This week I have spent time reading the serious case review of ‘Liam’, a 17-year-old boy who was stabbed to death in 2020. The report by Southampton Safeguarding Children Partnership has just been released.
When reading it I was struck by how similar the story was to some of the men that I have interviewed as part of The Road Home Study. How the pathways between childhood domestic violence and abuse (DVA) and adolescent criminality (on-road, or gang involved) appeared so similar. What was interesting in the report was to not only look at Liam’s tragic life story, but also to consider how the professionals involved in the report managed and viewed the issues in his life, as well as how the report itself framed DVA. Most notable here was the complete absence of the father and the DVA perpetrator.
This was the part of the report which describes when DVA came to light when Liam was seven years old (LM= Liam’s mother).
“At about this time he spent some time living with his grandmother due to domestic abuse at home… An initial social work assessment was completed in September 2009 due to the domestic abuse (DA) suffered by LM, who was not engaging with agencies at this time. The Police had a lot of contact with LM due to four reports of domestic abuse perpetrated against her. On one occasion Liam who was aged 7, witnessed his mother being beaten around the head and face by her then partner. The partner also caused significant damage to the flat within which they lived. Neighbours called the police on this occasion, as screaming could be heard from their house. As LM had separated from her abusive partner the case was closed.” (pg. 7)
So here we have a family labelled as under ‘acute stress’ and when DVA was finally recognised, no support was offered once the perpetrator left. This is an alarming yet not unusual trend. The perpetrator is equated with the risk and then the risk is assumed to be gone once they leave. In fact, when I spoke to a gangs-outreach worker about childhood DVA among gang involved young people he noted that this was exactly the issue- so often cases were closed and then no further support offered to traumatised young people, who later surfaced in youth offending services some years later.
Liam was moved to many different care settings all around the country, including Glasgow, Lancashire, Bristol. He noted to one professional, “He stated that he had lived all over the country but nowhere felt like home.” I have written about the way in which the sense of home can be lost through childhood DVA, however this must be exacerbated when survivors are then moved around the country in care placements.
Liam’s family were involved with children’s social care since he was one year old. At this point it was noted his family were in “acute stress”. By age four when Liam started infant school he was found to be “disruptive, at times aggressive and frequently swore at pupils and staff. He was referred to a local school based ‘Outreach service’ who supported him throughout his time at the school with bespoke behaviour plans and incentive systems” (pg. 7). By the age of eight Liam has been linked to six incidents of anti-social behaviour including smashing windows. This repeated through his school career as it was noted he,
“exhibited challenging behaviour with incidents of threatening and abusive language towards staff, his refusal to cooperate, leaving school without permission and causing damage. The school continually tried everything they could to support him, including putting in place a quite detailed behaviour plan. However, Liam was excluded for his extremely disruptive behaviour.”
Here we can see a repetition of the school response when Liam was in infant school; behaviour plans were put in place rather than any therapeutic support to help him deal with his experiences of childhood DVA. The report reflected; “Liam’s early behaviour… suggested that perhaps more happened in his home life than professionals knew or found out.”
The notable issue here is school violence and disruption. In my study, enacting school violence from a young age was common among the men that I spoke with. They framed it as seeking opportunities to feel power, to ‘be a man’ in opposition to feeling powerless and scared at home. Later in the report similar is mentioned that.
“Liam had witnessed significant domestic abuse towards his mother at home. It was felt by them that the effect this had on Liam was not fully acknowledged, and that the response to domestic violence at this time should have been timelier and more robust. Liam had explained to a professional that he had felt vulnerable and powerless to protect his mother, and that he would never allow himself to be in that position again. A professional told the practitioner event that they had asked Liam why he felt he always needed to be “top dog”, and he had explained that it was because of what had happened to LM.” (pg. 21)
This resonates strongly with the narratives that I heard in my study; the development of an on-road protest masculinity in order to manage the feelings of vulnerability that childhood DVA inspired.
By the age of 11, “several agencies had started to express their concerns regarding Liam’s young age and his propensity to become involved in anti-social behaviour and crime. It was now stated that Liam was beyond parental control and LM was depending on alcohol.” The report notes that his mother was failing in parental supervision to an extent to which amounted to neglect. One police officer noted that letting him go out at all hours enabled her to have an “easy life”. However other professionals involved in the report noted that his mother acted like this, “to overcompensate for the domestic abuse and the numerous operations that Liam had experienced.” It is notable though that from a young age Liam was enacting violence among his peers, and it appears to not have been questioned as to whether his mother, who as we know was a survivor of severe DVA herself, was afraid of him. Even later in the report when it was noted that Liam attacked his mother’s partner and even stated that Liam was perpetrating DVA against his mothers partner. Instead, his mother’s parenting is framed as deliberate lack of care and lack of ‘boundary setting’.
In fact, the way in which Liam’s mother was held responsible for the DVA that her and Liam experienced is also notable in the report. As has been raised by researchers and activists in the past, so often fathers are absent in child protection plans. Liam’s father was not mentioned at all, and the initial DVA perpetrator was also absent in the discourse. Under the section on ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ there is an interesting infographic which outlines ‘abuse’ as being physical, emotional, or sexual, and then under the section on ‘household dysfunction’ it has an image ‘mother treated violently’.
Note here, that by framing DVA as an issue that is focused on the mother, rather than, “presence of a violent male in the household” is drawing all the focus on the victim of DVA as the problem. This language framing is repeated more when discussing the ‘ACE’s’ Liam faced.
“Liam witnessed acts of violence on his mother from an early age and personally experienced physical abuse from others.” (Pg.20)
“Liam had a troubled childhood and due to his mother’s parenting skills experienced high level cumulative neglect” (pg.20)
“Liam witnessed horrendous domestic abuse on his mother and was also the perpetrator (post 16yrs) of it against her partners.” (pg.20)
Here we see again, no mention of the perpetrator- no framing of the perpetrator as responsible for the harms Liam faced. This blatant neutralisation is again repeated in the final recommendation for practice around DVA:
Recommendation 1. The SSCP should ensure that any learning activity delivered highlights the need for trying to understand the cumulative effect during the early years of a child’s life when they are experiencing neglect and living in domestic abuse households. They should seek to develop professionals’ knowledge and understanding of the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences and for professionals to provide a trauma informed response.”
By framing the experience of direct victimisation that children face carried out by the male perpetrator it is simply not enough to frame it as “living in a DA household”. Where are the recommendations that perpetrators are held to account? dealt with through the criminal justice system? or offered targeted intervention?
Likewise, with this neutral framing of DVA also impacts on the treatment of the mother. It was noted she was neglectful, alcohol dependant, and not able to maintain boundaries with her violent son. However, where was the acknowledgement that she had suffered extreme DVA and had not been offered any targeted support to recover?
In addition to the absent perpetrator there was also the absent father notable in the report. Liam’s father is only mentioned twice in the whole document.
“Liam’s father left when Liam was very young, so his parents were clearly separated.” (pg. 20)
“Liam’s father… stopped having contact when Liam was about 1 year old.” (pg. 3)
Although he was clearly absent from Liam’s life, it is stark that this is not discussed at all as a limiting factor for Liam. The father, through his absence is absconded from any responsibility for what ended up happening to Liam.
The report noted at the end that the new Violence Reduction Unit as part of the Home Office ‘serious violence’ strategy would offer solutions for children like Liam that would not have previously been available. Although the current solutions were vague.
“Professional curiosity in his very early years, in particular the effects on him of the severe domestic abuse his mother suffered may have given professionals opportunities to affect Liam’s life course. It would appear appropriate support was not offered, as it maybe should have been and probably would be now.” (Pg.33)
Vague probabilities of available support are not enough. Children who experience DVA in childhood need immediate therapeutic support. So do their mothers. Perpetrators need to be seen and held to account. Cases shouldn’t be closed at the point a perpetrator leaves. School violence in the context of DVA needs to be dealt with in a targeted way, through more than behaviour plans.
The system failed Liam and his mother.