The story is a familiar one. A woman escapes abuse, or finds herself homeless after a change in life circumstances, and ends up in a refuge. Many of us will know someone who has experienced domestic violence. Some of us may have experienced abuse or homelessness ourselves. We can imagine what living in a refuge might be like for a woman. She might feel uncertain and anxious, but she is safe. There are people around her who can help her find her feet.
Less often, we hear about the people who come with her. Kids live in refuges, too. At Bonnie’s we provide crisis housing to women with children – all the women who live in our refuges have kids.
I am a Child and Youth Worker at Bonnie’s. It is my job to make sure that these children have the help they need to feel safe and secure. But living in a refuge can be really difficult for kids.
Often, children who come to the refuge leave behind almost all their belongings – their toys, their books, their bedroom. They no longer have the familiar comfort of knowing how to get to the bathroom in the dark, or the trick to opening the back door when it gets stuck. The new place isn’t familiar at all. There are other people – and other people’s things around.
At Bonnie’s, kids will always be moving in with their mum, but mum will have appointments; there will be lots of new people to meet and she might be upset, stressed or angry – it is a lot to process for anyone, especially kids.
But there are good things about coming to a refuge as well. There is safety – something that these children may not have experienced for a while. There are also more tangible things. There are other kids, which can be fun for only children, as well as those with siblings. At our refuges, we have play equipment in the back yards, and special play rooms with toys and books. We even have a wall painted with chalkboard paint!
We also have Child and Youth Workers, like me. We can give older children some time out, and chat with younger kids about what has been going on. We can help mums maintain routine through the change of circumstance, or develop new routines to help their children settle.
For the kids, having their own support network provides them with a space where they can be sad, or scared, or angry, without worrying about upsetting their mothers. It’s important for them to know there is someone who will listen to all their problems big and small.
I also do Art Therapy with the kids. Sometimes, when children have been through big, awful things, the words are really hard to find. Art-making can help them express their huge emotions in a safe way. I find that all kids have a natural creativity, and we can work together to help them understand what they have been through and make sense of their experiences.
Sometimes I will ask a child to tell me a story about what they have drawn or painted. I love being invited into the worlds that children create even in the hardest times.
Coming to a refuge can certainly be strange and scary for a child. But there will be people around to make sure that we are doing everything we can to make them feel safe, welcome, and, in a way, like they are home.
Written by Asha