Kara FVS news
April 18, 2024

Children in refuge. A journey of resistance and empowerment.

Rather than ‘passive witness’ to the violence perpetrated by one parent against the other, children have a right to live free from violence – with access to tailored support that advances their development and wellbeing.

Intimate relationships involving children are more often characterised by repeat incidents of violence and assault (1). In Australia, one in four women and one in six men have experienced childhood abuse and/ or witnessed parental violence (2). More than two thirds of women experiencing IPV with children in their care reported that their children had seen or heard the violence they experienced by a current or former partner (3). Moreover, 40% of sexual assault cases perpetrated against children aged 0-14 (recorded in crime data from 2018) were perpetrated by a family member (4).

Children enter Refuge in crisis. The choice to enter Refuge with children is not an easy decision for a mother or parent to make. Yet, due to the wrap around support that Kara FVS provides, therapeutic interventions are possible even in the context of a crisis response. Refuge provides a significant point of transition for children – from a state of survival to stability and agency.

Refuge provides a significant point of transition for children – from a state of survival to stability and agency.

Entering Refuge can be a disorientating experience for a child. Development and behavioral responses can become aggravated by the uncertainty and instability of unfamiliar surroundings and the distress of an unknowable future. It is at this point where our Child and Youth Practitioner provides the professional leadership and guidance necessary to anticipate and maintain the needs and rights of the child. Upon entering Refuge, the child’s voice is observed through the lens of safety and early intervention:

“We look for signs, even in babies. Have they experienced trauma? Have they been in a family violence situation? How do you check? You look for signs”. Child and Youth Practitioner, Kara FVS

A child’s exposure and experience of family violence and abuse can result in difficulties related to attachment and emotional regulation. The dual role of the Child and Youth Practitioner is to minimise the impact of family violence in a refuge setting while discovering a strategy for intervention that works for the individual child. Ensuring the child not only is safe but feels safe is a key focus of engagement upon entering the Refuge.

“One of the activities that I’ll often do with the children is a pillowcase activity, because one of the things that children will tell us is that they’ve had to leave their things behind. Thats really hard for kids.” Child and Youth Practitioner, Kara FVS

Adapting Pillowcase, a child-specific evacuation plan derived from Hurricane Katrina in the US, supports children’s transition to the new environment by promoting feelings of safety through connection to the toys they cherish. The way children express themselves is not through words or dialogue, especially for younger children. Their voice emerges through play, sport, music, and games – and it is the role of the practitioner to encourage this state of play as a pathway to reflection and resilience.

“Sometimes the kids don’t want to engage. But just because they’re off to the side playing, doesn’t mean that they’re not listening. We might not think they’re actually engaging with the activity, but they’re taking a little piece of something. They’re still listening to what’s happening behind them.” Child and Youth Practitioner, Kara FVS

Social connection is key to children’s wellbeing, but living in Refuge can be an isolating experience. Accessing school remain a lingering barrier for children in Refuge as mothers at times see short-term schooling as too disruptive. Children and young people may also be reluctant to re-engage, not wishing to separate from their parent or struggling to cope with the return to routine.

“Often when we talk about resilience with children, they’re having to start a new school. That’s really hard for kids and particularly in crisis accommodation. We talk to them about why is it scary, why is it hard, what does that look like to you?
I’ll talk to mum about how we can support kids to build their resilience. Conversations that she might have to get the kids out the door to school or childcare. Help her to approach that conversation and build up their resilience.”
Child and Youth Practitioner, Kara FVS

The Child and Youth Practitioner takes the opportunity to support and encourage the resilience in the child while advocating for their right to education and peer community. For the child-centred practitioner, there is a concerted, yet sensitive approach to risk, safety, and wellbeing delivered in collaboration with the caregiving parent. Upon leaving the microcosm of Refuge, service barriers and resourcing limitations may, however, hinder the strategies in place to support their wellbeing.

“The difficult thing of linking children in with services is the wait times for children’s counselling and things like that. Often, they’re not [eligible] for counselling because they’re still in crisis. So how do we support mum to give her the tools and the resources to access counselling and what supports does she want in place.” Child and Youth Practitioner, Kara FVS

The benefits of intervention strategies require a whole service approach, including the wider community and schools, to prioritise children’s wellbeing at every stage of the service pathway. Otherwise support planning around access to therapeutic support and education will pause or discontinue, preventing children and young people from advancing in their recovery.

The child’s journey from resistance, where they struggle to cope with the impacts of family violence in the Refuge environment, toward empowerment, in the way they uniquely express themselves and are heard when doing so, is a dynamic and varied experience. The journey itself is not static, but dynamic. It shifts in response to the intersecting needs and experiences of the child. Improving outcomes for children and young people with experience of family violence requires advocacy, collaborative practice, and placing children’s agency and wellbeing at the centre of practice.


1. Phillips, B., & McGuinness, C. (2020). Child witnesses of family violence: An examination of Victoria Police family violence data. Melbourne: Crime Statistics Agency.
2. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). (2018). Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia 2018. Cat. no. FDV 2. Canberra.
3. Campo, M. (2015). Children’s exposure to domestic and family violence: Key issues and responses. Child Family Community Australia (CFCA). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Accessed 6 March 2024.
4. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). (2022). Australia’s children. Australian Government. Accessed 6 March 2024.

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