‘Panto tickets, that’s what we’d like. Twenty tickets to the panto please,” grins Lisa Dowie. “It’s always great to get donations of money and presents for the kids at Christmas, but to be able to take them somewhere, to give them an experience they’ll always remember that is worth so much more.
“That they can look back and say during that really horrible time I did something good.”
Lisa is sitting on a very small chair at a very short table. As are her three colleagues Alison Roxburgh, Catriona Robertson and Rosie Smith. But then they are in the children and young people’s room at the headquarters of Edinburgh Women’s Aid in Stockbridge; a room bursting with the primary colours of kids’ toys and books. It’s a place of play – and creativity at the drawing table – and for many children who end up using that room, of escape.
Currently Edinburgh Women’s Aid child and young person’s support staff help 73 children who came to their attention as a result of their mother fleeing from domestic abuse in the home. They are either in refuge, have been through that and moved on to resettlement, or they’re receiving support in school. And on top of that they are about to launch a project to go into Edinburgh’s schools to educate all children about domestic abuse, what it is, that it’s not normal, and it should never be something they repeat as adults.
“There are children in Edinburgh who believe that violence, or mental or emotional abuse by one of their parents against the other is just the way life is. They’ve no idea that the child sitting next to them in school doesn’t experience any of that at all,” says team leader Alison. “So when their mum does eventually leave their home, taking them with them, it suddenly becomes clear for the first time that it’s not normal for everyone else. It is a very difficult and traumatic time for children.”
That’s where Alison and her team step in. “We’re support workers, not counsellors or psychologists,” says Catriona. “We’re there to help them deal with what’s happening and find out what other expert help they might need to do that. It can take some children a long time to want to talk about what’s happened or what they’ve witnessed at home.
“Some of the women, if you ask them how the kids were affected by the domestic abuse they’ll say ‘they never saw anything, they’re ok’ but that’s never the case. The children too might not think of themselves as victims of domestic abuse but if they’ve seen it or heard it or been getting it third hand then they will be affected.
“And, of course, there are young people who get involved, who try to stop what’s happening, to get between their parents if it’s violent. Domestic abuse affects everyone in the house.”
The effect of leaving home has serious consequences for the children as well as the mother. Most leave without their possessions. They may end up in shared accommodation and have to get used to living with another family. They may also have to change schools and live in another part of the city.
“Some of them also have a good relationship with their dad and it’s hard for them to realise that he can’t be near their mother and to come to terms with that,” says Alison. “It’s also an added pressure on mum, firstly the thought of leaving with the kids is enormous so it keeps them in the home and the abusive relationship because they don’t want to disrupt their kids’ lives, but when they do go there’s the pressure about going back.
“The children can end up feeling resentful about it – especially if it’s not been explained to them before they end up in refuge that that’s what’s going to happen.”
So Alison and her five-strong team are there to offer support. “We provide practical and emotional support. We try to help them make sense of what’s happened and to make their lives as normal as possible.”
To that end they run all sorts of activities for the children. Over the summer this year they were able to experience Go Ape, rock climbing, East Links Farm, Edinburgh Castle, the science museum in Glasgow and the cinema. A group of eight kids were also taken on a week’s rural residential holiday through the charity Hopscotch.
“All the ordinary things that they would do such as going to the cinema or to a museum or even a theme park like M&D’s in Glasgow, all that stops, so we try and take them places. Activities which can give them a great memory while they’re having a difficult time in refuge is a great way to lift their spirits. It’s also difficult for the mums, who may be suffering from depression, to even think about taking the kids anywhere so that’s where we help and it gives the mums much needed time on their own too.
“There’s a lot of pressure on the service though. We can’t help all the children and young people who need it. Our outreach service has 15 on the waiting list at the moment and there are probably many more children who could do with the support we offer.”
According to the team children react to domestic abuse in different ways. “It always comes out eventually in the way they play, the conversations they make their toys have with each other for instance. In older children it can make them very focused at school, they can become high achievers, because school is a safe place, or of course, they can act out. Every child is different,” says Rosie.
“Every situation is different too,” says Catriona. “There isn’t a school in Edinburgh, be it council or private, that we don’t go into to see children who’ve been in a domestic abuse situation. It affects every walk of life.”
While EWA itself is 40 this year, the children’s service is just 21 years old this year, after it started thanks to funding from Children In Need. Two staff members were initially employed on a temporary basis but three years later the work was deemed essential and Edinburgh City Council’s children and families department agreed to fund the service.
A new part of the work being done by EWA is prevention by talking to kids in secondary schools, aiming to tackle the idea that domestic abuse is okay – an idea backed up by a 2005 study of young people’s attitudes which found that one in five young men believe that women often “provoke violence”.
Right now though, Alison and her team will keep on talking to the kids who need them and trying to make this Christmas as bearable as possible. “Getting toys and gifts for the children is always fantastic, and people are generous at this time of year,” she says. “We give the mums presents to wrap for their children because they come with nothing. But it’s the activities and finding the money to do that. It would be great to get to the panto, to really give them something to remember.”
• If you can help give kids in refuge a trip to the panto, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
‘I made big mistake in going back to the man who would beat me’
DEBBIE shuffles into the counselling room at Edinburgh Women’s Aid refuge. An air of defeatism surrounds her and she is obviously nervous talking about her life.
She and her 11-year-old son have been living in refuge since June this year when she finally found the courage to leave her husband, the man who physically abused her for half her life.
She’s 38, yet looks older. A weary acceptance of being told she’s fit for nothing except being used as a punchbag is carried in the lines on her face. She doesn’t want me to meet her son. It’s been difficult for him leaving his family home, she admits, and he never talks about what happened, but he understands why they need to be here.
“I’d like my other son to be here, too, but he’s 16 and is too old. I don’t know where he is at the moment, it’s a real worry. My daughter’s fine though, she’s got her career and is doing well.”
Debbie was married aged 19 after becoming pregnant. “It was a shock, but we got together and married and everything was fine. I had two children quite quickly and life was normal.”
But when her eldest son was a year-and-a-half, Debbie discovered another side to her husband. “I was at home all day with two small children and caring for his elderly grandad. It sounds like a cliche, but he came home from work and because his dinner wasn’t ready he slapped me across the face, bursting my nose and lip. I was so shocked – his grandad was going daft at him. So I left and went back to my parents.”
Not for long though. “He kept coming round and apologising and said it wouldn’t happen again, and I believed him. My mum was also ill so I didn’t want to give her more problems.”
It was a mistake. After six months her husband began to hit her again, then it became punches and then, as she says, “full-on beatings”. “He didn’t need an excuse, he’d just go for me. He didn’t like me visiting my parents or talking to anyone else. Even when my dad was ill in hospital, he forced me not to visit him. He was a complete bully, physically and mentally. I was in a state where I didn’t know what to choose and felt there was nowhere to go, that I just had to live with it.
“I phoned the police once after he’d smashed the house up as well as attacking me and he was arrested. But later I dropped the charges. I wish now I’d never done that, but he threatened me with worse if I didn’t.”
All this time Debbie’s children were growing up witnessing the domestic abuse. “It was terrible for them. They’d shout at him to stop it, and one time my oldest son tried to get in between us but he just shoved him out the way. Occasionally he’d hit them, too, but mostly it was just me.”
She adds: “I was working as a care assistant, doing nightshifts, and one time he accused me of having an affair and battered me – broke my ribs. I left again with the kids and went to stay with my sister but we didn’t get on, so I had to come back to Edinburgh. I was in homeless accommodation which was terrible and I had no money, no clothes. To be honest it felt like there was no option, especially for the kids, but to go back.”
The last time her husband “battered” her was over a refusal of sex. “He punched me in the face. He was in such a rage. He told me he was going to murder me. I managed to get past him and out the door. I had no shoes on my feet but I ran to the phone box. My wee boy was still in his bed – my other two were at friends for the night. I was terrified.
“The police came and arrested him. I was allowed back in the house for my clothes. Then, on the Monday, he got back out. No charges because there were no witnesses. The bruises on my face didn’t seem to count.
“It’s better here. Safe. But I am depressed. I always worked, but I can’t do that while I’m here, so I’m living on £143 a fortnight. I’ve no idea what kind of Christmas I’ll give my kids.
“But without Edinburgh Women’s Aid I’d be totally lost.”
How you can help
FORTY years ago Edinburgh Women’s Aid was launched to help women and their children experiencing domestic abuse leave their homes and get help and support. Still today one in four women will experience some form of domestic abuse. To help EWA help them please donate this Christmas – as little as £5 can be put to good use.
Cheques should be sent to EWA, 4 Cheyne Street, Edinburgh, EH4 1JB or donate online at www.justgiving.com/edinburghwomensaid/donate
What can your donations do?
£5 provides duvet covers for a woman or child/young person
£10 provides a duvet for a woman or child/young person
£50 gives children/young people an outing to the cinema/ten-pin bowling/zoo
£1000 gives 12 weeks (5 hours per week) awareness raising/prevention work in schools
£15 covers fuel/lighting costs for a week’s refuge space
£20 provides 45 minutes of one-to-one support for a woman or child/young person
£25 provides 60 minutes of one-to-one support in the community
£25,000 provides an additional advocacy worker for 35 hours per week
£100 buys new locks to keep someone safe in their home
£15,000 provides an additional support worker to women or children and young people for one year (21 hours per week)
£5000 funds a parenting course to increase parenting skills and build for the future
£2500 enables a lifestyle management course to build confidence and self-esteem