A day with 'our kids'

Art therapist Bess Meredith gave guests at the May 24/7 Journey from Violence to Safety Cocktail Party, a glimpse of ‘a day in her life’ as the Specialist Children’s Worker at McAuley Community Services for Women.

Bess works at McAuley Community Service’s safe house and refuges, where, in 2015/16 we accommodated 183 women and 174 children. Many of the families need intensive support after escaping violence so Bess’ day depends on who is staying at the houses and the needs of the families.

“The children often come into the safe house hyper vigilant, scared, and often very wary about interacting with staff. But we have the skills and training to try and reach these children,” she said.

The safe house has a dedicated children’s room and Bess spends a lot of her day in the playroom creating, playing and talking with children and supporting the mothers.

Bess also goes to the refuges and to women in the community who have been with one of our services. She runs sessions with these individual families making art to facilitate discussion around the impacts of violence on the family and support in rebuilding connection between family members.

Bess stressed the importance of play in the healing of children who have been subjected to, or lived with, family violence. As an art therapist she has worked extensively with children of all ages and adults who have experienceddisability, mental illness and abuse related trauma.

“When children experience family violence they are stripped of their right to feel safe and when children don’t feel safe they are not able to play, imagine or create,” Bess said. “The playroom provides a safe space for kids to be kids. It provides respite for both mother and child from the terrible things they have been exposed to and for them to start to make sense of their experiences with the support of the worker.”

Bess told of a recent conversation she heard while working, through drawing, with two young boys in the playroom. The two boys, from different families, were drawing together - one boy drew a house and the other boy said ‘will you live there with your mum and dad’ and the boy responded that ‘no’, his father would not live with them because he had tried to kill his mother. The other boy appeared amazed and said, ‘My dad tried to kill my Mum too.’

“While many of us might find it difficult to imagine children discovering this shared experience of violence, it is important that they have these conversations. This is the harsh reality of what we hear and see everyday, but it highlights the importance of our children’s program. Children need this space and the service that we provide to be free to express their experiences, to see they are not alone and to have the presence of a qualified worker to tell them it is not their fault and violence is never okay,” she said.

Many families stay at the safe house a short time, but a lot can be achieved. “We recently had a one year old who would cling to her mother and if staff approached would scream in terror. Although she could walk and make sounds she would not allow Mum to put her down.After a week of staff gently saying hello from a safe distance, singing songs and being silly, the child allowed us into her space to the point we could play. She started walking and talking and most importantly smiling and laughing,” Bess said.

“A week may seem a short amount of time, but we often see tremendous change and growth in our families in that time. They are away from the violence and can reconnect. It also gives the mothers a chance to regain some confidence in their parenting and begin to see their children’s needs.”

The McAuley Community Services for Women’s Children’s Program relies on community and philanthropic funding.

Caption: Emcee Rebecca Maddern with Bess Meredith.