day just to understand what people were saying to me in English. Nor did we tell our neighbours or family back home.
A recent report from the Domestic Violence Prevention Council compels me to speak out. Directed to the ACT Government, this report finds that "many at risk children and young people are 'invisible' in the ACT’s domestic and family violence system". I understand too well what that feels like.
Though mum sometimes rang the police to ask for help when dad was outside our flat shouting, I don’t think that the good officers who responded ever really saw me or understood clearly the impact that all of this was having on us kids. In essence, we and our distress were invisible.
Domestic violence and its invisible victims are not problems unique to Canberra. For years we have made a number of assumptions about domestic and family violence that as a nation we are in the midst of correcting. One of these has been that if we respond to the needs of the non-violent parent, the needs of the children will also be met. We increasingly understand that this is not always the case.
Instead, as the DVPC report recommends, the system needs to start seeing children and young people not just as 'add-ons' to an adult victim. Many children who experience trauma will need supports to overcome it, and these supports must be tailored to the specific needs of individual children.
Witnessing or experiencing domestic and family violence often results in serious harm to children and young people. This harm can be emotional, psychological, social, behavioural or developmental – often some combination. Unaddressed, the impacts can be lifelong.
One way to raise the visibility of children and young people in the territory’s domestic and family violence system is to collect good data. We need to know who experiences violence, how they experience it, what services they use and what services they need. Currently, "the lack of data masks the true extent and nature of unmet need", according to the DVPC.
I am pleased that the government has taken quick action to respond to the report’s first recommendation, committing $100,000 to develop an appropriate framework that will allow for consultations with children and young people. But without accurate and robust data, it will be difficult to implement all of the report’s recommendations.
For that reason, on Wednesday I called on the ACT Government to accept recommendation five of the report, regarding the need to address gaps in the local data and to develop an evidence base that can inform and improve responses to violence that affects children, and to act quickly to begin doing so. I am also asking the government to outline before the end of 2018–19 what it will be doing in response to the report’s other recommendations.
As one who has been invisible in the past, I know that we need to get much better at seeing children and young people who experience or witness violence at home.
Elizabeth Kikkert is the opposition spokeswoman for families, youth and community services.