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One in five children victims of domestic abuse as professionals ‘operating in the dark’

Researchers and campaigners are warning that more children in England and Wales could face domestic abuse than start primary school this year.

09/05/24

One in five children victims of domestic abuse as professionals ‘operating in the dark’

New research find that more children could suffer from the effects of domestic abuse than start primary school in England and Wales this year.

Researchers also warn that professionals are ‘operating in the dark’ as the majority of domestic abuse support services have not yet been evaluated.

Domestic abuse is defined here as an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual violence, in the majority of cases by a partner or ex-partner, but also by a family member or carer.  Domestic abuse has devastating, long-lasting impacts, from mental and physical health to the ability to form positive, healthy relationships in the future.

Lynn Perry MBE, CEO at Barnardo’s, said it was tragic that so many children experience the effects of domestic abuse.

“Children are supposed to feel safe at home. But one in five children do not. We know from our work supporting children and young people who have experienced domestic abuse that this is hugely traumatic - and, without the right support at an early stage, they are at risk of becoming trapped in a lifelong cycle of violence.”

Previous research from Foundations showed that out of more than 100 domestic abuse support services for child victims, two thirds had not had the opportunity to be evaluated. The one third that had been evaluated were not evaluated in a way that indicated whether they improved outcomes for children.

Foundations – which formed after the merger of the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care and the Early Intervention Foundation – says that, whilst professionals in these services are working hard to support children, and local services are desperately trying to plug the gaps, major change is needed.

As part of the call for action, researchers announced £2.6m to fund and evaluate six programmes to support children affected by domestic abuse. These include prevention services, family-based work and therapeutic support. Earlier work from Foundations has shown that working with the whole family, which may include working with the perpetrator, shows promise in protecting children.

One such programme is For Baby’s Sake, a trauma-informed domestic abuse programme that starts in pregnancy. Both parents join, whether or not they are a couple. The programme takes a therapeutic, whole-family approach to break the cycles of domestic abuse and give babies the best start in life. The parents each work with their own Therapeutic Practitioner, from pregnancy up until the baby's second birthday, to make changes that last, for themselves and for their baby.
Another such programme is Restart, an innovative pilot project providing earlier intervention for families at risk of, or experiencing domestic abuse. It brings together children’s social care, housing and domestic abuse sector services to identify, change and disrupt patterns of harmful behaviour at an earlier stage for increased safety and better quality of life for both adult and child victim-survivors (V/Ss). Restart also provides increased options to enable adult and child victim-survivors to remain safely in their home, working with housing teams in the development of new approaches to domestic abuse and family safety. Restart delivers systems change training to upskill professionals, alongside directly responding to the needs of the family.

Dr Jo Casebourne, Chief Executive at Foundations, said the lack of rigorously evaluated support for child victims was ‘highly concerning’.

“We wouldn’t give children untested medicines, so why are child victims of domestic abuse receiving untested support?

“Right now there is a concerning lack of rigorously evaluated support for child victims. This needs to change; children who suffer domestic abuse need access to the best possible support to help them recover and go on to live happy and healthy lives.

Foundations is also suggesting a 5-year plan to transform domestic abuse services, calling on the government to pledge £50m in the next Spending Review towards finding out what works to prevent and support child victims and help identify support that works.

Latest estimates put the social and economic cost of domestic abuse at £74bn, so this plan is calling for just 0.1% of that to be invested in finding out what works.

Jo Casebourne continued: “We’re calling for a seismic shift in our approach to preventing and supporting child victims, starting with a commitment to REACH, our 5-year plan for change and investment to support and strengthen the sector. We are starting this work by funding and evaluating six programmes to get us closer to understanding what works to support child victims.”  

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