'I will always remember one little boy who rang up our helpline while his mother was being attacked'
Jan Melia will never forget the call she received from a terrified little boy while his mother was being beaten in the background. Now CEO of the Northern Ireland wing of the Women's Aid Federation (WAFNI), Jan was working on the organisation's helpline at the time.
"All cases affect you but one of the things I'll always remember from the helpline was a child ringing up while his mother was being attacked," she recalls. "She had been in touch with us previously and he knew our number, so we were able to get to the house immediately.
"We got them into a refuge. I'll always remember that young fella.
"He was involved directly in getting help and that's what we're hoping to achieve with the See Hear Act conference - to give children a voice."
The two-day Children And Domestic Violence conference, which starts today in Belfast's Stranmillis College, is the first to be held in the island of Ireland.
Having helped thousands of local families affected by physical, sexual and psychological abuse and bullying at home, Jan is hopeful that the two-day See, Hear, Act, conference will help make it easier for children to report domestic violence to the relevant authorities.
"The message we want to put out is the opposite of 'children shall be seen and not heard'," says Jan.
"Kids are resilient but domestic violence can lead to difficulties with your point of view of the world.
"I know that issues around relationships can emerge in the long-term, as a result. You felt powerless, absolutely. You do feel very disempowered and isolated, going through it.
"Things have improved, especially with the Safeguard Board's very significant recognition of domestic violence against kids, which is a huge step forwards, but the incidence of domestic violence is increasing and we still have a long way to go in terms of shame and stigma, and of feeling you won't be believed."
Jan first became aware of domestic violence in Manchester, where she grew up. A divorced mother of three grown-up sons, she has Irish roots on her father's side; Melia is an Anglicised form of the surname O'Malley. Describing herself as a 'blow-in', she moved to Donegal 25 years ago to work in community development.
It was when she started volunteering with a community-based organisation in Londonderry, working with children, that she became involved in the field of domestic abuse.
She moved to Belfast to work with Women's Aid - which has provided services for almost 8,000 children to date. Recent research studies in both the UK and the US have shown that children who have experienced domestic violence are more likely to be affected, in the long-term, by heart disease, mental health issues and even certain cancers.
The abuse of power in the home accounts for 2% of crime in Northern Ireland, while WAFNI deals with incidents every 18 minutes per day. The aim of the conference is to provide support tools and practical strategies to anyone working with children and young people, to help them respond to any children who may be affected by domestic violence.
The NI Commissioner for Children and Young People, Koulla Yiasouma, will be among several high profile speakers, along with Lord Justice Gillen, Head of the Review of Civil and Family Justice in Northern Ireland; Dr Claire Houghton, Expert Advisor in Children's Rights and Gender-based Violence at the University of Edinburgh; Davina James-Hanman, Independent Violence against Women Consultant; Stephanie Holt, Associate Professor of Social Studies at Trinity College Dublin; and Professor Jane Callaghan, Director of the Centre for Child Wellbeing and Protection, University of Stirling.
"Women's Aid believes that everyone can do something, so participants will learn about how they can make a difference and involve children and young people in the work they do, and how important they are in a young person's life," Jan adds.
"The aim of the conference is to provide support tools and practical strategies to anyone working with children and young people, to help them respond to any children who may be affected by domestic violence.
"We really want to get people thinking about how to involve children and young people, how to ask the right questions and change their own work to ensure children are seen and heard in all aspects of policy and practice. It will be a fantastic opportunity for us all to see, hear and act."
Koulla Yiasouma will address domestic violence as a children's rights issue at the conference.
"It has long been recognised that children and young people are often deeply affected by domestic violence," she said.
"That is why it is so important to hear from young people about what this issue means for them, and for them to be central in the design and development of policies and services.
"I am therefore very pleased to be involved with this important conference."
The See, Hear, Act conference, which runs today and tomorrow, is expected to attract a large audience of academics, teachers, social workers, medical and dental practitioners, PSNI, youth workers, legal professionals, representatives from government departments and community and voluntary agencies.
The event is supported by Bank of Ireland UK in partnership with Allstate. See https://www.eventbrite.ie/e/see-hear-act-tickets-39006004008. For further information contact Jan Melia, CEO, Women's Aid Federation NI on, tel: 028 9024 9041 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Help given by Women's Aid Federation NI in 2016/17
- 710 women in refuge
- 568 children in refuge
- 245 women couldn't access refuge as it was full
- 13 babies born to women in refuge
- 38 pregnant women in refuge
- 167 BME women
- 50 Traveller women
- 41 women with 49 children with no recourse to public funds
- 32% of women disclosed a mental health issue
- 29,657 calls managed by Helpline
- 300 calls from BME and Traveller women
- Of callers identifying as direct victims of domestic or sexual violence, 93% were women and 7% were men
- Some 63% of callers with additional complex needs identified mental health as a concern
- 712 sexual violence calls
Niamh* (16), from Northern Ireland, lived in fear of her violent father and his drunken attacks on her mother. Here she reveals what life was like living in fear of domestic violence and, a year later, how she found happiness with the help of Women’s Aid.
Living in fear...
When my mum, brother and I lived with my dad I woke every morning to face each day knowing there’d be great tension throughout.
On a typical day, walking out of the house is like a breath of fresh air. Just to be around people who are happy. But in class I can never concentrate.
Happiness is not a word I am familiar with, I only see it in others as I gaze at them from afar. One thing I am familiar with is acting as I walk around school, trying to be ‘normal’.
All too soon it’s home time and I try to draw out the time I have before I go home, standing at the top of the road, chatting about all the daily gossip with a close friend.
But I have a sick feeling about what’s in for me later this evening. Slowly walking around the corner, I see there’s no car. A smile appears on my face ... but then ... he must be at the pub.
My brother is watching TV and chatting to mummy who is lying on the sofa depressed, but trying her hardest to put on a happy face for us kids.
Most of my night is spent in my room alone, showing for dinner and going back up again.
Darkness comes quick and then there’s the noise of a car pulling on to the driveway, the lights flashing into my window. In comes dad, drunk and unable to stand or talk properly.
As he raises his voice, my heart starts to pound. I hear the sound of glass being thrown across the room, heads banging against walls and chairs being thrown.
From somewhere I have the strength to go downstairs. Dad is standing over mum, punching her while she is screaming for him to stop.
I summon strength to kick him, he stops and mum escapes from his control.
She lies crying on the floor, and I think she is going to die. The only way I could cope with this was to sit on the bathroom floor with a bleach bottle and a razor, never actually doing anything to myself — but having the thoughts were worse.”
... one year on
Happiness is the only word I live for now. That night we left was the strangest feeling: there was happiness and relief and a sense in my gut that I wasn’t going to return to this dark place. We returned from my grandparents’ house after a brilliant Easter break, when the only worry I had was what hairstyle to wear back to school.
When we got back home I was like Inspector Morse, checking the bins for evidence that dad had been using drugs, but I only found lots of empty cases of beer.
Sitting in my bed that night my stomach was in knots, I felt sick. Lights beamed into my bedroom window. Dad stumbled in. Like always, he tried to pick a fight with mum. He went to hit her and my brother ran into the living room with a pool stick.
I phoned my auntie, who came round and took dad away, but he took the keys with him, so I didn’t feel safe at all. I kept saying to mum ‘I need to get out of here’. We rang the police and my grandparents.
The police said they would keep driving by to check our house but I still didn’t want to stay there. When my grandparents arrived they stayed up all night with mum and in the morning they rang this place called Women’s Aid. We got a place in the refuge and we began to pack our possessions into suitcases. We arrived there with mummy in tears. The lady showed us to our new room filled with three single beds and a TV. My brother was angry and all I could do was hold it together for my family.
While mummy was talking to the woman, a lovely lady came in and talked to me and my brother and gave us a Galaxy Cookie Crunch and cola. I knew these people were here to help.
Starting my new school was really weird, but all mummy did was cry because she was nervous for me. The child co-ordinator left me to school that day, and I was really excited, as I wanted to meet new friends. I loved my class, the girls were similar to me in that they loved boys and make-up and clothes. I felt for once that I wasn’t putting on a fake smile.
The refuge was so much fun, the other women were so lovely. We all sat in the main room and watched the soaps and enjoyed each other’s company. Six weeks later, we moved into our new home as a family, just up the road from my grandparents.
We are still in close contact with Women’s Aid and we get a lot of support from them, which I am so grateful for. I meet the child co-ordinator whenever I need to discuss my feelings and this really helps me. I started going to a drama school in the area, which I always wanted to be involved in but my dad wouldn’t drive me to.
Then I started going out with my boyfriend. He makes me feel so much happier and allows me to be myself. I always said I would never go out with anyone, after the way my mum had been treated. Since I have been going out with him, I have changed my mind on men.
I have learnt that not all men are like my dad. There is only a small population of evil men like him, but the rest of the world is full of loving and kind-hearted people, especially men. Eight months on, we’re still going strong, and I’m even happier than I was before.
I sat my GCSEs and did well, as a year before I wouldn’t have had the strength. I don’t speak to my dad anymore, and don’t feel much for him. The people who love me and care for me are in my life, and the people who aren’t don’t matter anymore.”
*Not her real name. Niamh was supported through the Children and Young People’s services of Women’s Aid. Women’s Federation NI is hosting a two-day conference in Belfast, called See, Hear, Act, starting today. It plans to launch a book at the conference containing drawings by children affected by domestic violence