You can tell they have experienced trauma. They don’t know how to say it, but their body language is telling us. 

Raaj is a Children and Family Worker, supporting children in Hestia's domestic abuse refuges. She tells us what it's like for mothers and children arriving at a refuge.

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When mothers and their children step out of the taxi at the refuge, they don’t know what to expect. They are very nervous and hold their children tightly. I like to be there when they arrive so I can introduce myself. As soon as I smile at the children and they smile back, or they reach out their hand to me, I can see the mothers physically relax. 

I grab their bags and welcome them in, and ask how the taxi journey was. We don’t jump in and focus on the domestic abuse. We’ll show them their room, give them their welcome pack and make them a cup of tea. Then, I’ll say to the children: “Come on, let’s go and see the playroom and play with your new toys!”

Our first key aim is to lower their immediate anxiety. Women have told me that on their first night, they lay in bed and think: “We’re finally safe now.” 

For children, coming to a refuge can be a difficult experience. In that first week, they cling onto their mothers or scream that they want to go. Older children can be shy and reserved. They have an understanding of what was happening to their mother, and the perpetrator has often told them not to tell anyone, or shouted at them to be quiet. 

I can see them staring at the TV, and I can tell in their body language that they are thinking: “Will I be told off if I turn it on?” Then, I say “Let’s watch TV!”, they sit scrunched up in the corner, holding their knees close to them. 

You can tell they have experienced trauma. They don’t know how to say it, but their body language is telling us. 

I will sit in the middle of the sofa and say: “Come on, let’s put our feet up!” After a few weeks, they are sitting on top of the sofa and talking away. That lets me know that they are comfortable, and I let them be. 

My first focus is making sure the children can make friends with the others at the refuge. When they finish school, we will go in the garden and play on the slide or play a ball game. Then, I’ll have one to one time with the children and their mothers. We’ll sit and draw or paint in the playroom, and I’ll ask “How are you today?” I’ll say, “I felt sad today, because my cat was being naughty – what about you, are you worried about anything today?” Little by little, they start to open up. 

The women and children can sometimes have difficult relationships, because of what they have been through. Some mothers struggle to look at their children, because they look so much like the perpetrator.

One young boy I supported resented his mother when they arrived; he said that his mum was stopping him seeing his dad. He would say to her: “My dad is good, you are the problem” and she would come to me in tears. 

I make sure all the mothers can be involved when their children are playing. Sometimes, I’ll plan for them to cook together. When it’s the holidays, we do activities like going to the beach or the aquarium. This Christmas, we’re all going out for a big Christmas lunch. It’s baby steps, but eventually, their relationships begin to heal. 

We try and create a trusting environment where families can be open. Children often arrive anxious and shy, but they leave feeling able to talk, play and be independent.

Our latest report 'Journey to Refuge: A Child's Experience of Domestic Abuse' explores children's experiences of domestic abuse and living at a refuge.

Read the report now

Find out more about Hestia's domestic abuse support services now