ONE of Daisy Kneer's earliest memoriesis of her toy box covered in blood and broken glass, after her dad trashed the family home. She was four years old.
The reason for such a violent outburst? Her mum – who'd endured years of violence and abuse – had finally dared to ask him for a divorce and to leave.
It’s a heartbreaking scene, but with one in five children in the UK exposed to domestic violence, it's not uncommon.
Domestic abuse also accounted for one in five offences recorded by police during and immediately after the first national lockdown in England and Wales. Now there are real concerns about the impact lockdown will have on victims.
Additionally, calls to the NSPCC helpline about children living in homes with domestic abuse have increased by a monthly average of 49 per cent since lockdown measures were first introduced.
‘You have to constantly walk on eggshells’
Daisy, now 21, grew up witnessing the emotional and physical abuse of her mum, Charlotte – now a domestic violence refuge worker and campaigner -at the hands of her dad, Wayne Prior.
Her parents split when she was young, but Daisy's dad continued to exert emotional control over her and her family, and she witnessed his violence towards his other partners.
She says: “I was four when they split so I don’t remember much from when they were together but we had to all walk on eggshells.
“One time he got a knife out in front of my little sister and told my mum she should stab him. He was very emotionally manipulative and he would text me threatening to kill himself or use us to make contact with my mum.
“He would make us feel bad and guilty if we didn’t see him and call me thick.
“I thought what I had was normal until I went round friends' houses and saw what their dads were like.”
'I'm still terrified I'll bump into him'
It wasn’t until Daisy was 11 that her dad was arrested, and was sentenced to seven years in prison after pleading guilty to seven counts of actual bodily harm.
He was also found guilty of two counts of making threats to kill and one of common assault against the three women including Daisy’s mum Charlotte, and was sentenced to seven years.
Daisy hasn’t had any contact with her dad since then, but the impact is long-lasting.
She says: “I just wanted him to be a normal dad. He’s blocked from all parts of our lives but I’m still terrified I’ll bump into him one day.
“It really sticks with you and I suffer anxiety and nightmares still.”
‘Children are trapped with nowhere to turn’
While domestic violence has always been a problem, with ongoing lockdowns and subsequent job and money worries, it has unfortunately become even more of an issue than ever before.
Latest data shows that in the five months from April 2020 there were more than 4,500 concerns raised by members of the public to the NSPCC helpline, with 818 contacts in August alone.
Head of Childline Wendy Robinson says: “We’ve always had calls from children and young people about domestic violence, but what is evident [now] is two additional issues.
“Being at home now, young people were witnessing or being involved much more than usual, and also the pandemic and all its pressures [has] triggered abuse between parents.
“It also cut children off from the support systems they usually might have had, so they’re trapped in a situation for a prolonged period that’s worse than before, with nowhere to turn.”
Strangled until unconscious and punched in the stomach
Mum-of-three Penelope, 40, endured 20 years of abuse at the hands of her husband Ben, before she fled in lockdown after discovering out her six-year-old daughter Milly had witnessed her being strangled.
Penelope says: “Ben was always very controlling. He would know where I was, would suggest what I wore, and gradually cut me off from my friends.
“Within six months he assaulted me for the first time while drunk. He’d kick or punch me in the stomach, and strangle me until I would pass out.
“Initially he’d apologise and say it wouldn’t happen again but after we had our children he began to say it was my fault and would threaten the kids would be taken away if I said anything.”
‘I didn’t want my daughter to think his behaviour was OK’
Initially Ben worked long hours, so much of the abuse happened in the evenings when the kids were in bed, so for a time they were shielded from physical altercations.
She says: “He worked 24/7 so he wasn’t there a lot and that’s how I coped. Sometimes he would twist my arm in front of the kids but I would stop myself crying out in pain because I didn’t want them to get upset. But the older they became, the harder it was to conceal.
“In hindsight, I think they’ve always been aware, even if I hid the physical abuse.
“My eldest Sam became very clingy and nervous, and they would always ask me if I was OK. I didn’t realise but they could sense when I was upset and picked up on the atmosphere – the house was a bubbling pot, threatening to boil over.
“If I’d known the help that was out there earlier I could have saved my children from seeing what they did, and I feel so guilty, but I was convinced by Ben that if I left the children would suffer, which I now realise isn’t true at all.”
Penelope reached breaking point during the first lockdown last year, when she discovered that Milly had witnessed her being strangled one night.
For many children, the burden of witnessing their dad hurt their mum torments them – but they’re too afraid to ‘dob’ in their parent.
Wendy from Childline says: “Sometimes a child doesn’t want to tell anyone, because they don’t want to get their parent into trouble, and that’s the real dilemma young people often have as they love both parents but feel trapped and want it to stop.
"It’s a great burden and it’s massive for them to witness their parents being abused in that way and sometimes they’re being abused themselves, both emotionally and physically."
“They often feel they have nowhere to turn, which is why calling Childline is a huge step that can help them think about what their options might be. We’re there for any child at any time about anything."
Ben was reported to the police and Milly confided in a social worker.
If I’d known the help that was out there earlier I could have saved my children from seeing what they did, and I feel so guilty"
Penelope says: “I had no idea at the time she’d seen an assault like that, and was devastated when I found out. I sat her down and gently explained no one should put their hands on somebody else.
“It wasn’t easy but it gave me the strength I needed to say ‘enough is enough’. Protecting my children had always been my priority, but now the abuse was affecting them too, and I couldn’t allow that.
“I didn’t want my daughter to think it was OK and I didn’t want my son to think that was how a man should behave. I needed to set them a good example.”
‘I was completely suffocated’
Despite being forced to leave the family home, Ben continued throughout lockdown to emotionally abuse Penelope until September, when she filed for divorce and finally obtained a non-molestation order.
She says: “I was completely suffocated. During lockdown, before he moved out he was working from home and there the whole time, so it just amplified everything and the abuse became ten times worse.
“The kids were off school so I was worried about their safety too, because I usually acted as a buffer to protect them, but as we were all in the house together, he was getting increasingly annoyed at them as well as me.
"He continued to monitor all my calls, emails and what I bought – there was no privacy or opportunity to speak to anyone about what was going on.”
With the support of women's charity Refuge, Penelope and her children are working on rebuilding their lives. While some fear and control remains, her confidence is returning.
Penelope says: “The children are so joyful and confident now. I’ve made sure they know they can talk to me about anything so we can talk about it when they’re ready.
"I’m concentrating on setting an example for them, and show them what a good relationship is like so they will hopefully never experience the same.”
Long-lasting impact of abuse on children
While the full impact of lockdown on children affected by domestic violence won’t be fully known until the pandemic is over, experts warn the damage will likely have a long-term affect on young victims.
Paige Fujiu-Baird, Clinical Partners Psychologist, explains: “The impact of a child’s memory of incidents of domestic abuse can be highly traumatic.
"[This can often lead] to flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbing, anxiety and difficulty forming and maintaining healthy adult relationships.
"Children who grew up with domestic violence in their homes are more likely to be in violent relationships as adults, with some evidence suggesting this can be up to twice as likely as a child who didn’t.
"When children see violence between their parents or primary care givers, it can become normalised and something they go on to imitate in later life.”
Children and young people can speak with a Childline counsellor confidentially online or on the phone, via childline.org.uk or 0800 1111.
Adults concerned about a child’s wellbeing can contact the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000 or email [email protected].
Some names have been changed to protect identity.
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