Wednesday, 29 November 2017

VAW 2017: Domestic Abuse and the Needs of Children – Untangling the Web

by Alison Higgins
In September 2017, the multi-agency response to children living with domestic abuse report was published. This resulted from a joint targeted area inspection programme, which began in September 2016. The findings in this report ‘consider the extent to which, in the six local authorities inspected, children’s social care, health professionals, the police and probation officers were effective in safeguarding children who live with domestic abuse. The report calls for a national public service initiative to raise awareness of domestic abuse and violence. It also calls for a greater focus on perpetrators and better strategies for the prevention of domestic abuse.

From my perspective as a commissioner of domestic and sexual abuse services in a local authority, this document is incredibly important and valuable. The inspectors, as well as visiting six local areas, have consulted focus groups of victims and survivors as well as sharing findings with stakeholders from national organisations such as Women’s Aid and SafeLives. Their overarching conclusion is that ‘while much good work is being done to protect children and victims, far too little is being done to prevent domestic abuse and repair the damage that it does’. This statement makes me want to shout ‘yippee’ from the rafters, not because I think it is a good state of affairs but that at last this is being recognised on a national level.

It feels to me that the volume of domestic abuse that services are presented with on a daily basis – ‘Domestic abuse is the most commonly cited factor when children are assessed by children’s social care services to determine whether they need support. In 2015-16, there were around 222,000 episodes where domestic violence was cited as a factor. This translates into around 28 new episodes every week in every local authority in the country’ – has meant that responses have become jaded and part of business as usual. Domestic abuse is almost normalised. Action is taken to address immediate issues but it is almost always focussed on short term crisis management. This means that not only is little being done to address the impact of domestic abuse on children but that ‘professionals sometimes failed to connect isolated incidents and build a picture that would lead to a different conclusion about the level of risk’. This short term view can make it harder for professionals to see the bigger picture and history of abuse within the family setting.

The report also highlights assumptions and ways of working in relation to domestic abuse that are letting down children and victims: 
  • Once the victim has left the abuser services often assume they are able to cease support. The report points out that ‘the end of an abusive relationship was considered [by agencies inspected] to reduce the risk to children, when in fact research tells us that separation can escalate risk’.
  • Perpetrators are not held to account for causing risk to children, instead it can be the victim who is held responsible: the report found ‘a pattern where professionals focused on the victim, which in all the cases we saw was the mother. In the best-case scenarios, this represented an understandable focus on the mother as a victim of crime and in need of protection. But, even in the best cases, there was often a lack of accountability or responsibility attributed to the perpetrator of the abuse. Furthermore, in a minority of cases, there was an inappropriate attribution of responsibility on the mother to protect her children.’  
  • Victims can be viewed as failing parents rather than shown empathy given the abuse they have suffered. The report highlighted one case where ‘a mother was in distress due to living with domestic abuse and this was having a clear impact on the well-being of her child. Her child was seen in her home by a health visitor, she was naked, with food around her face. The home conditions were observed to be messy and the mother was reported to have made another suicide attempt. The conditions the child was living in were recorded in isolation. There was no evidence in the record that the practitioner considered the impact of domestic abuse on the well-being of the mother, and subsequently, her ability to care properly for her child’. 
  • Understanding the impact of coercive control (now criminalised in law and recognised as the foundation of most domestic abuse) is lacking ‘because it confounds the usual interpretations of behaviour. Victims themselves can appear to be manipulative, secretive or contradictory in their words and actions. It takes skill and insight to identify that untruths or attempts to distract or mislead may be a coping strategy. Effective engagement with such victims relies on the skills, insight and experience of professionals and their ability to move beyond a ‘victim-blaming’ response.’
For me, this last point brings to mind a member of the Sheffield Domestic Abuse Service User Reference Group who relayed her experience of having taken her abusive partner back when her child was a baby, and then lying to the social worker when they came to her house to challenge her. She was a young, vulnerable woman at the time who felt that if she was honest, she would be blamed and her child would be taken away. She therefore felt it was better to lie. This was a course of action she later regretted, but I think we need to find a way of moving away from a narrative of labelling victims as ‘failing to protect’ – as she was when she was inevitably found out. What if the worker had said to her ‘I know it’s hard to get out of a relationship when there’s domestic abuse. I want to help you and empower you so that you can safeguard yourself and the baby’? The report suggests that working to build trust and supporting parents who are victims is ultimately the best way to support children living in domestic abuse situations even if removing children is unfortunately necessary sometimes.
The report recognises that domestic abuse is complex especially when substance misuse and mental health issues are also present. ‘Untangling this web and being consistent in identifying who needs to be held responsible, and for what, will always be challenges for professionals.’ But change is necessary, ‘the pattern of practice has served its time. We think the system is ready to evolve [because] … Domestic abuse is incredibly harmful to children and it poses an enormous cost to the public purse to deal with the repercussions. ’
In Sheffield, we are beginning a new project, ‘Strengthening Families’, which is intended to address these issues by working with families to improve longer term outcomes. We are developing interventions for perpetrators including fathers, expanding group support for mothers, commissioning therapeutic work with children – all to be coordinated by a team of multi-disciplinary key workers focussing on families affected by domestic abuse. We hope it will make a difference.

Alison Higgins has been the Strategic Commissioning Manager for Domestic and Sexual Abuse at Sheffield City Council since 2010. As well as being responsible for commissioning services for the city she coordinates Domestic Homicide Reviews, leads on the city’s strategy for Domestic and Sexual Abuse and is a co-chair of the Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conferences in Sheffield. Her background is in the voluntary sector. She worked at North Derbyshire Women’s Aid (now Derbyshire Domestic Abuse Services) for 15 years prior to working for Sheffield.

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