Responding to the VAWG strategy linking DVA & ‘County Lines’

I have finally had chance to look through the UK Governments new ‘Violence Against Women and Girls’ Strategy; Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls. (Link here).

One very interesting passage which is relevant to my research on boys who experience domestic abuse in childhood and later go on-road or become ‘gang’ involved was the explicit link between DVA and ‘county lines drug dealing’;

The most prominent impacts of crimes including stalking, sexual offences, domestic abuse and female genital mutilation (FGM) which the Home Office has identified through the Call for Evidence and wider literature include:… a negative impact on children and family: being exposed to domestic abuse can affect a child’s educational attainment and mental health as well as increase the risk of engaging in risky behaviours, such as smoking or substance use or violence victimisation and perpetration later in life. Evidence also suggests that children and young people immersed in county lines are likely to have experienced any combination of key adverse childhood experiences such as substance abuse in the family, physical abuse, emotional abuse or neglect, mental illness in the family, loss of a parent, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, an incarcerated family member and physical neglect. This suggests that exposure to domestic abuse can be a risk factor for county lines involvement, along with a number of other key factors. The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 recognises children as victims in their own right”

(HM Government, 2021., pg 21).

There is a lot in this passage which is interesting.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

One thing to note is the use of the ‘adverse childhood experience’ approach to list a range of risk factors which may impact on young people. Although it is helpful that the ACEs work has brought to the foreground a recognition that children’s past experiences matter (rather than being considered dealt with once the risk abates), however, what is the use of a list (which is often literally used as a check box; a higher score equals worse outcomes expected…) when it does not help us comprehend the specific impact of each harm. In this list for example, living with high-risk domestic abuse for many years is likely to have a different impact on a young person than a bereavement in an otherwise calm and supportive home. In that context it seems odd to then put the consequence that young people may have an enhanced ‘risk of engaging in risky behaviours’ which simplifies the diverse range of ways in which young people experience harm and trauma through the listed experiences. In this way it doesn’t tell us much, other than ‘hurt people are more likely to hurt themselves or others’. This risks being stigmatising and reductive.

Children: ‘Exposed’ or ‘Victims in their own right’

There is the juxtaposition in this short passage of the conflict between children being considered as ‘exposed’ to DVA (as it was historically framed) or ‘victims in their own right’. Several years ago in some academic work there has been a rejection of the language of ‘exposure’/’witnessing’ and instead a move to emphasise children’s ‘experience’. Överlien and Hydén (2009) championed the shift to looking at ‘experience’ in order to “stress the child’s subjective position” (pg. 480). They emphasised that, “Children who experience violence in their homes experience it with all their senses. They hear it, see it and experience the aftermath” (Överlien & Hydén, 2009, p. 480). Callaghan et al. also argued that shifting to ‘experiencing’ serves to, “disrupt this passive construction of childhood.” (Callaghan et al., 2015, p. 2). In academic articles on DVA from 2002 to 2015, Callaghan et al. found that 85% referred to children as “exposed” to DVA, and 67% used the term ‘witness’ (2015, p. 5). This language serves to frame the experience of children as being “affected” but, “does not give them the status of direct victims” (Callaghan et al., 2015, p. 5).

So, if the UK Government has not adopted this sea-change as is still referring to child survivors as ‘exposed’, I wonder- what is the point? How does it help child survivors if they are now enshrined as ‘victims’ in the DA Act, but nothing else changes….

Is the right place for this in the ‘VAWG’ world?

It is no secret that the majority of young people involved in ‘county lines’ drug dealing/transportation are boys. How does it serve them to be in the VAWG strategy? I would argue it would be more fruitful to look at the impact gender-based-violence (Domestic abuse) has on children (girls and boys), however this is increasingly difficult since the government has chosen to silo off the domestic abuse strategy and frame it as gender-neutral. This is one of the big disappointments for me when comparing the UK approach with that of the Istanbul Convention.

Familial vs extra-familial harm

Last point here is that later in the report when talking about the action that is being taken to deal with the overlap of childhood DVA and ‘county lines’ involvement is that;

“The Government is currently providing £2 million for a tackling child exploitation support programme to help safeguarding partnerships in local areas to develop a strategic response to extra-familial harms including child sexual exploitation and child criminal exploitation.” (Pg. 38)

Here we see a siloed approach- domestic abuse dealt with in the DA Act as a (increasingly gender-neutral) ‘familial harm’ and then involvement in criminality/’gang’/’county lines’ (depending on which way you look at things…) as an ‘extra-familial harm’.

When are we going to link up the experiences of childhood experience of male violence with the increasing amount of young boys who are then going through adolescence in another world of male violence? Gender matters. Masculinity matters. A tick list of ACEs and a claim children are ‘exposed’ goes no way near far enough.

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