Jewish Women's Aid: Helping abused children
As cases of domestic abuse within the Jewish community rise, Jewish Women’s Aid’s first specialist children’s worker is now dealing with 55 children from the Barnet area.
Nicola Wilson, whose position is funded by Children in Need, has seen more than 100 children since joining JWA two years ago. The youngest are just three, the oldest sixth-form age.
She works only with those “who are no longer living with the perpetrator because it’s too confusing for the child if they then have to go back to that situation. I’ve had situations where the perpetrator knows I’m working with the child and he’ll turn the child against me.”
Meetings are held weekly at the child’s school as “it’s a neutral environment”.
Ms Wilson used to have a caseload in Stamford Hill and Redbridge but said she was now focusing her efforts on Barnet. There was a waiting list for her services.
In her experience, “mothers tend to leave when the perpetrator starts to physically or sexually abuse the child. The sooner they’re out of the situation, the better for the children.”
Within the strictly Orthodox community, she had encountered “naivety about sexuality. One man told his wife to not put their two-year-old in a short skirt because it turned him on. She didn’t know what that meant.”
The long-term effects of growing up amid domestic violence included “suicidal thoughts and actions, a lack of sleep and eating disorders. They often can’t form social relationships — or even play.”
And “if you grow up in an abusive environment, you are likely to be an abuser or end up in an abusive situation”.
JWA Executive Director Emma Bell highlighted the importance of its educational programme at London area Jewish secondary schools, established in 2005.
The charity runs seminars at both Hasmonean girls and boys, JCoSS, JFS, Immanuel College, Yavneh College and King Solomon.
“We run sessions on healthy relationships for boys and girls from year seven to sixth-form. These vary from bullying to putting on sexual pressure in an unacceptable way.
“Abuse in young relationships is a new significant dimension. Young people, because of outside influences, have a sense of acceptance regarding verbal and physical abuse. There are cases where they think being sworn at or slapped is an acceptable part of the relationship.
“We find that young people will disclose their own or family experiences in these sessions.”
Ms Bell said the community needed to understand that domestic abuse was as big a problem within British Jewry as in the general population. “Studies show that this cuts across age, religion and economic background. It’s not a ‘them, not us’ thing.
The JWA is raising awareness in advance of the UN Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Read Aaron, 15, and Laura's, 24, stories below.
AARON, 15, HAS SUFFERED PHYSICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL ABUSE FROM HIS FATHER — AS HAVE HIS MOTHER AND SIBLINGS
“Dad was very violent to mum,” he says. “The longest period of him not being violent was two weeks. There was police involvement on several occasions. He hit me and my sister. When dad was hitting mum, I felt very scared. As I got older I tried to intervene.
“I hate my dad — despise him. I wish he wasn’t my dad and had nothing to do with my life.”
Since Aaron’s father left, relations with other family and friends have improved. But he can still “barely eat and have terrible sleep problems, which makes school hard.
“I love my mum because she makes up for the bad things he did. She tells me the truth. She knows what’s best for me, even though sometimes I disagree.
“JWA has helped me and my mum get through what has happened. It has helped me get my anger out and given me loads more confidence.
“If kids have these things going on at home, they may behave badly at school but they need teachers to understand. If teachers are too hard on these kids it makes them more angry.”
LAURA, 24, MARRIED YOUNG AFTER A MATCH WAS MADE IN ISRAEL. SHE NOW LIVES IN LONDON WITH HER TWO CHILDREN AND IS TRYING TO OBTAIN A GET (RELIGIOUS DIVORCE)
“Before we had children, [my husband] was physically and emotionally abusive,” she recalls, “but I always blamed myself and thought I did something wrong. I asked one counsellor [in Israel] for advice and she told me to have a child because it would bring out the ‘fathering’ side of him. It wasn’t true.
“My oldest child wasn’t quiet. When she was a baby, she would cry and scream at night, which would wake him up. He didn’t like that. One night I couldn’t calm her down. He came into the room and shook her hard. From then, I would never leave her alone in the cot — I slept with her. I was so scared she would wake him and he would do something.
“When she was three, she had a lot of energy so he would hit her, pinch her and lock her in a room. I would go to open the door, but I was not able to protect her from him.”
Laura was hit or kicked by her husband on “my body, arms, legs and stomach — areas covered by my clothes.
“I considered running abroad with the children, but someone told me this could amount to kidnapping so I was referred to a lawyer.”
Since leaving the family home, her husband calls to speak to the children. But her daughter refuses to talk to him. “Once I gave her the phone and she broke it.”