Dr Jade Levell
Lecturer in Criminology and Gender Violence
Centre for Gender and Violence Research, School for Policy Studies
University of Bristol
Call for Evidence submission: Commission on Young Lives 2021
My research has focused on the issue of young people who experience domestic violence and abuse (DVA) in childhood and who later become involved in life ‘on-road’ and gang-involved (Levell, 2019, 2020, 2022). In this work I have focused on the ways in which the expression of violence among young men can be an expression of innermost vulnerability. A common issue I found, both through my primary research, review of Serious Case Reviews, and experience as the Domestic Violence: Children and Health Coordinator at Standing Together Against Domestic Abuse prior to my academic career, was that these young people are often not recognised as experiencing DVA at home and receiving timely support at the point of crisis. In my work I focus on the experience of childhood DVA prior to later involvement on-road or gang-associated. In the UK this is a relatively common experience for young people; By the time they reach eighteen years old, almost one quarter of children in the UK will have been exposed to DVA (Bently et al., 2016). However, it is only with the recent introduction in the Domestic Abuse bill of children as victims themselves which has signified a change in perspective of their support needs. However, up to date it is clear that children who experience DVA are offered services in a disparate ‘postcode lottery’ of provision. Research by Safelives (2014) found that only 42% of children receive support from a specialist DVA service and only 54% are known to children’s social care. This has been severely impacted by cuts over the last decade (Women’s Aid, 2021). To enhance the support for young people living with DVA and thus families in crisis, there needs to be improvements in recognition of DVA among children, the provision of opportunities for disclosure by children in schools, and a recognition that at times child protection thresholds operate such a way that cases are closed at the point the perpetrator leaves and the risk is deemed less high. In my research, in which I analysed the narratives of adult child-survivors of DVA, I found that a gender-sensitive approach to understanding boys experiences of childhood DVA would be advantageous (Levell, 2020, 2022a).
There is an increasing recognition that a relatively high proportion of young people who are involved in what the UK government is terming ‘Serious Violence’ have experienced domestic abuse in childhood (either before or concurrently). Recent case review analysis from the Children’s Commissioner for England and Wales (2019) estimate 37% of children experience this overlap, although there is still room for more research into prevalence in this area. Children in this position occupy a complex position in relation to child protection, as they are simultaneously framed as child victims of DA (which is now enshrined in the new Domestic Abuse Bill (Domestic Abuse Act 2021, 2021)), however are also liable to be constructed as offenders in the context of SV with the existing age of criminal responsibility being ten years old. The differential between ‘serious’ violence and gender-based violence not only indicates a binary between serious and non-serious, but also between gendered violence and non-gendered violence. This point has been reinforced by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner (2021), who noted that the separation of SV and DA in the new Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which will create a statutory duty for local regions to work to prevent violence, does not incorporate DA or VAWG. The Commissioner noted that this not only failed to acknowledge the high levels of violent crime which are classified as DA, but also risks sending the message to the public that DA is not a priority in terms of violence crime reduction. Some scholars have also raised questions as to why there has been a foregrounding of the successes of public health approaches to address physical violence in various UK cities including Glasgow, London and Cardiff, but without explicitly including DA and other forms of VAWG (Chandan et al., 2020). From my perspective the separation of domestic violence from the UK Governments ‘Serious Violence Strategy’ is a mistake. It aims to consider the issue of gender-based violence as a form of private violence whereas serious youth violence is a form of public violence. It is essential to understand that for many young people they are living the reality of both. Strategic work and associated funding need to be linked and prioritised in all regions.
The specific recommendations I have found from my research are as follows;
I advocate for DVA organisations to develop gender-specific and masculinity-aware interventions for male child survivors (Levell, 2022c). My research suggests that there is a need for specific masculinity-aware interventions for young men who have experienced DVA (Levell, 2020, 2021). This needs to be in a way which does not convey an essentialist reproduction of the social learning theories which equate male children with future perpetration yet do recognise that being a male watching a male role model enact protest masculinity ideals might affect the way in which they instrumentalise violence themselves. There is existing research that promotes gender specific work with adult men who have experienced trauma. Using the findings from my thesis and book, it is clear that a focus of the ways in which masculinities affect self-identity among men who experience DVA is important. Children who have experienced DVA have been historically overlooked and seen as an add-on to the non-abusing parent. Boys who experienced DVA have occupied a space of tension within front-line service provision around DVA.
I recommend closer joint work between DVA (and gender-based-violence organisations) with youth offending/gang outreach organisations (see Molina & Levell, 2020). The reason for this study in the first place was due to a gap in professional practice and knowledge around the lived experiences of men who live with DVA in childhood and later go on-road and gang-involved. The findings in this book show that there are threads in the life-history narratives around masculinity, vulnerability, and violence, which run through from the men’s DVA experience to their on-road and gang-experience. These findings could be useful for front-line agencies which are currently siloed into different ‘planets’ and are working on distinct constructions of victim/perpetrator, victim/offender, which these men do not easily fit into. This research could open up the conversation around the porous boundaries between these polarised labels and create empathy for on-road and gang-involved men, which (as shown in the literature review) can be a highly labelled and stigmatized group.
The third recommendation is; Increased recognition of the importance of early identification of DVA occurring at home and suggest that violent behaviour at school as a potential DVA indicator. None of the participants that I spoke to had been offered specialised support by DVA organisations. In light of the data I suspect this may be related to the difficulty in young men living in gang affected areas to be recognised as anything other than emerging gang-members and perpetrators of violence themselves. The need for agencies to identify DVA earlier in children is not in itself a new finding. However, what this book does shed light on is the way in which young men appeared to enact violence in the school and street context from an early age in reaction to the violence they were experiencing at home. Only by more fully understanding their agency in this complex and turbulent time of life, can practitioners offer effective support and interventions, that can get to the root of the ways in which the young men construct their masculine identities as shaped by their experiences of DVA. My research found that violence in school was a key indicator of violence at home. However, violence at school often results in school exclusions. In my review of the Serious Case Reviews (SCRs) which featured young people who had experience DVA at home and later identification as ‘on-road’ or gang-involved I found that school exclusions featured in 84% of cases (Levell, 2022a). This indicates that when children are experiencing domestic distress there is a general failure to recognise the issue, particularly when it is expressed using violence or disruptive behaviour in schools. This support vacuum is not helped by the inaccessibility of Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) which operates under long waiting times for children who are not identified as at immediate risk of harm (BBC News, 2021).
The fourth recommendation is; Increased provision of safe spaces for young men who experience DVA at home and live in gang affected areas, with a focus on understanding and accommodating vulnerable masculinities (Levell, 2022b). The main theme that came out of the participants’ narratives about experiencing DVA was that it meant that home became an uninhabitable space for them when it ceased to be safe as well as predictable. They often then described congregating on the streets with peers as a way to spend as little time at home as possible. For most of the participants, school became a contested space. It offered an outlet for one participant to stay out of his house for longer and thus he became involved in lots of extra-curricular activities. However, school only offered refuge for him for a limited amount of time in the day. For the rest of the time the participants spent time in public space around their estates as there were no other options in evenings and weekends. This in itself is not a new concept by any means. However, in the preceding decade which has been defined by the UK Government’s austerity programme, have resulted in a decimating of youth clubs for young people. Within the period of 2008 to 2018 council funding for youth services has been cut by almost two-thirds (62 per cent) (Mulholland, 2018). The Local Government Association stated that between 2012-2016, more than 600 youth centres and nearly 139,000 youth service places from across the UK have gone (Mulholland, 2018). The provision of safe spaces with professionals within this environment who can recognise the signs of young people who experience DVA could also help early identification of children living with abuse. The concept of providing safe spaces for youths facing adversity is not a novel one, yet its importance was highlighted in this study, whereby the men did not have another option to spend their time safely once school ended.
The last suggestion for front-line practice is; I recommend that tools are developed that use the strengths of music elicitation as a novel way to listen to children who have experienced DVA and on-road/gang-involvement (Levell, 2019b). The successful use of music as an elicitation tool in my study showed potential for utility in front-line professional practice. This approach was successful in creating a bridge between the worlds of the researcher and participant in a way that may not have otherwise been possible. It encouraged the participants to consider what they wanted to share, articulate it more fully through the use of lyrics, or music video, or use music to revoke and complement memory. The way in which participation was invited through these means changed the interview dynamic and lessened the emphasis on formal questions, which could transfer very well to support interviews. Using music as this cultural and communicative bridge changed the way that the men were listened to and received. Music elicitation is a visceral way to receive participants stories, as much as it is a creative way for them to share them, as shown in the earlier reflections on the method. This approach then may have transferable utility to support work with people who may benefit from a creative way to communicate, as well promote a fresh way to listen to their stories.
BBC News. (2021). Child mental health waiting times “deeply disturbing.” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-56257753
Bently, H., O’Hagen, O., Raff, A., & Bhatti, I. (2016). How Safe Are Our Children? The most comprehensive overview of child protection in the UK. https://www.nspcc.org.uk/globalassets/documents/research-reports/how-safe-children-2016-report.pdf
Chandan, J. S., Taylor, J., Bradbury-Jones, C., Nirantharakumar, K., Kane, E., & Bandyopadhyay, S. (2020). COVID-19: a public health approach to manage domestic violence is needed. The Lancet Public Health, 5(6), e309. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(20)30112-2
Children’s Commissioner. (2019). Keeping kids safe. In Keeping Kids Safe (Issue February).
Davies, B. (2014). Listening to Children: Being and becoming. Routledge.
Domestic Abuse Commissioner. (2021). Violence Against Women and Girls must be considered as serious, violent crime. Blog. https://domesticabusecommissioner.uk/blogs/violence-against-women-and-girls-must-be-considered-as-serious-violent-crime/
Domestic Abuse Act 2021, (2021). https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2021/17/contents/enacted
Levell, J. (2019a). “Those songs were the ones that made me, nobody asked me this question before”: Music Elicitation with ex-gang involved men about their experiences of childhood domestic violence and abuse. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 18, 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1177/1609406919852010
Levell, J. (2020). Using Connell’s masculinity theory to understand the way in which ex-gang-involved men coped with childhood domestic violence. Journal of Gender Based Violence, xx(xx), 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1332/239868020X15857301876812
Levell, J. (2021). On masculinities: navigating the tension between individual and structural considerations. Journal of Gender-Based Violence, XX(XX), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1332/239868021×16231535098549
Levell, J. (2022a). Boys, Childhood Domestic Abuse and Gang Involvement: Violence at home, Violence on-road. Policy Press.
Levell, J. (2022b). Internal homelessness and hiraeth: Boys’ spatial journeys between childhood domestic abuse and on-road. In B. Bows, H. & Fileborn (Ed.), Geographies of Gender-based Violence: A Multi-disciplinary Perspective. Policy Press.
Levell, J. (2022c). Navigating constructions of the ‘ideal victim’ among men who experience childhood DVA and gang involvement. In B. Healy, J. & Colliver (Ed.), Contemporary Intersectional Criminology: Examining the Boundaries of Intersectionality and Crime. Policy Press.
Molina, J., & Levell, J. (2020). Children’s experience of domestic abuse and criminality: A literature review Published review of the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales. https://victimscommissioner.org.uk/published-reviews/childrens-experience-of-domestic-abuse-and-criminality-a-literature-review/
Mulholland, H. (2018, October). Youth work cuts leave young people out in the cold. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/oct/31/youth-work-cuts-young-people-councils
Safelives. (2014). In plain sight: Effective help for children exposed to domestic abuse. In CAADA’s 2nd National Policy Report. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24941726
Women’s Aid. (2021). Fragile funding landscape. https://www.womensaid.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Fragile-funding-landscape-the-extent-of-local-authority-commissioning-in-the-domestic-abuse-refuge-sector-in-England-2020.pdf