Matilda* was well into her 20s before she fully recognised that she had experienced family violence growing up.
“I didn’t really know what it was, I just knew something wasn’t right,” she says. “It wasn’t physical violence; it was emotional, psychological and financial. And it was impacting the whole family dynamic.”
Matilda’s parents came from very different cultural backgrounds, though both of them had grown up in significant disadvantage and poverty. That poverty followed them into married life.
Matilda recounts a memory from her childhood, an ordinary day accompanying her mother to the supermarket.
“All of the domestic duties in the house were all my mum’s problem … and my mum didn’t have much control over the finances; my dad did. So we went to the supermarket, and she called my dad to ask if there was enough money in the bank for the groceries. And I remember my dad just screaming at her down the phone.”
Matilda wonders now if her father’s response stemmed from a feeling that he’d failed somehow, because he wasn’t making very much money. “People don’t understand how poverty fuels so much of this,” she says. “My parents were in a constant state of [financial] stress. If we took that away, I wonder how things might have been different.”
At the time, though, what she felt was hurt, anger and fear. “It just killed me to see my mum in this position where she was so disempowered, but then also so dependent on him – and even her asking something as simple as that would just be really triggering. So those were normal occurrences for me.”
When Matilda acted out as a teenager, family violence was at the root of it. And it was family violence that, at around the age of 20, eventually pushed her into homelessness.
“There was a lot of stuff going on, my mental health was really bad, but the family dynamic had gotten to a point where I just couldn’t cope with it any more,” she says. “I started to realise that I couldn’t heal at home, you know? My healing had to be done elsewhere.”
Matilda’s experience is not an isolated one. Melbourne City Mission (MCM) CEO, Vicki Sutton, says the organisation sees a large number of young people who are escaping family violence at its youth-focused Frontyard service. But Frontyard is a homelessness service, not a specialist family violence service. So it commissioned research to understand why, with so much increased awareness of family violence, those young people were falling through the cracks.
That research was published as the Amplify report. It found that “young people are invisible,” says Sutton. “They were described in the report as the silent victims.”
Despite the systemic changes slowly being made in the wake of the Victorian royal commission into family violence, the report found young people experiencing or witnessing family violence are still often being seen “through the prism of violence from a male partner or parent against their female parent”.
“Young people are wrapped up into the ‘women and children’ category,” Sutton said. “But young people between, say, 15 and 20, they’re not children, they’re fleeing on their own. And the specialist family violence responses aren’t able to deal with them appropriately as independents – they’re not recognising them as independent victim-survivors in their own right.”
Those young people were usually directed to homelessness services, in part because they were unlikely to ask specifically for help with family violence, as they often did not recognise that was what they were experiencing.
They also often found themselves caught between systems for supporting adults and the child protection system, neither of which fits their needs, and – in the case of the latter – with which they were often reluctant to engage, partly out of fear of the repercussions for their families.
That’s because for many young people, feeling “safe” also meant feeling that their family members were also safe, including from the risk of getting in trouble with authorities. The report also noted that young people’s methods of managing their safety – such as running away from home, resisting the violence, or avoiding school – were often met with responses that made matters worse, such as sending them back home or telling their parents. That “made them feel more unsafe,” the report said.
Victorian commissioner for children and young people, Liana Buchanan, says only very limited progress had been made in services for children and young people experiencing family violence.
“What we haven’t really seen is a targeted effort to fill the gaps for young people,” Buchanan says.
Part of the problem was a lack of understanding of young people’s legal standing and the risks of support services not listening to what young people want or need to feel safe.
“I have spoken to young people who have described when they have sought help, in some cases from police, in some cases from services, that they have felt further traumatised. They have felt disbelieved. They’ve been sent back to the home where they’re experiencing violence. There’s no question: it’s not just about compounding the trauma; it’s perpetuating the trauma,” says Buchanan.
When there is no meaningful, appropriate intervention for children experiencing violence, those same systems can punish them later, Buchanan says.
“When they get a bit older, when they’re adolescents and they are starting to act out some of the impact of their trauma … then what I see is there’s a service response, but it’s a punitive response,” says Buchanan. “It describes the young person as the problem but doesn’t look to all the experiences they’ve had that have led them to that point. And I think that’s a very significant issue.”
For many young people, family violence doesn’t end when they flee home. In January, MCM randomly surveyed 100 young people with experience of family violence aged 15-25 who were using their homelessness programs.
They found that at least 68% of those young women had gone on to experience violence in their intimate partner relationships, and 51.2% of the young men had enacted harm in theirs.
“Violence, for young people in our homelessness service who’ve come from that background, stays with them. So directing them to a well-meaning youth homelessness service is not enough to break the cycle,” says Sutton.
“When they’re old enough to flee their childhood home and they’re seeking out help, we really have to provide a specialist response so that they can truly escape that legacy, so that it doesn’t become intergenerational violence.”
Matilda was lucky: she has had the time and support to understand and process much of what she experienced, and can speak about it openly. But she also describes a pernicious social narrative about young people “going off the rails” that colours the responses of service providers, teachers, law enforcement and even other family members when they come into contact with young people who are struggling.
“These kids have been subjected to this profound abuse and rather than getting the help they needed, they just left, and most of them are now homeless, and then the system punishes them,” Matilda says. “It just makes me so angry.
Family violence campaigners sometimes argue that love can’t coexist with abuse, she says, but the reality is far more complex.
“I think that’s the thing that’s really tough when you’re a kid – there were lots of loving moments in my childhood … It’s difficult, because I do love my family. But now that I’ve got a lot more understanding, I can see why a lot of what was happening, was happening.”
* Names have been changed