NORTH MACEDONIA – May 14 2020

Domestic violence amidst COVID-19

A psychologist at SOS North Macedonia explains how the COVID-19 pandemic affects at-risk families, the threats to children and the impact of the work of SOS Children's Villages. 

Valentina Dimovska has been the lead psychologist in the family strengthening program of SOS Children's Villages North Macedonia for the past 10 years. Of the 50 families they work with, there has been only one case of domestic violence she is aware of during the current lockdown.

What changes have you noticed with at-risk families as direct result of the measures against the spread of the coronavirus?

The families struggle to survive. They have no money. They cannot buy food and hygienic items. Their children cannot have uninterrupted online schooling.

Our work with the families is disrupted. We talk to the families over the phone and meet them for few minutes when they come to pick up help packages. With this we just scratch the surface. We cannot be sure what is really going on and what are the deeper problems inside the family as result of the crisis.

However, we know our families quite well and they trust us. We phone them in frequencies depending on our last evaluation of their situation and needs. So far, two months into the crisis, we've had one major incident -- a case of domestic violence -- where we managed to intervene.

What happened? How did you intervene?

I called the family and heard a commotion in the background. The father was incoherent. He said 'police' and handed the phone to his wife. The mother told me they had a fight which ended in the husband hitting her in front of their children. The crying and screaming of the children alerted a neighbor who called the police. I calmed the mother, told her to follow what the police tell her and give them her statement. Next, I reported the incident to the state social services.

This family had a number of problems, but domestic violence wasn't one. The father lost his job in the beginning of March. The children stayed at home, as schools and kindergartens closed. The family had no savings, no chance to stock supplies, no wider family to help them. They stretched the food from our help packages to survive.

I spoke to the parents separately on the phone. The mother told me that the last weeks were tensed. Both spouses had little patience for each other and the children, and often argued. That day, the argument escalated to swearing and insults, and then he hit her. The father said he got angry at his wife seeing she was on the phone and the house was a mess. After talking more, he shared that he felt helpless and desperate because he couldn't provide for his family. He acknowledged the reason for the incident was his frustration. I spoke often and long to both parents. In the talks, I took them back to the workshops they attended and their individual counseling session repeating over and over again what consequences such violent acts have on the children.

As a result, both, particularly the father, became aware of the reasons not only for the violence, but also for the constant arguing in the days before. Refreshing their memories with things they learned in our workshops helped them to openly talk with each other. The state social services invited them to apply for governmental help and the police made follow-up visits to ensure the children's and mother's safety. All this helped for the spouses to again become partners. I still make regular calls with both parents.

What about the children?

Sadly, that is the one and, for us, most important intervention that now we cannot make. I spoke to the eldest child on the phone, but other than "I'm fine" and "It's good" I couldn't get further.

Children who are victims or witnesses of violence often cannot verbalize their experiences and emotions. Especially the smaller ones and in this case all children are under seven. In a conversation, children give short dry answers without details of their fears and suffered traumas. The best way to gain insight into the children's psycho-emotional state and to learn the root of their trauma to be able to properly help, is through a drawing, a story, or through observation.

The pandemic prevention measures prevent us from giving proper psychological help to children. Asking them questions over the phone about what happened and how they felt can be damaging. The children would relive the trauma and we wouldn't be able to heal them.

How can children be protected then?

The way to protect the children in these circumstances is to intervene with the parents. Make them understand the consequences of their actions. I repeat to the parents that violence leads to violence. If a child sees violence on daily basis, the child will learn violence is the way of behaving and communicating. A bully was likely once a victim. Of course, we never justify violent behavior. We work to stop such behavior, properly and professionally address the traumas and guide the person to a positive developmental direction.

In my daily phone calls with all parents, I repeat that the children are not only deprived of free movement, but also of other learning models and other types of communication which they get at school, from their peers, from neighbors and relatives. In this crisis, the children only have their parents. The parent is no longer primarily the caregiver and provider. The parent now is also the school teacher and the friend. This is too much, we are well aware.

The pandemic prevention measures can and do lead to frustrations. I try to single out the positive aspects and this is what I talk about with parents. I take the parents back to times when spending time with their children was a problem. I say now is the time to strengthen your relation with the children, get to know them better, find common interests and talk. Share your happy childhood stories, happy memories, ask them about their special moments, fantasize about the future, make plans.

None of us have seen a crisis like this before. But each crisis has to be seen as an opportunity. We cannot lock ourselves in the negative, and we have a duty to not let that happen to the children.

How effective is this approach?

Of the 50 families who are in our program right now, in two months of the crisis we only had the one case of domestic violence that I described. I have no illusions that this is the reality. We will know for sure what went on and which problems arose when we will be able to meet the families again. 

Despite the crisis, our help makes a difference, this is evident by the the progress we made with all families before the crisis started. On average, one family stays in our program for three years. Upon admission in the program, every at-risk family is evaluated, the main problems are listed and jointly with the family we form a family development plan with clear goals. We address each problem individually and in steps. In each step, we don't only help and strengthen the children, but also their parents. What we strive to achieve is a strong family that doesn't need our help any longer.

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