Yesterday children were recognised as victims in the domestic abuse bill. This was somewhat a landmark situation for many reasons. I have been mulling over this and wanted to collect my thoughts about next steps.
The direction of provision for children who have experienced domestic abuse has gone in the same as many other services over the last decade of increasing austerity. I started working in a Women’s Aid refuge in 2011 and when I started there was a dedicated family worker, who was in addition to the victim support workers. It was solely their task to consider the welfare of the children and arrange activities; so important considering it was on average several months before new residents would get places in over-burdened local schools. It was not long before funding changes meant that the refuge was staffed by one full time victim support worker and one part time trainee by the time I left. Services for children and young people were the first to go (along with the cleaning/maintenance, and two other full-time staff members). This tells a story of the way in which refuges in general have been decimated by funding decisions, but also on how children’s services were framed as a ‘nice to have’, rather than an essential part of service provision. Indeed, in contemporary IDVA services it is standard that the children are not seen by the support workers, they are considered supported via the support the mother receives. This is an enduring message of invisibility and marginalisation for those children.
- I hope that children being recognised as victims in their own right, will make such support services an absolutely essential part of domestic abuse support provision. They are not witnesses, they are directly affected, incredibly vulnerable and deserve specialist and dedicated services to help them recover. They are not the ‘add-on’ to their non-abusing parent.
This context of increased funding cuts meant that as support workers we tried to lean more on the statutory services that were available; children’s services and CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services). However unsurprisingly they were also overwhelmed. Children’s Services in particular had a threshold which meant that if the child was not at immediate risk (i.e. living with a violent perpetrator) then the case would go to the bottom of the pile. Witnessing domestic violence has been long considered a child protection issue, in fact I remember discussing it as being the majority of child protection caseloads. However it is both its ubiquity has made it less visible- it has been everywhere and yet not focused on solely outside of the immediate risk to harm.
- I hope that the recognition of children as victims of domestic abuse will result in an increase in provision of support after the immediate risk has gone- including counselling and long-term support.
It was this threshold issue that came to my attention when I later worked as ‘Domestic violence: Children and Health Coordinator’ with Standing Together Against Domestic Violence. I came to know through this post that a particular group of children who were falling through this gap were boys who were experiencing domestic violence, but who had not been deemed to be in this ‘immediate risk’ (due to perpetrator moved out, or moved on, or living separately). They were then before long coming to the attention of youth offending services as perpetrators of violence, through being on-road, or gang-involved. At this point they were the least likely to be framed as victims due to them being males who were engaged in violence themselves- the most complicated kind of victim, and perhaps some of the hardest to ‘help’. This led me to do my PhD specifically on understanding the experiences of men who had experienced childhood domestic violence and later on-road and gang-involved. I analysed the men’s life stories focusing on masculinity. I found that the experience of childhood domestic violence and abuse had specific gendered consequences. The men (as boys) had to navigate a complex matrix of messages from society about how to be a man, negotiated in a position of violence at home, then violence on-road. To understand the ways in which boys recover in this context, it is essential to look at how they move through adolescence specifically as boys.
- I call for the concept of ‘children as victims of domestic abuse’ to be now unpacked and for us to understand the gendered experiences of children in this situation. Boys have long been excluded from mainstream DVA discourse due to the association with the ‘cycle of violence’. We now need to start to really understand how boys and girls cope and recover with childhood DVA. My study has opened the discussion on the experiences of boys, and I hope this can be developed into front line service provision.
Do get in touch if you want me to send you some of my research papers on this).