Today I wanted to write a response to the new Women’s Aid report which outlines the barriers that children face when accessing refuge provision. You can access a copy here. This was a very welcome report in that it gives voice to children and young people themselves about their difficult experiences leaving homes and localities and entering refuge. One of the key points in this report for me was the ongoing exclusionary criteria that refuges still operate regarding boy child survivors.
“92.4% of refuges are currently able to accommodate male children aged 12 or under. This reduces to 79.8% for male children aged 14 and under, and to 49.4% for male children aged 16 and under. Only 19.4% of refuges are able to accommodate male children aged 17 or over.”
Women’s Aid, 2020, pg. 27
Refuge age limitation policies often operate alongside the general ‘no men’ policy in many refuges. If a family has a son over the age limit of the refuge, then they either cannot access the space and have to present as homeless to the local council, or the son could go into social services care whilst the rest of the family enter refuge (Sacks, 2008). There are a variety of reasons that refuges state to support the exclusion of boys. One reason is that older boys ‘look (too much) like a man and scare other refuge residents’ (Baker, 2009, p. 438). Using this as a reason is problematic, as it is grounded in an unquestioned association between masculinity and violence, which is framed as the opposite to femininity and non-violent, passive behaviour.
When I began to investigate further the inclusion/exclusion criteria at the refuge in which I worked, a further reason given by colleagues was that the age of criminal responsibility for statutory rape was a reason that older boys could not share a room with female family members in the refuge. Again, this assumes that young males are predisposed to violence, particularly sexual violence, based on their gender. A wider reason given for the exclusion of boys has been based upon a belief in theories of ‘cycle of violence’ and ‘intergenerational transmission of violence’. They rely on the assumption that boys will repeat the violence within their own relationships.
It is striking that it is precisely these boys who are perceived as likely future perpetrators, who are then systematically excluded by DVA organisations, who thereby miss a chance of working with them to prevent them becoming this ‘imminent risk’. This rejection, it could be argued, may well actively contribute to these boys learning that their inevitable fate is to become the aggressor, thereby inadvertently contributing to and perpetuating the dynamics that maintain the cycle of violence. The discursive message this sends to boys is concerning and indeed Baker noted that existing studies indicate that teenage boys feel labelled as ‘potentially violent men’ by the operation of age limitation policies in many refuges (2009, p. 447). Furthermore, they state that these policies in refuges ‘send mixed messages to them about their future as men and may exacerbate the anger, stress, mistrust and confusion they already feel after escaping or trying to escape a violent perpetrator’ (Baker, 2009, p. 442).
As part of presenting my wider research on men who had experienced childhood DVA and later were involved on-road and in gangs to the Victims Commissioner in 2019, I presented a recommendation for gendered refuge age limit criteria to be reviewed. I worked on a literature review with their office here. This recommendation was then taken up in their final report here.
The impending domestic violence bill is promising an inclusion of children who experience domestic violence and abuse as recognised as victims themselves. However if front line organisations are serious about rising to this challenge, then they must be prepared to deal with older male child survivors, as well as make space for them to remain with their mothers. The task for front-line provision is to navigate the long-held association of maleness/masculinity as dangerous, with a recognition and inclusion of boys as child survivors. If we are really aiming to support all victims (including children) to recover, we need to accommodate and navigate this tension.
Baker, H. (2009). Potentially violent men?: Teenage boys, access to refuges and the constructions of men, masculinity and violence. Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, 59(3), 435–450.
Sacks, G. (2008). DV Conference Report #3: 12 Year-Old Boys in abusive families aren’t Allowed to go to Shelters with thier mothers, but instead go into foster care. Retrieved from http://glennsacks.com/blog/?p=1819
Women’s Aid. 2020. Nowhere to turn for Children and Young People. [Online Resource] URL: https://www.womensaid.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Nowhere-to-Turn-for-Children-and-Young-People.pdf