Topic: Violence and abuse

Children’s experiences from life at shelters for abused women. A nationwide study on the flight, residency and perceptions of the future.

Øverlien, C., Jacobsen, M., & Evang, A. (2009). Barns erfaringer fra livet på krisesenter. En landsomfattende studie om flukten, oppholdet og forestillinger om fremtiden [Children's experiences from life at shelters for abused women. A nationwide study on the flight, residency and perceptions of the future.] Norwegian only. (Rapport 2/2009).



This is the first nationwide study conducted in Norway on children living in shelters for battered women. The study has been initiated and financed by the Ministry of Children and Equality. The ministry has commissioned the Norwegian Center for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies (NKVTS) to shed light on these children and their situation. The study is being implemented as part of the governmental action plan against violence in close relationships 2008–2011 (36 d.).  Every year a large number of children in Norway live in these shelters, with many of the children experiencing repeated stays. According to Statistics Norway 1,420 children stayed for 47,552 nights at the shelters in 2007. The total amount of stays registered was 2,956.

Aim and research questions
The aim of this study is to collect systematic knowledge about the children and adolescents in the shelters in regard to their situation, challenges, and the need for information and support after their stay. A further aim is to obtain a better understanding about their experience, both before and during their stay at the shelter, as well as their thoughts and wishes for the future.

The main research questions are as follows:

– What do the shelters offer the children who live there in terms of activities and counseling?
– What other agencies for children do the shelters cooperate with?
– What education and experience regarding children do the employees at the shelters have? 
 – Do the shelter’s employees support and/or work with the children after they move out of the shelter?
 – What are the children’s experiences before they move to the shelter, during the move itself, and during their time at the shelter?
– How do the children imagine their life to be after their stay at the shelter? What wishes and expectations do the children have?

This study is twofold. The first part is a quantitative mapping study which focuses on adults, while the second part is an interview study which focuses on children and adolescents. The data in the first part is a questionnaire to the leaders of 50 out of the 51 shelters for battered women in Norway. We have also included relevant statistics on these children from two previous studies: Statistics Norway, 2007 (Hirsch and Nørgaard, 2008) and NKVTS’ study on shelters for battered women from 2007 (Jonassen et al., 2008). 

The data from the second part, the interview study, consists of interviews with 22children (from 4 to 17 years of age) who live, or have recently lived, at seven different shelters. In addition, ethnographical data was collected.

Mapping children and adolescents living in shelters for battered women
The aim of this study is to map out and depict the situation for children and adolescents at the shelters in terms of their numbers, length of stay and socio-demographic information such as age, in addition to statistical information on activities, measures and the shelter’s cooperation with child-focused agencies such as child protection services. The study also contains statistics from our own questionnaire which provides further insight into the employees, their child-competence, and what type of support the children receive from the shelter after they move out.

Interviews with children and adolescents who live in shelters for battered women

Moving to the shelter and the first time period

Most of the children in this study understand the move to the shelter as an escape. For some of the children, leaving their home and moving to the shelter is perceived as dramatic, confusing and chaotic. One of the reasons for this confusion is that many have not had the opportunity to say farewell to friends and their home environment. They have also not had time to prepare, and do not know where they are when they arrive at the shelter. This is particularly true for the youngest children. Some children feel that their mothers have lied to them. They have been told that they are living at a hotel or are on vacation. This first period is characterized by fear and uncertainty, but also by a sense of relief since violence is no longer a part of their everyday lives. The older children express a need for peace and quiet, and a chance to rest. The children describe meeting the shelter’s employees, and most importantly, the other children at the shelter, as a positive experience and part of the reason why a difficult time becomes something positive.

The children in this study are very engaged in talking about their relationship with their father. Living with their father is like “living with a sleeping lion”, says one child. Some of the children talk about their fathers with sorrow and anxiety, but also with anger and hatred. Their feelings are often ambivalent and it is difficult to see “the nice dad” in the context of the violence they have experienced. When talking about their mothers, the children only express warm feelings. The children do not question their relationship with their mothers, and show concern for her as well, as a victim of violence. Their relationship with siblings is characterized by companionship and support. Some children mention a longing for the pets they had to leave at home. Their contact with old friends from home is characterized by a sense of loss and uncertainty. The children do not know if or when they will ever be able to meet their old friends again.

Life at the shelter
When children speak of their life at the shelter, the activities and plans with other children are often at the forefront of their thoughts. Both the free unstructured play and organized activities provide the children with their own space for joy and happiness. Another issue of concern for the children is that they cannot talk about where they live. Keeping secrets makes life more complicated, and in some cases makes them passive and isolated. Some children are forced to “lie”, which requires quite a bit of energy in order to work out strategies to keep their secrets. All procedures and rules concerning life at the shelter, such as surveillance cameras and signing your name on a board when you leave and return create difficulties in everyday life, although it also contributes to a feeling of safety. When describing life at the shelter, many children talk as if they are living behind a “firewall”. Here they are safe; only their mother knows that they live here, though they know that life at the shelter is not forever. The children are quite aware that these living arrangements are temporary, and “there is a difference between going home and going home to oneself.” 

All the children in this study who have recently lived at a shelter, and most children who lived at a shelter when these interviews were conducted, go to school and the pre-school children are in kindergarten. Almost all of the children, however, have experienced some lapses in their schooling as a result of the violence they have been subjected to and of having to move into a shelter. School represents security to the children, but may also represent a risky environment, since their violent fathers can find them there.

Notions of the future
Several of the children realize that moving from the shelter means that their newly formed friendships will be broken again. For some of the children who have previously lived in other shelters, this is reality. They have never again meet the children that they became friends with there. The children also face uncertainty about the shelter’s role after they have moved. Is the shelter going to be there for them, or does moving mean that they are not welcome back to visit? 
Stories about the future are “stories about the good life.” The good life is not an extravagant life, but is instead a life with their mother and siblings, and with a father who does not beat their mothers (this is an absolute must). It also includes older children from the shelter, pets, a house or apartment, school, work for their mother and meaningful spare time.

Discussion – central themes
• The status of the children in shelters for battered women is unclear. It is essential to clarify whether the children who live in the shelters should be seen as “service users” or “accompanying persons.”
• Children have the right to receive information about issues that afect them. Many children and adolescents in this study showed a lack of information, and thus a lack in the understanding of where they are, why they are there, and what will happen when they leave.
• Children’s relationships and relational skills are important. Children in shelters experience broken relationships time and time again. It is also difficult for them to maintain old relationships and to develop new ones, because of the need to keep the shelter a secret.
• Children develop diferent strategies in dealing with the problem of having to keep the location of where they live a secret. In some cases, this secrecy leads to the children becoming inactive and isolated from the world outside the shelter.
• For children in shelters, the quality of the cooperation between the shelter and other children’s agencies is of vital importance. The results of this survey give reasons to question the cooperation between shelters and other agencies. Responsibility for increased cooperation, however, rests not only on the shelters. Agencies such as child protection services and child and adolescent psychiatry could make themselves available for cooperation with the shelters, or even take the initiative to strengthen such cooperation.
•  There are large diferences between shelters when it comes to what the shelter can  offer the children in terms of various measures and activities, as well as when it comes to employees’ education, skills and experience.
• It is essential to focus more on the younger children at the shelter. The interviews with the youngest children, and the results from telephone interviews with the shelter leaders, depicted an environment which largely protects the interests of the older children.
• Younger children express more confusion and uncertainty concerning their stay at the shelter than do the older children.
• Follow-up care for the children differs greatly among the shelters. Shelter employees understand their role in regards to the follow-up differently. It also seems as if the follow-up often focuses more on the mother’s needs, as opposed to the needs of the child.

Our conclusions and suggestions are mainly based on the question of the children’s status as service users at the shelters. What status the children should have at the shelter is not in any way a given. For the sake of both the children and the shelter’s employees, the role and responsibilities of the shelter should be made clear.  

Here, we believe that there are at least two models or possible ways to go. If the shelters are for both children and women who are exposed to violence in close relationships, a redefinition of what constitutes service users is required, which in turn means a different organization than what is currently in use. Children will be seen as service users along the same line as women, and thus be entitled to the same support and assistance as their mothers. This model entails pervasive changes in both the working methods and ways of thinking for the shelters. What has previously been taken for granted should perhaps be questioned and adjustments made regarding routines, allocation of resources, and working methods in relation to the service users. With this model, the shelters will be part of a chain of support that will offer their services when a child needs help beyond what his/her parents are able to provide. If children need additional help and support when they move out of the shelter, the shelter should hand over the responsibility for the children’s well-being to the relevant authority.  

In the second model, the shelter defines battered women as the primary service user group and their children as a secondary group. This understanding is evident in several of the background documents presented and referred to in this report. If this model is chosen, it will require that clear information be made available to the community. Shelters for battered women should not in this case be used as a measure for children who experience violence, but as a place where children are safe with their mothers, and where they can play, take part in organized activities, and receive help with practical issues. If women exposed to violence in close relationships are the primary service user group, then no other organization is required. If this is the case however, the shelters would need additional procedures for cooperation with other services than those in existence today.