Children affected by family violence even before birth – medics

Reuters/Regis Duvignau
Domestic violence can harm babies even before birth due to them being “exquisitely sensitive” to their parents’ suffering, Australian medical experts told Australia's first royal commission into domestic violence.

The fear of possible harm makes the woman’s body release hormones that are capable of permeating the placenta and affecting the baby’s development in utero, which can cause severe consequences for pregnancy, the Guardian reported.

The unnerving findings were brought to the attention of the Royal Commission into Family Violence in the Australian state of Victoria by Professor Louise Newman of Melbourne’s Royal Women’s hospital and family therapist, Dr. Robyn Miller.

Women subjected to domestic violence “are more likely to have preterm deliveries ... babies can have growth problems in their nervous system and brain, and also be small babies, so potentially vulnerable in terms of their ongoing development,” Newman said.

This makes identifying women in high-risk situations during pregnancy especially important, she added.

“We must train medical professionals to be attuned to indicators of violence, and how you speak about these things with families makes all the difference,” the commission was told.

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Explanatory work with fathers on early stages may present an opportunity to rid the babies from harm as “most men want to do the right thing by their children,” Miller stressed.

Miller, who is also a social worker, said that he witnessed cases when children of just a few weeks old falling into a state of “frozen watchfulness” due to being exposed to violence between the parents.

“They only have to hear the voice of the perpetrator and they’re in this dissociative state,” he said, adding that “children and very young babies can sense the fear in their parents. They can smell fear.”

The medical workers stressed that the first years of life are vital for brain development and traumatic experiences suffered during this period may affect a child’s learning ability, memory and attention span.

Hurtful flashbacks in a child’s mind can be triggered “when they smell something, when they hear dad’s voice raised, when they see that look on their mum’s face, when someone grabs them from behind at school in a game.”

Kids who experience domestic violence in utero and in early life often respond by acting out or becoming withdrawn, the medics said.

In older age, such children are more likely to participate in exploitative relationships and are vulnerable to being manipulated, targeted and groomed for child abuse by others.

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Earlier, the Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence was told that the number of family violence reports has increased by 136 percent over the last decade.

According to surveys, one in six women and one in 20 men in Australia are subjected to partner violence from the age of 15, with an average of 115 lethal cases taking place every year.

The public hearing in Victoria opened on Monday and will go on for 20 days, with the commission is to present its findings in February 2016.