Exposure to domestic violence sets up a snowball effect . . . as it continues rolling, it gathers debris, becomes bigger and more dangerous, potentially causing damage to anything that it touches. When it finally comes to a standstill, the snowball still encases all the debris it has gathered along the way.
Virginia Mackay has a Bachelor of Social Work (Hons) from the University of Sydney and a Graduate Diploma in Housing Management and Policy. She has worked at the YWCA in NSW for over 20 years. As a social worker and program manager she has seen firsthand the devastating effects of domestic violence on young women. On a day-to-day basis she deals with young mothers and their children who have endured a long history of abuse including physical violence, sexual assault and emotional abuse.
Virginia says that continued exposure to domestic violence causes a variety of problems – an inability to negotiate safe relationships, inappropriate parenting, homelessness, lack of self-esteem and confidence, alcohol and drug abuse, mental as well as physical health problems. Tragically, these issues will more than likely be transmitted to the next generation.
Most of these young women believe that being homeless is their major problem. But in fact almost all of them have a long history of domestic violence from their family of origin – as well as their partners. They do not understand what it is to be ‘safe’. Virginia says they have often spent years couch surfing and living on takeaway food.
Witnessing this snowball effect on a daily basis has made Virginia passionate about working to limit the wide-ranging effects of domestic violence on mothers and their children. With careful case management, she and the YWCA are giving women the skills and knowledge to ensure their own safety, reduce their isolation and engage in the community. They aim to stop women passing on their disadvantage to their children.
‘By working with two or more generations of the family, we hope to improve the lives of the mothers and halt the cross-generation transmission of abuse and disadvantage,’ Virginia says. ‘We see the seeds of future lives in children as young as 18 months old. The effects of continued exposure to trauma from domestic violence is now well documented and we see how this impacts the behaviour and development of very young children.’
Trained as a teacher before becoming a librarian and later switching to property management, Virginia started studying social work when she was pregnant with her first child. She had always wanted to help people – something she learned from her mother. She soon began to work with young homeless mothers and children and quickly realized that there was a strong connect between exposure to domestic violence and disadvantage. She says it is impossible to change the behaviour and lives of these people in weeks – or even months. It can take several years to change entrenched learnings – and support is needed throughout this period.
The key to change, Virginia believes, is more funding to provide affordable public housing and quality childcare, particularly for families who are especially vulnerable. Quality childcare is crucial if children are to develop socially and participate in educational activities. It also optimises their chances of progressing to higher education and the workplace. Importantly, childcare also enables mothers to return to work, to start the path to financial independence and to re-gain their self-esteem and confidence.