Families face unhappy Christmas

By Anita Moran

ISOLATION: Refuge manager Angela Warren-Clark says Christmas Day in the refuge can be a sad and stressful time.
ISOLATION: Refuge manager Angela Warren-Clark says Christmas Day in the refuge can be a sad and stressful time.

Families with up to five children will share one bedroom and eat a donated Christmas lunch of ham at Tauranga Women's Refuge on Christmas Day.

The refuge will provide a safe house for up to 10 women and children.

And while the organisation is busy this festive season, the real influx is expected to come towards the end of January as the Christmas hangover kicks in.

Refuge manager Angela Warren-Clark said Christmas Day in the refuge could be a sad and stressful time.

"Because the women and children aren't able to leave the refuge at all, they wake up on Christmas morning without their family.

"It's quite an isolating experience for them. There is that sense of 'Here I am, alone in a refuge'.

"A lot of the children are wanting to go home and spend time with family and their little mates and cousins. By midday or early afternoon the kids are like, 'Can we go home mum, can we go home mum, can we go home mum?', which of course makes mum feel really stressed and quite sad for them.

"These mums are doing the best they can for their children by being in refuge, but Christmas is about family and friends, and that's not their experience."

A refuge crisis advocate - trained in supporting women to empower themselves - will spend time with the families "to break down that sense of isolation for them, and the sense that this isn't a normal Christmas for them".

For some families, being at the refuge might be a better Christmas than what they are used to.

"Quite often for these families it isn't a nice Christmas anyway. Often for a lot of them it's not horrible [to be at the refuge], as there isn't violence happening for them. The main thing is that they're safe.

"There isn't all of that fear, but often it's a time of grief for them."

Refuge workers try to provide a good Christmas - there is a Christmas tree, and presents donated by the community.

The families will enjoy a Christmas meal of a donated ham, vegetables grown in the refuge garden, potatoes and special Christmas desserts. Those treats are "the icing on the cake, but the cake itself is a little bit empty," Ms Warren-Clark said.

No one will toast with a glass of wine or enjoy a cold beer in the sun - the refuge is alcohol-free.

And each family will share a room in the house - with up to five children in the same room. Families seeking help must do their own cleaning and provide their own food, although they each get a basic food parcel on arrival.

While Christmas is a busy time at the refuge due to stress and alcohol-fuelled violence, it gets busier in late January.

"Quite often what happens is a family comes for Christmas and the violence is managed because there's other people around.

"What we find is by the third week of January they have gone home, the money has run out, everyone is back to work and the school bills start coming in.

"People have struggled through and had a miserable Christmas where violence has been present.

"A lot of women wait for the last Christmas [as a family] for the kids, and it proves to be a miserable time."

In the year to June, 110 women and children stayed at Tauranga Women's Refuge.

But the refuge helped a further 364 people through its "community clients" - victims of violence who don't stay at the refuge.

"We work a lot in the community so they can stay in their homes, it means the children don't have the disruption of new schools."

Numbers have been tracking just as high for the second half of the year - the refuge is over-delivering on the support for which it is government-funded.

Ms Warren-Clark did not believe domestic violence was becoming more common, rather that people are getting better at reporting it.

"What we know from the police is that more neighbours are now ringing. Probably one in four victims will ring the police, the rest is neighbours calling."

Many women bringing their families to the refuge had themselves been a victim of violence at their hands of their partner, but they didn't seek help until they learned that their children were being harmed too.

"Those women for some reason have a belief that as an adult it's not okay but they can cope with this, but with their children they can't so actually make the choice to leave their partners because of it."

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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