Support for child victims of domestic abuse: patchy, piecemeal and precarious

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Carrie* was there when her father was abusing her mother. She also endured her father’s coercive and controlling behaviour.

Carrie’s parents are now separated. Although she still sees her father and felt that she wanted this contact with him, she was very confused and was struggling to make sense of her emotions. She was crying a lot, both wanting to see her father and then, when she was with him, crying to come home.

This is Carrie’s story, but it’s not untypical of the experience of many other children.

However, what is different is that she was offered specialist counselling to help her understand and manage these feelings. This specialist support from Action for Children’s Breaking the Cycle service means that Carrie is now less tearful and anxious at home, and more confident communicating her own wants and needs.

Our new research with the University of Stirling shows that not all children are able to access specialist support services like Carrie did. Interviews with 30 different local authorities across England and Wales uncovered a postcode lottery of support for children and young people impacted by domestic abuse.

Key findings:

  • Overall, children faced barriers to accessing support in at least two-thirds of the local authorities that took part in the study.
  • In over 10% no support services were available for children affected by domestic abuse at all.
  • Only two local authorities reported specific provision for children in the early years, despite the recognised impact of early childhood experiences of domestic abuse.
  • In nearly two-thirds of local authorities, services for children were dependent on time-limited funding, making their future uncertain.

These findings must be considered against the backdrop of drastic funding cuts to children’s services and the domestic and sexual violence sectors.

Something has to be done. Our new analysis shows there are on average 692 cases a day of children assessed by social services to be at risk of domestic violence. And that doesn’t take account of all those children who are unknown to children’s services.

Living in a household where one adult is abusive to another can have a devastating impact on children. It can be so severe that they should also be viewed as victims of domestic abuse, even if it’s not focused on them directly. Children can show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, having nightmares, flashbacks, headaches and physical pains.[i] They can also become depressed and battle suicidal tendencies.[ii]

Research shows that children can be harmed by coercive and controlling behaviour too. A perpetrator of domestic abuse who attempts to control another adult by preventing them from seeing friends and family can also stop children from seeing loved ones, leaving them isolated.

The next UK government must introduce legislation to combat domestic abuse, specifically recognising the impact on children, without delay. This must build on the previous Domestic Abuse Bill that was lost when December’s election was called.

 

New legislation is an opportunity to:

  • Ensure frontline practitioners and public authorities recognise children as victims of domestic abuse, for example by including them within any definition of domestic abuse that is brought forward.
  • Tackle the current patchy, piecemeal and precarious provision of services through a properly funded statutory duty on local authorities and their partners in England to provide support to all children and young people affected.
  • Make explicit the impact of coercive and controlling aspects of domestic abuse on children by strengthening the relevant definition of harm in the Children Act (1989).

These steps must form part of a wider cross-government National Childhood Strategy for the UK so we can ensure every child has a safe and happy childhood.

All the noise around Brexit is in danger of drowning out the voices of children like Carrie.

The next government must make sure they listen and act, so that our children get the support they need.

 

Read our new report, or see a summary of our findings.

 

[i] Royal College of Psychiatrists (2017). ‘Domestic violence and abuse – the impact on children and adolescents.’ Available at: www.rcpsych.ac.uk/mental-health/parents-and-young-people/information-for-parents-and-carers/domestic-violence-and-abuse-effects-on-children

[ii] UNICEF (2006). Behind Closed Doors: The Impact of Domestic Violence on Children. Available at: https://www.unicef.org/media/files/BehindClosedDoors.pdf