Expert calls for 'revolution' in refuges

Dr Wendy Bunston has made it ‘her mission’ to bring infants and young children ‘back into the picture’ when families are forced into refuges and safe houses because of family violence. She’s passionate about encouraging workers to focus on both the mother and the children in order to enhance their recovery after violence. The practice of putting all the energy into the mother’s healing can delay, as well as fail to recognise that the traumatised child also needs urgent attention.

In fact, Wendy would like to see a revolution in how infants are responded to when they enter a refuge with their mother.

Wendy is an associate lecturer at La Trobe University, senior clinical social worker, family therapist and infant mental health specialist with 30 years experience. She has a long-standing relationship with McAuley Community Services for Women. She recently ran a training session for McAuley Community Services for Women staff, based on her recent research, Infants in Refuge, which involved eight women’s refuges in Australia and the UK, including McAuley Care.

In her research, Wendy found that infants are often ‘lost from view’ in the refuge setting and only receive attention when in obvious distress. She said the mother was expected to care for the infant in refuge, but in many cases the mother was often too traumatised to attend to the child’s needs.

“Often the mum is traumatised and she is barely coping, so that is where we need to step in, and in a gentle and engaging way. Developmentally, the infant cannot afford to wait until their mother has completed her journey of healing before anyone is available to engage with them,” she said.

In a paper written for PARITY last year Wendy and co-author Karen Glennen, said society and the sector has thrown an invisibility cloak “over infants and small children who are homeless, who experience violence…..” This is despite the fact that infants and children (four years and younger) make up the highest cohort of children entering refuge with their mothers to escape family violence.

“If they (infants) have repeated exposure (to family violence) they are likely to develop life-long difficulties in language, learning and social skills. Despite this there are very few intervention programs designed and delivered to the infants themselves, especially within the homelessness sector,” they wrote in the paper.

Wendy wants workers in refuges to consider other “entry points” to recovery than just through the mother. She said workers can use fairly simple and gently respectful strategies to engage with a child. Having a positive impact on the child can then affect how the mother responds in refuge to the support offered.

Importantly, Wendy said the change of culture within the homelessness sector must happen because a child affected by family violence cannot wait for the mother to heal, they have to be recognised as also damaged by the experience and treated as a separate entity.

Wendy acknowledged the time constraints many workers face in refuges, but she said the benefit of recognising the infant could make a significant difference to outcomes.

“When training, or talking to workers in this field, I stress that one of the benefits of focusing on the infant as well as the mother, is that it can be a way to reach the mother. Even if the mothers cannot focus on the child, they want the best outcome for the child,” she said.

“Workers mustn’t see this as another job, but rather as a different way of engaging with the people who come to refuge. It can be a really magical experience for you, as well as the baby, when you start to treat the infant as someone who also needs to heal.”

“I ask workers to slow everything down and look at who is in front of them, right here and now. We have people, adults and tiny human beings, in front of us who are at the most vulnerable time of their lives, they are stripped bare. The mother has already made a choice to come to refuge because she wants a different life and that is a great starting point.”

Wendy believes that the ‘revolution’ can involve some small and simple changes that involve infants. Workers can bend down to the child’s level to gently introduce themselves and explain what is happening. The worker can extend their hands to the infant, smile at them and try and perhaps gently hold their gaze. If the infant responds, it can be a cue to the worker that the infant has registered the worker’s interest and they want to reciprocate. This may take some time, but the infant is often more likely, and more readily able to recover than their mother who has potentially suffered from years of trauma.

“There are small, but powerfully practical things to do as a way of making the infant seen, supported and engaged with and which starts with inviting their involvement in the process of entering refuge. Our emotional availability to respectfully connect with infants is what provides infants with refuge. The time we have with the infant may be brief, but it can have a huge impact,” Wendy said.

To read Wendy’s PhD research paper go to: http://hdl.handle.net/1959.9/559171,

to read some of her publications go to: http://www.dvrcv.org.au/help-advice/service-providers/practitioners-working-children or to pre-order her upcoming book “Helping Babies and Children to Heal after Family Violence go to: http://www.jkp.com/uk/catalogsearch/result/?q=Bunston