We are often asked this question by religious educators, parents and teachers who contact us about wanting their children to do a service project with Renewal House. The adults are interested in providing the children with a picture of what life in a shelter might look like and why families or individuals might need to live there.
I believe that children are capable of understanding why people need shelter, even domestic violence shelter. Granted, children do not need to know all of the details about the violence; but they can certainly understand that, sometimes, it does not make sense for two adults to live together anymore. And sometimes families have no other friends and family with whom they can live, so they have to go into shelter.
It is important to stress that these families are not “bad” or even “different” from your family. The adult shelter residents are trying to do the best they can for themselves and their children. The children like to do the same kinds of things that other children do. And sometimes, shelter is the best choice for everyone. Once in shelter, the children can still go to school and day care. They can still have friends and go on play dates and do fun things. However, because they live in shelter, they cannot have friends over to play at their house, and sometimes they cannot have all of their toys with them.
Moving into a shelter – particularly a domestic violence shelter – can sometimes be a quick and jarring transition for children and adults. The parent may have been thinking about it for a while. He or she may have some bags packed and hidden somewhere, ready to go. The children may not know this. When it is time to go to shelter, the children often can only chose one toy or special item to bring. At other times, they cannot even do that. Going to a domestic violence shelter is often done in secret, because the parents are having such a hard time that it is better just to leave immediately.
Renewal House tries very hard to ease the transition for newly arriving children. When they first arrive, we give them a welcome toy and a handmade quilt (made by one of our UU quilting groups). We also provide an orientation about what it means to be in shelter, including our rules, special features for children, where the toys are kept, and when the volunteers come to play with them. We are currently working on a new “welcome book” for each child who comes to Renewal House. The children can use the book to tell us more about themselves, as well as to process what it’s like leaving home and being in shelter.
Children are capable of hearing the stories of people/families in shelter, even domestic violence shelters. It is useful for them to know this information early on, and to have a chance to ask questions about what a healthy relationship looks like and what are the signs of an unhealthy relationship. Even if the children themselves are witnessing domestic violence, this information is ok for them to know. For it is a breaking of the silence of their experiences, enabling them to see that other people understand their reality and that resources are available to them and their families. Children are smart, and they will know how to use this information for themselves, and who in their family (or school or church) is the right person with whom to talk with about it.