Jack* slides into the back of the class, hoping no one will notice his shorts are black, not navy. Lunch isn’t over yet, but lunch is a squashed, gladwrap sandwich at the bottom of his bag. And the bag is made of plastic. So he hid both in the bushes on his way into school.
For children who have fled family violence, returning to school can often be traumatic in itself. First there’s the unfamiliar school yard, filled with strange faces; new friends to be made and new teachers to answer to. Then there are the missing bits — the books or the uniform, a lunch box forgotten at home in the desperate scramble to get out safely.
Quite often, under all that, there will be the sick feeling in the bottom of Jack’s stomach; an inability to concentrate in class, withdrawal or bursts of anger. Is Mum ok? Are we safe here? Will we have to move again?
As advocates warn children like Jack are slipping through the cracks in an under-resourced system, one Melbourne charity is hoping to make their transition back to school a whole lot simpler by crowdsourcing school supplies.
Following the success of The Period Project, which sources hygiene products for women sleeping rough, The Melbourne Homeless Collective has launched its newest venture: The School Project.
Sixty volunteer-run drop-off points have been up and running across Victoria since September last year, collecting everything from pencils to backpacks.
Partnering with organisations like Westcare foster agency and Launch Housing, the initiative now aims to help 100 children displaced by family violence get back to school by the end of January.
“We’re really trying to break that cycle of disadvantage that happens when [children] flee domestic abuse,” founder Donna Stolzenberg said. “Not having the correct tools to do their work means kids are less likely to show up for school because they’re ashamed, and that has an impact on the rest of their life.”
Ms Stolzenberg says the idea for the School Project was born out of conversations with workers in the women’s crisis accommodation sector.
“I asked them ‘what’s happening to the kids when they come in? Have they got their school gear?’ And they said ‘these people are coming with nothing and we’ve got nothing to give them’.”
At Launch, team leader for children’s specialist service Shannon Richardson says she persistently sees children with “large gaps in their education” due to family violence and homelessness.
She now coordinates short-term enrollments through St Kilda Primary School for children living in nearby crisis accommodation, which sees both students and parents supported by a case worker until a permanent school can be arranged.
“Before we were there, children were sitting in these motels, sometimes for long periods of time, not attending school because the parents themselves didn’t know how long they would be there,” Ms Richardson said. “We have a prep girl who’s moved schools six times and she’s only in term three and that’s not uncommon.”
The small pilot program is based on the “recognition” that a child’s experience of domestic abuse and homelessness is always different to an adult’s and requires a unique response. Some children will be become withdrawn at school; others will behave in ways typically seen as “naughty”.
“But we scramble for things like uniforms, pens and pencils, or money for kids to participate in excursions and all those things that are so important for their sense of inclusion and belonging.”
Last week, The School Project helped Launch take eleven children from the program on their first ever school camp alongside their classmates. Thanks to one very generous donation from a Melbourne family, each child received new towels, bathers, swimming goggles, thongs, torches, toiletries, sunscreen and more.
“We got a bit misty-eyed thinking about it,” Ms Stolzenberg said.
While Ms Richardson was delighted at the program’s success so far, she said back-to-school support for children affected by domestic abuse was needed on a much larger scale.
“The system is not really designed for children at all,” she said. “But, family violence and homelessness does have an incredible impact on them and I guess we see them as forgotten a little bit in the bigger picture. What we’ve seen is kids consistently fall through the gaps.”
Since it began, Ms Stolzenberg said The School Project now receives roughly one school bag worth of donated supplies every week day. It has also secured a grant for $1,000 from StreetSmart Australia and is hoping to eventually take the concept nation-wide.
“We’re testing the waters here in Melbourne but we’ve already heard back about the impact this has,” she said. “And having been a foster parent myself, I know. When I got a little guy in grade three rock up late at night, I had nothing for him so I had to race out to Target before it shut…Of course, so far, what we’ve [sourced] is a drop in the bucket compared to what these kids need.”
She stressed that the appeal is not solely for children from low-socioeconomic backgrounds “because domestic abuse doesn’t discriminate based on income” and that the privacy of those supported by The School Project was a chief concern.
Family violence is now the leading cause of homelessness in Australian children and young people, with almost 19,000 seeking help each year.
In Victoria, there was an 82 per cent jump in children accessing homelessness services due to family violence between the period of 2013–2014 and 2014–2015.
While the Alannah and Madeline Foundation provides “Buddy Bags” full of pyjamas and toiletries for children fleeing domestic abuse, no such resource exists specifically for those returning to school.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed it does not have back-to-school funding for children who have experienced family violence. Instead, flexible support packages or FSPs “could be used” for school-related expenses for eligible clients.
“Support is tailored to the needs of the victim and may include supporting children’s return to school,” he said.
A Melbourne mother, who did not wish to be named to protect the privacy of her children, said an initiative like the School Project would have “made all the difference” for her family three years ago. Back then, she was sitting on a park bench with two small sons, two boxes of clothes and nowhere to go.
“We left after a very significant, violent encounter and I had nothing, I got no support,” she said. “So when I had to send my son back to school, I had to borrow money to buy him what he needed; a uniform, books, his back pack, and to try and do it covertly so that he didn’t look any different from the other kids.”
This month, Mission Australia launched a new ‘Back to School’ campaign to open up educational opportunities for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. CEO Catherine Yeomans said that included many children who would have experienced family violence over the summer holidays.
“Instead of returning to school safe, refreshed and ready for a year of learning, their life has been turned upside down,” she said. “Their first day back at school will be far from normal. They may no longer have a permanent address [or] be experiencing trauma-induced mental health concerns.”
State education minister James Merlino said, with the roll out of its new Respectful Relationships program, the Andrews government understood the importance of coordinated support for child victims of family violence.
“That’s why there are a range of services provided at school to children in this difficult situation,” he said.
These included primary welfare officers and student support officers, such as psychologists and guidance counsellors.
“Seventeen Respectful Relationships Liaison Officers will also provide advice to schools on intervention and liaise with specialist support services,” Minister Merlino said.
It was also expected that a recommendation from the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence to remove perpetrators from homes more often could see less children forced to move school at all.
But, with just days left to pull together school supplies for the start of semester one, Ms Stolzenberg said it was shocking the government wasn’t doing more on a “practical level”.
“Our welfare system really is set up to fail the women and the children,” she said. “There’s no support for children to leave safely and stay away with safety and dignity and with all the essentials.”
At Launch Housing, Ms Richardson said the problem of “parenting in poverty” due to family violence needed to be brought out into the open.
“When people think homelessness, they think ‘oh they must live on the street’, but no, a mother will do anything to keep her child off the street — that’s why it’s hidden.”
By Sherryn Groch