Like their mothers, girls and boys experiencing ill-treatment in their families, seeking refuge in a shelter for battered women, are usually in a state of crisis. Consciously or unconsciously, they had to tolerate their violent father and often were exposed to mental, physical or sexual violence themselves. They are extremely insecure and have seen how utterly unprotected, helpless and powerless they can be.
Domestic circumstances lacking stability, everyday situations with little reliability and unpredictable reactions on the part of adults often make it extremely difficult for these girls and boys to obtain the necessary orientation in their development. The uncertainty of what is going to happen next can nourish anxiety and result in conspicuous behavior.
The special situation of life in a shelter for battered women exposes the children to new circumstances to which they are not accustomed. Even if the escape from the violent father or partner is perceived as relief, the separation from him and the accustomed social environment can be very painful and cause ambivalent reactions.
The work with girls and boys in the shelter for battered women must always take the special situation of the shelter as an institution of temporary protection and refuge into account. The profound dismay of these girls and boys is in the focus of attention.
Girls and boys are admitted to the shelter together with their mothers. The age limit up to which boys can be admitted is 14 years, in general. This limit has been set in view of the fact that pubescent boys may be under too much strain when they live at a place where “male violence” is an omnipresent topic – both for the male adolescents and also for the women and children who live in the shelter.
Children in the shelter for battered women are exposed to stress in many ways. Where the focus of the work is depends, in addition to the availability of professional skill and the required rooms, on the prior experience of the girls and boys in the shelter:
As a rule, girls and boys come to the shelter for battered women entirely unprepared. Whereas their mothers will often have thought of flight and separation, most girls and boys are suddenly confronted with the new situation. Often, there was not even time to say good-bye to friends, relatives, teachers or others.
Pets, almost all toys, bicycles, the room at home and many other things must hastily be abandoned and cannot be taken along.
The anonymity of the shelter and its address makes it difficult to maintain established or build new outside contacts.
When they move in the shelter for battered women, the children, at first, have to face up to conditions of which they have no previous experience and to which they are not accustomed. As funds are scarce and not enough rooms available, the mother and her child or children must share one room. Common rooms such as kitchens, bathrooms and living rooms, are shared with other people. People of different cultural backgrounds, languages, habits and customs live together in the shelter.
School children usually have to change school, younger children attend another kindergarten. The girls and boys invariably depend on what their mothers decide to do or not to do and they hardly have a say in how long they will live in the shelter and how their lives are going to develop. Maybe they return home, back into the previous conditions with the violent father, maybe back to the home from where they came but alone with their mother, or they move to another shelter, or maybe they will live in the shelter for more than a year.
After some time it will be seen that, despite the unrest and the irregularities, life in the shelter for battered women can be restful and relaxing for many children. The constant fear of uncontrolled outbursts of fury and violence by their mother’s partner has gone, and security and rest can be very positive experiences in this respect. The easing of the life situation and the stabilization of the mother and her relation to the child or children, and vice versa, often make up the development lost.
The girls and boys get to know a place where they are accepted as persons, with their wishes and needs and where they can be children:
The details of educational work are defined by the targets and the actual situation in the shelter. The situation in a shelter for battered women is generally one of fluctuation: changes of the composition of the girls/boys group in terms of age, membership, cultural origin. On this background, transparent and reliable rules and covenants are very important to the development of everyday life patterns in the shelter. Understandable rules and limits lead to reproducible action, away from arbitrariness and dominance and towards reliable relationships.