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Call for long-term support as more families grapple with domestic violence

The largest groups of children placed in shelters include infants (13 percent), followed by one-year-olds (11 percent).

Lapsi vanhemman sylissä.
Image: Marko Väänänen / Yle

In 2018, just over 5,000 people fled to Finland’s 28 shelters in a bid to escape domestic violence according to the latest data available from the National Institute for Health and Welfare THL.

According to the public health watchdog, that figure is up 17 percent from the previous year, 2017. Nearly half of that number included children who had to be placed outside the home. In addition, one of the largest groups seeking a safe haven from domestic violence was families with at least one child under the age of three.

The Federation of Mother and Child Homes said that among children placed in shelters the largest age groups include infants (13 percent), followed by one-year-olds (11 percent).

The growth in families with young children seeking refuge from violence in the home is an indication that the phenomenon is being recognised earlier and that people know better where to turn for help, the organisation noted.

Violence often begins during pregnancy

Psychotherapist Jaana Wikgren works with families in the Kanta-Häme region of south-central Finland. She said that domestic violence often begins as early as during a pregnancy. The impending birth of a child may create pressure and a partner’s changing shape may precipitate violence, she noted. The sleeplessness that comes with caring for a young baby and the pressure of providing for a growing family may further aggravate the situation.

"Families with babies also separate surprisingly often. Violence is often behind the threat of a break-up,” she added.

Although adults are usually the ones subjected to physical violence such as kicking or punching, babies may also become victims of violence before and after birth, Wikgren pointed out.

"Violence may be concealed from a baby from time to time, perhaps during naps or sleep time. Babies are often in their mothers’ arms and can quickly sense if the mother is agitated or scared," she said.

Mothers with children are most often subjected to violence, but men also seek refuge from violence in the home and occasionally, so do older partners.

"In such cases the aggressor is your own child or partner," Wikgren explained.

Sometimes a mother’s own childhood experiences may return to haunt her when she in turn becomes a parent and she may subject her partner and later her own children to violence.

Children adapt to violence at home

Children react to violence in many ways. Common symptoms include loss of appetite, insomnia and outbursts of rage. Children may also be high-strung or apathetic. Hilla Härkönen of a recently-established shelter in Hämeenlinna said that her works provides insights into children’s relationships.

If there has been even one "safe" adult in a child’s life, it makes it easier for them to trust staff in the shelter. However if that is not the case, it shows in the way they interact with new adults. According to Härkönen a child can easily become attached to shelter workers or remain especially distant.

"In the doll house the dolls may fight and hit each other. The game does not move forward, it just becomes stuck in the same loop. This can indicate trauma being played out," she noted.

Children who are not protected from violence or are not able to otherwise escape it will adapt to the family situation. Apathy can indicate a child who is being subjected to violence, Härkönen noted.

"Surprisingly small children will try to comfort a sad parent. He or she may offer their pacifier to a mother in tears," Wikgren added.

Children who live in violent families may react by sleeping a lot and may seem like "easy" infants in their parents’ eyes. Babies who live with violence learn to settle for less, Wikgren added.

Need to wean families off violence

The Hämeenlinna shelter opened its doors on Midsummer last year. Since then, roughly 200 people have sought refuge there, half of them first-timers in the shelter system. Residents stay from a few days to many months.

One-third of residents return home, but the rest do not. Wikgren said that Kanta-Häme family workers hope would like to see more long-term efforts to wean families off violence, as the time spent in a shelter is not long enough.

"A life of violence is a perfectly normal state for many people. Understanding that there are other ways to live takes time and affected families need long-term support," she concluded.

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