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Podcast: helping children recover from domestic abuse

Last updated: 28 Sept 2020 Topics: Podcast

Did you know that domestic abuse can have a psychological, physical and developmental effect on children?

Domestic abuse can both directly and indirectly disrupt the relationship between a parent and their child (Humphreys et al, 20061; Buchanan, 20182). Abuse can happen in any relationship, and both males and females can be abused or be abusers.

It’s important to recognise that children are never just witnesses to domestic abuse but they also experience it. For the last ten years, the NSPCC has been running a service called Domestic Abuse, Recovering Together (DART) which is a ten-week group work programme to help children and families overcome the adverse effects of domestic abuse.

To mark DART’s ten-year anniversary, we invited some of the team who were involved in delivering the service, including one of our scale-up partners, My Sister’s House Women’s Centre, to talk about the impact it’s had on children and families they’ve worked with.

You’ll hear about:

  • how DART differs from other domestic abuse services and how it has evolved over the past decade
  • what it’s like to be at the frontline working with children and families who have experienced abuse
  • how we’ve widened our reach to support more mothers and children by partnering with other organisations and what this has achieved
  • the impact of current circumstances such as the pandemic and lockdown on domestic abuse.

We also reference the Domestic Abuse Bill, which is currently being taken forward in Parliament (the majority of the provisions in the Bill apply to England and Wales or England only).

About the speakers

Claire Burns is an implementation manager at the NSPCC and has 12 years of experience in health and social care. Her role involves taking evidence-based interventions and scaling them up to help others deliver them and developing research responses.

Natalie Everson works for My Sister’s House Women’s Centre and is an experienced and skilled domestic abuse and sexual violence advisor as well as a DART programme co-ordinator. Since 2017, she has facilitated and delivered the DART programme across the West Sussex locality.

Mel Hughson has worked at the NSPCC for nearly 36 years and has been involved in domestic abuse services since the early 1990s. She is the lead practitioner for DART at the NSPCC Liverpool Service Centre and is involved in the scale up and knowledge transfer of the service to other agencies and practitioners.


Humphreys, C. et al (2006) ‘Talking to my mum’: developing communication between mothers and children in the aftermath of domestic violence. Journal of Social Work, 6(1): 53-63.
Buchanan, F. (2018) Mothering babies in domestic violence: beyond attachment theory. London: Routledge.

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Further reading

> Find out about the signs of domestic abuse

> Read our latest evaluation of the scale-up of DART

> Learn more about how the service works and how to deliver it in your local area


Podcast transcript

Welcome to NSPCC Learning, a series of podcasts that cover a range of child protection issues to inform, create debate, and tell you all about the work we do to keep children safe. At the heart of every podcast is the child's voice, and how what they tell us, informs the work we do.

Hi and welcome to the latest NSPCC Learning podcast. This episode focuses on our DART™ service. DART stands for Domestic Abuse, Recovering Together™, and is a group work programme to help children overcome the adverse effects of domestic abuse.

The service, which has been running for ten years now, provides children and mothers with an opportunity to meet others who have lived through similar experiences. And although DART does focus solely on mothers and children, we do acknowledge that both men and women can be victims of domestic abuse.

I had a chat with Claire Burns, the NSPCC’s implementation manager for DART, Mel Hughson, one of the NSPCC’s children’s services practitioners who has years of experience working with families on DART and Natalie Everson, the DART programme co-ordinator for My Sister’s House Women’s Centre.

We talked about how DART differs from other domestic abuse services and how it has evolved over the past decade. We also spoke about how DART has been scaled up, to reach even more children and families by supporting organisations to adopt, implement and deliver DART themselves in their area. We also reference the Domestic Abuse Bill which is currently being taken forward in Parliament and wanted to clarify that the majority of the provisions in the Bill apply to England and Wales or England only.

I began by asking Claire how DART was initially conceived.

It came from our expertise, from our practitioners across the UK who were working in this space and we looked at the commonality of the work that they were undertaking around domestic abuse recovery, the real strengths that we could see, fantastic examples of best practice. We combined that and then looked to the external landscape about the evidence base out there. And what we were able to see from evidence already in existence, from academics such as Cathy Humphreys and her 2006 work 'Talking to my mum', was that when the non-abusive parent and the child participate in recovery work together that their outcomes are improved. So that gave us our DART service, looking at how mums and children can recover together.

We piloted that as I said back in 2010 and the service is a ten-week group work programme for mums and children looking at their recovery. And what makes it a bit different from other programmes - other recovery services - is that in addition to the mums working in a mum's group and the children working in a children's group, they work together, which is a real, real advantage to that recovery process as I said.

And it's been recognised by the Home Office, is that right? Have I got that right, Claire?

Yes, it is. We're really, really proud of our DART service as we would have been anyway. However, we have received external recognition from the Home Office as an example of best practice of a child-focused recovery service, recognising that children don't just witness domestic abuse, they do experience it and do need their own recovery and that it's crucial for the longer-term outcomes. And in addition, we received a highly commended award from Children and Young People Now, in terms of our service. So whilst we as practitioners, as service providers, are so proud of our service, it is fantastic to get that external recognition for the quality of work that we are undertaking and also for the collaboration. We couldn't have done it without the mums, the children, who are willing to part on this journey with us. So it's fantastic getting that external recognition also.

So Claire as you mentioned, DART is now ten years old. You guys all work on it, can you talk about how it's evolved over the past decade, its successes and maybe what it looks like now as opposed to what it looked like ten years ago?

Yes, so I guess like any ten-year-old, it's grown over the years. It's got more independent. It's learnt a lot. There's been stumbling blocks along the way. It takes a lot to get a service or a child indeed to ten years old as I'm sure some of the parents amongst us can recognise. It's not a journey without some challenges along the way and so it really has evolved over the ten years.

The service that we developed as I said went through that process, which is crucial to our 'test, learn and scale' approach at the NSPCC, looking internally and externally for what could be a potential solution to a challenge out there. We piloted that service and we evaluated it because evaluation is crucial to our approach to services. So that evaluation was published in 2016 and it was looking at does this work? Are we achieving impact? Are we achieving change?

And as we were so pleased to be able to say on the back of that, we were able to evidence that DART was achieving change and also it was achieving statistically significant outcomes. So that in of itself is a great thing to be able to evidence. And those statistically significant changes were around things like maternal self-esteem, like mums' confidence in parenting and children's emotional and behavioural difficulties.

So to have that evidence base to say “this programme works and it does achieve these changes” is fantastic. That evidence, that evaluation, combined with some of the qualitative feedback we were getting from mums and children as well, gave us a real richness, a real sense that this programme was worth it. We knew it was making an impact. We could see the change. We were getting feedback from a range of sources. In fact, one mum said to us that, "we have always had a closeness and that was damaged. It seems to be coming back". To hear that from mums who've completed the programme, it just gave us that confidence that this programme was something that we didn't want to put on a shelf. We wanted to get out there.

We took it into what we call 'scale-up'. So we did that and that was working with external agencies, recognising here at the NSPCC, we've got a limited resource, a finite resource. We want as many people as possible who could benefit from this sort of evidence-based intervention to access it. So we did. We took it externally and that where our ‘child’ went through an evolution really. And we undertook further evaluation, looking at well how does it work outside of NSPCC-land as it were? And that implementation evaluation taught us a lot about how to take a service to scale and how it works in different contexts because context is so important. But what that evaluation was able to tell us was that there were things that we had to change to really make this programme flourish externally, to get out of our NSPCC greenhouse and put into someone else's garden.

So Mel, can I come to you? How long have you been working on DART for?

Probably since about 2012. And in that time, I think at Liverpool, we ran about eleven groups. And I think the thing I absolutely love about DART - I'm so passionate about DART - is because it does make a difference to children and families that experience coming on the DART programme. Even from first meeting mums and children in the assessment stage, it absolutely makes a difference to our families that they access the service.

It might sound really corny but it's very privileged working with mums and children who have had the experiences they have when they've experienced domestic abuse. It takes a lot for families to come forward. We know that a lot of research out there says that and we know firsthand that families often struggle to talk about domestic abuse. Whereas DART actually gives mothers and children the opportunity to start sharing their experiences. They develop an understanding of abuse and the impact that it's had on them. And as I’ve said, DART has made a huge difference.

I think one of the other things as well, one of the areas that we look at when families attend DART, is their motivation to come to DART because it is a massive commitment. It's a ten-week programme and it's for two hours each week. Certainly, what we used to find was that some of the mums may have been motivated to attend the group because they wanted to make a difference for their children.

And what we found very early doors was in sessions three and four, you would get mums, I can think of one mum in particular, who had said quite categorically that she was attending the group for her child. She wanted to make the difference for her child. But then in session three or four, she very openly said in group that she had now started coming not just because of her child, but because she was actually benefiting from coming to the group as well. She was now gaining in confidence, her self-esteem was improving, she could see what a positive effect the relationship building in the group was having on her and her son. So again, her motivation for coming, it developed through the life of the programme.

When children are referred to the programme - families are referred - very often you might have more than one child in the family that is referred. And through the assessment process we would assess which child we feel that is appropriate to come to any particular group. Mums would only attend with one child at any one time because it is about them recovering together with that child and repairing that relationship. So if they have other children, they can complete the programme again with each of their children. And we found, I think we must have had about three families where the mums actually attended with all of her children because she believed that it made such a difference to the children that she attended with.

That’s great. That’s really good to hear.

Some of the activity that they completed in DART, they were actually using at home with the other children who maybe didn't attend with them as well. So some of the skills that they developed to work with one of their children, they can actually use with other children in the family.

Great and that's really important to have that consistency between what goes on when you come into the service and what goes on at home. That’s brilliant and it shows it's working and it's important if people are adopting it back at home. That's really good to hear, that's really powerful.

Mel and Claire, you both talked about the scale up of DART. So the NSPCC wants to reach more children and families with the services that we've got a good evidence-base behind but also support those organisations to kind of adopt, implement and deliver.

Natalie, you are one of the services that have taken up DART via My Sister's House. Can you talk to us about your experiences of being a scale-up site and how you began working with us and how DART has worked with you guys?

So our DART journey started in 2016 when we were awarded an 18-month pilot. We then started providing DART sessions in 2017 because it forms part of our local service provision for domestic abuse within My Sister's House Women's Centre. And since then, we've had top-up grants and also secured extra funding. So last year we finished courses nine and ten. And this year we were supposed to be continuing running courses because we're trying to do a minimum of three a year. But obviously due to what's happened, that's all been postponed recently.


We were actually just in the assessment process when we went into lockdown, so all of those families are now on a waiting list.

When we initially began delivering the course, we provided it across the whole of West Sussex locality. And this proved extremely challenging even though we were able to deliver it to lots of different locations. It was so challenging because it's such a big area. So last year we decided to run it just coastally. We did Bognor, Worthing, Little Hampton but families were still able to travel and sometimes if we can, we've helped them with the transport costs. So when we first started the uptake was quite slow as with any new service. We had to get out into the community and really promote it and we visited schools and GPs and we did a Sussex police conference. You know, we really got out there and promoted it. Now we have a huge waiting list.

To date, we've had forty-seven children complete the course which is twenty-five girls and twenty two boys. And the most popular age that we're seeing is between eight and ten. Now on our waiting list we've got loads of boys and we're seeing an increase in the age group between twelve and fourteen.

In April 2018, we agreed to take part in the NSPCC evaluation of DART and we submitted our data for six groups. And we have seen excellent results. Before DART, both the mothers' and children’s self-ratings indicated that they were experiencing a really high number of emotional and behavioural difficulties and that placed them in the high needs category. And after completing DART their scores had improved substantially and suggested that they had fewer difficulties in lots of areas which was supported by the feedback from mums but also schools. You know, nearly every mother participating had critically low self-esteem prior to the course. And this obviously shocked and saddened us and proved what a significant problem it was. But post-DART, all bar one had moved into the normal or above normal range.

That’s brilliant.

Yeah and in general, I think what we've seen over the years is the significance of the abuse. It has increased substantially. Nowadays we're seeing really high end domestic abuse which can cause challenges in itself. But we've had so many highlights. And people often ask us, how do you do this job? How do you listen from children and see the distress? But for me, as with anyone, it's not something I ever want to get used to. But being part of that family’s recovery and seeing the positive and beneficial changes just makes it all so worthwhile.

That's good to hear. And I think you're right what you say Natalie, it's really tough and it's really hard. Even for the most seasoned practitioners, it must be difficult to hear. But to actually run a service that's having real benefits…

One thing I wanted to flag is that Natalie had mentioned collaborating at My Sister's House with us on an evaluation and I just wanted to expand on that. First of all to say that without our scale-up partners, we couldn't undertake evaluations such as this.

We've got an evaluation being published later on in September, looking at the outcomes that can be achieved through DART. The question was “can scale-up DART achieve the same outcomes as NSPCC DART?”. So we collaborated with six of our scale-up partners who provided us with data - thanks to the families that they work with who consented to be part of that - contributing to this evidence base. And what that study has shown is that indeed we can achieve similar outcomes, the same statistically-significant outcomes. So that's been a real, real great way to mark DART's tenth anniversary.

Yeah, it's been great for us to be part of it as well because it's helped us secure extra funding because we can show statistically that we're making such a significant, positive difference to the families that we're working with.

I think that's right as well because it's not just NSPCC staff that are saying we know it works and it makes a difference. There clearly is evidence that it does make a difference for families.

Could we talk generally about domestic abuse? Especially in the current climate since COVID - the pandemic - we've heard a lot in the news about domestic abuse, about women's refuges and helplines being inundated with calls about the rise in domestic abuse. Could we talk about that and Natalie what your experiences have been at My Sister's House and then move on to Mel and Claire about your experiences? What's been happening?

Yeah I mean I think when this all first happened, I don't think it was necessarily envisaged how difficult being in lockdown, if you're in it, in an abusive relationship, how challenging that would be. That meant for a lot of people, there was absolutely no respite from the perpetrator. There was no time out to do their usual routines. And we had to adapt as a service for the Women's Centre to try and still reach the mums and children in need. And we've gone onto an online chat service where we're open until ten at night. We've had to carry on working via home but we're still trying to reach those families that need it the most. I don't think it was ever really envisaged how difficult and challenging this would be and how significant the abuse has been. There's literally no escape.

And Mel and Claire, how does domestic abuse impact children? I know it's a big question.

I think it's such a big question because there isn't one aspect that it doesn't touch. Obviously, everything.

And obviously it affects children differently from different ages. We know that very often, certainly physical assaults of women, very often start when the mum is pregnant. So even when the child isn't born, the unborn child can be experiencing domestic abuse. And so mum's body when she's in distress and under pressure and under a lot of anxiety produces cortisol which obviously can clearly have an effect on the unborn child.

We've got children from two to five years - it could be very frightening, it can be very nervous for them. They experience trauma. For some children, they experience post-traumatic distress. They can have nightmares, temper tantrums, can be aggressive. Older children can try and get involved. If there's an incident between mum and dad, they try and get involved, so they're at risk of getting injured themselves. There are so many negative effects that domestic abuse has and impact on children.

I think also it's worth mentioning that the damage it causes the relationship with the non-abusing parent, which is most often the mother, mothers they struggle to meet the needs of their child as they're drained of the energy and emotional resources needed to parent effectively. They might also underestimate the impact that the abuse has had on their children. However much people think they've hidden things from their children, they almost certainly know more and see more than we ever think.

And I think it's really important through DART that we look at that relationship and we encourage the communication to rebuild the relationship that that mother and child had and the trust and security that they need to thrive. It literally impacts children's every aspect of their health and wellbeing.


I think pulling those strands together that is why the work around the Domestic Abuse Bill has been so very important. That children are recognised as experiencing domestic abuse. That growing up in a house where domestic abuse is occurring does impact upon them. They don't just witness it, they experience it. All the things that Natalie and Mel have outlined and that is why we are very much continuing to lobby, to push for, in terms of the bill, for a vital final step from government to make it a legal requirement that children and young people do have access to specialist recovery services. And obviously that's a big ask. But we do recognise for all those reasons that Mel and Natalie have outlined that this isn't something that sort of happens around children. This happens to them and they experience it.

And it does absolutely. When we talk about domestic abuse we need to view it as a form of trauma but not just a single episode, a repetitive, ongoing abuse. And we know how many children are affected. So it has to be taken into consideration because it's vital, because it's affecting these children's outcomes as adults.

Absolutely. And I was going to come on to the Domestic Abuse Bill Claire, so thanks for bringing it up. I know at the NSPCC and I guess it's the same for you Natalie, that we're all continuing to advocate and press for children experiencing domestic abuse to be better protected by the law. It also highlights that it's needed more than ever because children who have been in lockdown and those traditional routes of being safeguarded, whether that is by schools or by services the NSPCC runs or services like yours Natalie, at My Sister's House, haven't been there for a while or they certainly haven’t been there in the traditional forms. And so, children have probably been witnessing it and experiencing it day in, day out.

We speak about the NSPCC still being here for children throughout the pandemic and throughout lockdown even if it does feel a little bit different. But in terms of the contacts to our helpline, we are seeing an increase in terms of contacts around domestic abuse from approximately a hundred and forty a week, around domestic abuse, up to about a hundred and eighty five per week. So that's significant.

It's really important that people do feel that they can contact us. As Natalie said a lot of service providers have moved to virtual, to text, to telephone. I think is really important that people do still reach out where they can to these different services, even if it may feel a bit different for the next while because as Natalie said everything's being upturned for people in terms of where they could have perhaps accessed previously.

You know that breaks down in real terms, the NSPCC helpline statistics recorded on the tenth of June in 2020 showed that on average there was one call an hour from children who had experience in domestic abuse.


It's scary.

Claire, Mel, Natalie, thanks so much for giving us your insights and your experiences and your expertise. We really appreciate it. It's been great to hear about DART.


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