A Father and Son Story of Domestic Violence and Hope
Lai Vung District, Dong Thap, February 24th, 2021 – “I want to be like my father when I grow up”, says Phu, an 11-year-old boy, with a shy smile. His eyes are quick and reveal a mix of readiness and curiosity as he plays with his dog in the house yard.
His father laughs and says “I want Phu to become a much better man than I have been, I wish him to do better than me in life.”
In 2019, the family case was first reported. Phu and his father lived together in the same house, along with their 62-year-old grandmother, in a humble hamlet of Lai Vung district, in the Mekong Delta.
Phu’s mother abandoned the family when Phu was only 8 months old. When Phu’s father went to work, Phu’s grandmother was the only one to look after the boy. They used to go together to catch crabs and snails close to the river and to look for scrap to re-sell and make some money. When Phu’s father became increasingly violent, Phu’s grandmother started fearing for her safety and left the house, leaving Phu alone and further exposed to physical abuse.
“Making ends meet is extremely difficult here, I have no land fields and no stable job. It was easy to reverse frustrations on my family back then”, says Phu’s father with a thoughtful look in his eyes as he digs deep into painful memories and opens up about his alcoholic past.
At this time Phu was staying away from his father as much as possible. When his father would return home, Phu was often running away from home. Phu slept overnight in rice paddies and bushes. Here, he ended up gathering with older boys in the neighborhood, who started to exploit him by involving Phu in petty theft. He lost interest in school and dropped out of third grade. On the days when his father was losing his temper, Phu started to complain of particularly serious injuries. Eventually, the neighbors could not avoid the situation anymore and referred the Phu’s case to the police.
“First time I went to visit Phu to assess his family situation, I did not know what to do” says Thu, a young social worker in Lai Vung district in charge of managing Phu’s case. “I remember the boy’s wounds and multiple bruises were still fresh and he was visibly scared and reluctant to talk to me. It was an extremely sensitive topic to approach, and I did not know what was most appropriate to ask. His father was out of his mind and I was afraid of him. He did not even open the door at the beginning, when I was showing up regularly for my follow-ups”.
Throughout this incident, Thu was among the community social workers who received specialized training and advice from UNICEF on how to best handle violence and abuse cases. She learned case management techniques, including how to talk to traumatized children and how to respond to difficult family situations. The support Phu’s family could benefit from is part of UNICEF coordinated intervention with national partners to strengthen the social workforce and build a local and national child protection system that provide multi-sectoral prevention and response services to victims of violence, abuse and exploitation.
In most vulnerable communities in Viet Nam, limited social services and resources to support children victims of violence like Phu takes a big toll on vulnerable families who already struggle with poverty and emotional distress, as they cannot receive the professional help they need. Thu’s transformative intervention confirms the fundamental role of social workers in the communities in handling family violence and abuse cases.
As improvements in Phu’s family became more noticeable, Phu felt immensely relieved to note this positive change in family dynamics. She felt successful in gaining the father and son’s trust when providing the family with guidance and advice. They slowly started opening up and work out the emotional burden they had been carrying for so long: “Phu’s father realized his behavior was harmful to both himself and the child. He assumed his responsibility to take care of his son and he stopped drinking. After two years I have been following their case, father and son now even play and sleep together”.
Growing up in a world that demands males to show themselves strong and numb painful emotions has a devastating impact on boys and men, as well as on women and girls. By making men feel it is not okay for them to be vulnerable, they may resort to negative coping-mechanisms that are harmful for other family members. Phu and his father learned that it was okay to accept help. Doing this allowed them to make a first step towards breaking the cycle of violence and silence.
Now, Phu enjoys spending time with his dog at home. His grandmother has returned to the home. She noted that the family “… [is] doing much better and Phu knows he has to choose good friends for himself now. The ones that can support him in school and help him become a good boy”.
Originally, Phu was an extremely reserved, scared and isolated child. He dropped out from school multiple times because of the intense distress and shame he was experiencing. However, now Phu and his family hopes that he can soon go back to school with the beginning of the new school year in September.