‘Why is no one talking about the fact domestic violence has a detrimental effect on children?’ A critical reflection

Last week there was a moment in the feminist twittersphere. I have been mulling it over since and wanted to write and think through my thoughts on it. It started when a feminist barrister tweeted a news article which featured Spice Girl Mel B and her daughter talking about the abuse that they had faced. There have been several news articles last week in which Mel B’s daughter Phoenix, talked about her experience of DVA. Some of the details were very difficult to read- but Phoenix says she is sharing to raise awareness of the experiences of children. Anyway, the essence of the tweet was a general critique; “Why is no one talking about the fact domestic violence has a detrimental effect on children?”

This is a really important question. However, inspired a range of more established feminists in the movement, elders, activists, scholars, who pointed out that they in fact had been working on raising awareness of the plight of children for many years. In fact, many suggested- it was they they weren’t being heard, rather than them not speaking.

As I read it, it crossed my mind, that yes, in fact there are many of us who are thinking of this issue all of the time.

However, it got me thinking that I can also completely understand how someone who is not in my niche work area could very much wonder- why is there no one really talking about children? Why did so many of the testimonies of children’s support that had originated from the 70s second-wave activism now seem a distant memory? Why do newer women to the sector not see this same supportive picture?

In a way one of my former front-line jobs highlighted a particular shift in the provision of child survivors. I worked in a women’s refuge in 2011. When I started working there we had several staff; 2.5 full time project workers, a dedicated children’s worker, a maintenance/housekeeper. The children’s worker was a very warm and compassionate woman who was ‘unqualified’ as in, not a teacher/therapist/or early years professional, but her job was more focused on arranging nice days out for the children, craft activities, a trusted person to talk to and spend time with, parenting support for mums who had been through such a lot. It was a role akin to a grandmother who would treat your kids and take the pressure off- take them to the park, be the ‘fun’ and warmth when mums who were struggling really could use the help. In the year that I worked in the refuge most staff were gradually cut. By the time I left we were down to 1.5 staff project workers. It was tough times, related in my mind to the wider government’s austerity programme; staff seen as ‘non-essential’ were cut.

The focus here on the ‘professional’ became increasingly important. Refuges had long been staffed by project workers who united on a common purpose and a pragmatic approach to support work. Many were survivors driven by their own desire to effect change, myself included. It was a section of DVA support which remained most connected to the 70s model of feminist organising and peer support.

What we have witnessed gradually though over the last 10 years, co-existing with the time of austerity, is not just cuts to what have been seen as ‘superlative’ staff, but there has also been a drive to ‘professionalise’ the women’s sector, which I would argue has also been jointly responsible for cutting out children’s support. I was shocked to see when I started working in the Coordinated-Community Response (CCR) model as a DVA Coordinator responsible for children and health, that the local Independent Domestic Violence Advocate (IDVA) services did not routinely see/speak to the children of the primary client- the adult victim they supported. The assumption was ‘protect the mother to protect the children’. This model of community support has gained quick traction- it focuses on so-called ‘high-risk’ cases, managed through the MARAC, and met local authorities most basic priority- to prevent domestic homicide (femicide) on their patch. Although I don’t believe this model was ever intended to replace the range of support available- it swiftly has in many areas. It meets the appetite for highly monitored and cost-efficient risk management- with provable impact for local commissioners. IDVA training is costly, and IDVAs are paid more than the old-style support workers, so opportunities and posts have become more limited.

As services become more professionalised they become more expensive, more scarce- we can also see this within children’s mental health services- the waiting lists for CAMHS services are high, which pushes up the thresholds. Similar scarcity has happened with Children’s Services. A DVA child survivor without any significant presenting issues is unlikely to be offered and receive any service.

A few years later I saw the impact of this as a trustee of my local Women’s Aid- who lost their funding as it was instead diverted to a professionalised gender-neutral IDVA service (although that is another story). The loss of the less formalised, more hand-holding, less risk assessment focused work is unquantifiable.

But the point I was reflecting on, is that the services that sprung out of the second-wave feminist movement, which were less formalised, but offered children/parenting support, have not just changed because of austerity and cuts, but also because there has been a mainstreaming and professionalisation of VAWG work as it has transformed from a grass-roots movement to a ‘sector’. Within this shift whatever piecemeal support there was offered from surrogate grandmas has been replaced with risk assessments at a distance. We know children have been failed in this shift- and to be honest, this has happened on liberal feminisms watch. Children have been left behind.

I in no way want to dismiss the research and scholarship that has been going along in the background- there have been many brilliant feminist academics who have been consistently writing about the plight of children since the 80s and 90s. It is this data that has provided the basis for Children to be recognised as victims of their own right in the Domestic Abuse Bill, an aspect which came into reality at the end of January 2022. But I also grapple here with the fact that much of the research is hidden behind paywalls- university journal subscriptions- high priced academic booksellers (I am saying this with eyes wide open that this includes much of my work- which is hidden or expensive, owned now by university presses).

So, what I am reflecting on here, is that I can completely understand why someone could still say, despite all the feminist work on DVA, that children remain overlooked and under-served.

Now is the time for feminist praxis– to join up the theory and the practice on the ground. We have the evidence, we have the legal backing, but now we have to come together and push back against the turn to high-risk/professionalisation, and ask-

What do children really want and need?

And are we really providing it?

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