Podcast: why domestic abuse is a child protection issue

Last updated: 26 Jul 2021 Topics: Podcast Type: Podcast
Overview

Find out how to improve your practice around domestic abuse when working with children and families

In this episode, we discuss the complexities of domestic abuse and why it is a safeguarding and child protection issue. We talk about the main themes that emerged from our learning from case reviews briefing on domestic abuse and share what we see in practice.

Exposure to domestic abuse has a direct impact on children and can affect their physical health and mental wellbeing. Just because it isn’t disclosed, does not mean that a child or family you’re working with isn’t experiencing it.

Listen to the episode to:

  • gain an insight into the dynamics of domestic abuse (e.g. how abusive relationships work and patterns of abusive behaviour)
  • understand the effects on children and young people, including how their experiences may be minimised and why professional curiosity is important
  • learn about how you can improve your practice around domestic abuse and reduce risks to children.


Listen on YouTube


About the speakers

Nikki Vasco is a chartered library and information professional and has experience working directly with vulnerable children and young people. She has worked in the NSPCC’s Library and Information Service for five years, developing written content about child protection for NSPCC Learning.

Paddi Vint is a Quality and Development Manager overseeing a three year domestic abuse project supported by the COVID-19 Support Fund. She has been with the NSPCC in Belfast for five years, joining as a helpline practitioner and then working as a practice manager.

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Related resources

> Learn more about how you can protect children from domestic abuse

> Read our learning from case reviews briefing on domestic abuse

> Listen to our episode on how our service helps children recover from domestic abuse

 

Transcript

Podcast transcription

Introduction:
Welcome to the NSPCC Learning podcast, where we share learning and expertise in child protection from inside and outside of the organisation. We aim to create debate, encourage reflection and share good practice on how we can all work together to keep babies, children and young people safe.

Ali:
Hi and thanks for listening to the latest NSPCC Learning podcast. This episode was recorded in June 2021 and focuses on domestic abuse. I sat down and had a chat with Nikki Vasco and Paddi Vint from the NSPCC to discuss our learning from case reviews briefing on domestic abuse and also what we see in practice. Nikki and Paddi gave an overview of some of the key issues arising from the case reviews, including the complexity of domestic abuse and how it's not always recognised as a child protection issue. They discuss how this impacts children and young people and the learning that we can get from this for improved practice.

Nikki, can we start with you? Could you give us an overview about the learning from case review briefings that we create? And then can we move on to some of the main themes that have come out in the domestic abuse briefing?

Nikki:
Case reviews happen when a child dies or is seriously injured and abuse or neglect is suspected. The process is slightly different in each of the four nations of the UK. And what we do is we go through case reviews on a particular topic or for a particular sector, and we create briefings that pull out learning for practitioners.

The briefing about domestic abuse, there's perceptions about gender within domestic abuse and practitioners sometimes forget that domestic abuse can occur in any relationship. It can affect anybody. So both men and women can be victims and perpetrators of the abuse. It can happen in same sex relationships. Sometimes in the case reviews, it was found that violence from women to men wasn't always viewed as a crime, and sometimes men didn't see themselves as victims of abuse.

Ali:
Thanks Nikki. Paddi, can we come to you? So what Nikki just talked about, gender within domestic abuse, do you see this reflected in practice?

Paddi:
Certainly. It's something that we recognise within our helpline. When we receive contacts, there is a sense that sometimes agencies minimise women as perpetrators, directing violence towards man. So as Nikki says it's really important that we recognise that women can be perpetrators and victims just the way men can.

Ali:
I guess kind of moving on from that, can we talk about engagement within services? I think that was identified in the study, wasn't it? Nikki, can I come back to you? Can we elaborate on that?

Nikki:
I think one of the key things really that came out in the case reviews is that domestic abuse is really complex and the kind of dynamics of relationships are really complex. And that makes it quite difficult for practitioners to engage with families where there's domestic abuse. So sometimes families might be attending a support programme, but then they might suddenly drop out or they might just attend sporadically. And that might be because victims are afraid of what might happen if they keep on going to support programmes - what the perpetrator might do. They might be afraid of asking for help. Or they might not understand that they need support. They might have been groomed by the perpetrator and not realise they're being abused. And sometimes as well, perpetrators might vary the way they engage with professionals as well. So they might try to fade into the background so that professionals don't realise what's going on. Or they might pretend to be complying with what practitioners are saying when actually that's not the reality of what's happening behind closed doors.

Paddi:
And there is a lack of understanding on the impact on the child and the support that can also be offered to children through attending these support services. So that's something that's really important and that we want to be able to promote the importance of attending these services. And that agencies talk to each other so that if a family does drop off these support services, that the professionals are made aware. That they're not blindly believing that this family is accessing a support service when in fact they're not.

Ali:
Paddi, can I stay with you and can we talk about another thing that came up in the case reviews and this is all about a history of violence and professionals not always being aware that there's a violent history within a family. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

Paddi:
A history of violence would present as a higher risk of domestic abuse to partners or their children. But as you quite rightly say, professionals aren't always aware of that violent history so that in turn then limits their view of the risk to the child. They don't always have that information available. Families can be quite transient and move from location to location and from local authority to local authority. And sometimes that information about a person's past relationship history doesn't move with them. So it's very difficult for professionals to assess those risks to children.

Ali:
And Nikki, is there anything else that we want to talk about with regards to this whole area of history of violence?

Nikki:
I think one of the things that came up in the case reviews as well to do with violence was that sometimes the perpetrator might display violence towards other people than their family or to work towards objects that they might kind of throw things or break things, and that that was also a clear indicator that there might be risk to the child. So even if practitioners didn't witness the perpetrator being violent towards their family, they should still be concerned about whether the child is at risk.

Ali:
I think one of the findings again within the serious case reviews is that domestic abuse isn't always recognised as a child protection issue. So Nikki, can we come to you? Could we talk about this issue of why domestic abuse isn't always recognised as being a child protection issue?

Nikki:
Yeah I think in the case reviews what often happened is that practitioners became very focused on the needs of the parents and the needs of the parent who was the victim in particular. And perhaps they made an assumption about domestic abuse and didn't really realise that it does have an impact on children and it should always be treated as a child protection concern. And they made perhaps assumptions about thinking, “oh well a perpetrator wouldn't harm their children because they're their own children”. And that's not sadly the case.

Ali:
And going back to what we talked about previously about the issue of gender, Paddi, can we come to you? I think the study identified that practitioners tended to rely quite heavily on the mother's ability to keep her children safe. Can we talk about that a little bit more?

Paddi:
Yes, that's right. So very often there was an assumption made that the mother would have that ability to keep her child safe from abuse. And in some cases underestimated the risk that a mother might pose to her own children, particularly when the mother themselves is the perpetrator of abuse. Equally whenever that mum is in a position that has maybe got other influences, such as drug or alcohol abuse, that can impact on her ability to care and protect for her children. And while it's essential that we support the victim to access services to support whatever alcohol or drug misuse there may well be or mental health support, we still can't lose sight of the impact that this might have on her ability to care and protect for the children.

Ali:
Paddi, can we talk about professionals perhaps minimising what children might experience and that they too might become...well they too are actual victims of domestic abuse?

Paddi:
Yes, often professionals do minimise children's experience in terms of domestic abuse. We know that children do not merely witness domestic abuse. They experience it. And very often victims themselves become in tune to the cycle of violence. And they'll often try to remove the child from a home prior to an explosion or an incident happening. And they do try to maybe shield a child to a certain level. What happens then is that professionals minimise what the children experience as they may not have directly witnessed it. So they minimise the impact of that experience that has on the child.

Children, they witness, they hear, they sense much more than an adult believes. We recognise that children are maybe listening from another room, they see parents in distress, they are maybe finding disorder in the home, and they also pick up very much so on that walking on eggshells feeling. That sense of something isn't quite right within the home. Children have that basic need for safety and security and exposure to domestic abuse and incidents does have an impact on their behaviour, on their wellbeing, even on their brain development. So it's really important that those children are kept well and truly at the focus of what's happening within that home.

Nikki:
As well, one of the things that came up in case reviews was about the idea that if one of the parents or caregivers is abusive, their anger and the abuse might be directed at the other parent or carer mainly. But if that victim leaves, then it might go towards the children, if that makes sense. There was an example of a mother who had to leave the home because she was a victim of domestic abuse and she wasn't able to take her children with her and professionals made the assumption that the children would be fine staying home with their father because he was their father. But actually his violence then turned on them and they were seriously harmed so that's kind of another aspect that needs to be considered.

Ali:
Going on from this Paddi, can we talk about what we see in practice and what we hear on the helpline? What calls do we get?

Paddi:
On the helpline, we frequently receive calls in relation to the continued effects of domestic abuse following a separation. We recognise that actually one of the highest risks is when the victim and the children decide to leave a relationship, when they're actually at a heightened risk. And certainly during the pandemic, we saw a real increase in the number of contacts we received in regards to separation and contact.

It's common for domestic abuse to heighten and the victim and children to be at a higher risk once a decision to end a relationship is made. But coincidentally, this is often when services pull out, believing that the relationship has come to an end and therefore so has the abuse. But that isn't the case and very often contact arrangements and separation can be used as another method of control within a relationship. Victims are often too frightened for their own safety to prevent contact. And like Nikki had mentioned, they often feel that the perpetrator would never hurt their own child, but they're maybe not recognising the impact of that domestic abuse relationship and the effect that it's had on their child.

Or very often you might find that a victim refuses the perpetrator contact, but that again can cause the perpetrator to escalate that kind of attempt to control the situation through coercive control or through violence. Contacts that we've received on the helpline would include a perpetrator failing to collect a child or leaving the other parent to manage the fallout that that has, or they may simply not return the child at a specified time. All ways of which a perpetrator can continue to demonstrate that coercive control over a victim. Thankfully the Domestic Abuse Bill has been strengthened and recognises that post separation abuse is a criminal offence and that victims can still receive support in regards to this and it is recognised which is brilliant.

On the helpline, we often hear about children being used as a pawn to continue the abuse, to relay messages to the victim, or they may be frequently quizzed by one parent about the other parent or made to keep secrets. You know, “don't tell your mum this” or “don't tell your dad this” and that again builds up that level of anxiety within a child. And we have received calls that show that ongoing bullying and assaults are still common during drop offs and collections. All these behaviours are being played out in front of the children and having a detrimental effect on the children's emotional wellbeing and it’s causing fear, distress. And in some cases, parents are even acknowledging that it's causing physical, ill health within the child.

Children have a basic need for safety and security and that exposure to domestic abuse can really have a detrimental impact on their emotional wellbeing. We know that children can appear anxious, not just for themselves but also worry for the victim, for their siblings. They can often present as fearful or withdrawn. Children can also struggle to build relationships with their parents. This can be due to the fear of the perpetrator or worry about parents divorcing, concerns for their own future and their own future relationships.

Children often try and go act as a go between and as a protector for the victim, so often trying to step in to diffuse the situation. Children can also take on much more significant caring roles, particularly for siblings. If mum doesn't have that capacity or dad doesn't have that capacity, very often they might step in to try and shield their siblings. And even more seriously, children can experience those kind of suicidal thoughts and feelings which has been built up and built up due to the emotional effect that the domestic abuse is having on them.

We know that also children who experience domestic abuse in the home are also more likely to display aggression and challenging behaviours. And we may need to start to consider the impact of that child-to-parent domestic abuse that is happening now as well. And there certainly seems to be an increase of that where a child is starting to display behaviours of aggression and violence towards their own parent or other adults within the home.

Ali:
I think there's a bit about babies in the womb can be impacted by domestic abuse.

Paddi:
Absolutely. We know that children experience domestic abuse as you say right from children being in the womb. They pick up on signs. They pick up on the aggression. When you put a pregnant mother under stress, that can also impact the development of the baby within the womb and causes stress on the child and mum. Women are more likely to experience domestic abuse when they are pregnant. So it's really important that we recognise that pregnant mothers are also of a higher increased risk and therefore that unborn baby is also of a higher risk of domestic abuse.

Ali:
Could we talk about some of the learning from this? Nikki, can we come to you?

Nikki:
The key thing really from the case reviews is that domestic abuse should always be viewed as increasing the risk to children. And if there's ever concerns that an adult is experiencing domestic abuse, maybe adult services are working with that person, they should refer that to children's services as well and the whole family should be assessed to see what support is needed and that professionals should really always focus on the wellbeing of the child and the child's lived experience.

Ali:
So Nikki, how do we get the child's voice in all of this?

Nikki:
I think one of the things that comes out in the case reviews is that although professionals should be asking parents questions about what's going on in the family, that's only one part of the whole assessment process. So professionals really should seek out the voice of the child and speak to children. Speak to them away from their parents, if possible, so they can understand how the child's been affected by what's going on and then put in place the right measures to support them.

Ali:
And what about assessments?

Nikki:
Assessments really need to look at the bigger picture of what's going on with the family, and they need to consider all the adults who are significant in a child's life. So I think sometimes a perpetrator of domestic abuse might not be biologically related to the child. They might fade into the background a little bit. But if they're a partner of the child's parent, they're still relevant to any assessment and they should still be considered about the child's life.

Paddi:
Sometimes when we're doing assessments and we look for levels of support that might be within a home, we look for other adults and other family members or friends even sometimes act as protective factors, we look for those protective factors. And sometimes within domestic abuse cases, we find that family members are maybe being discontinued. Okay, so they maybe don't have those relationships with extended family members. And it's really important that we question and quiz why that's the case. So why don't you have contact with extended family? Why don't you have contact from friends and co-workers? And it may be a case that the perpetrator has isolated the victim of domestic abuse away from any sort of support which can often happen. Or it may be that the family themselves have decided to cut ties because they've tried to put an intervention and they've tried to support and because they are unhappy with the relationship, they've separated themselves from the family - so that can often happen. I suppose it's about being quizzical, trying to find out why that family doesn't have contact with extended family and relationships. It's really important that we recognise the impact that other adults and caregivers and friends, colleagues can have as protective factors in those children's lives. It's really important that we don't underestimate that.

Ali:
Thank you Paddi. Can we stay with you Paddi because we know that the review also highlighted that professionals don't always fully understand the dynamics of domestic abuse. Could we talk about this a little bit further?

Paddi:
Domestic abuse relationships are based very much on one person demonstrating a misuse and abuse of power over another person. And the aim of that is to try and isolate, manipulate and control that other person. So it's vital that practitioners understand the pattern of these behaviours that keep a victim and their children often trapped in an abusive relationship. And sometimes we see this as very much a cycle of abuse.

The first stage of that cycle is that tension building phase. This is when a perpetrator might start to present as a little bit edgy, moody, sulky. Leaving the victim and the children in the home. Leaving that walking on eggshells feeling. Often at this stage the victim will try to kind of placate the perpetrator, will try to calm things down, in an attempt to ward off that explosion. So the explosion can happen when a perpetrator is out of control. And this is when the victim and the children within the home are at the most risk of harm. But again, it's important to note that this might not include physical violence.

Following that explosion what you often find is the perpetrator enters a cycle of a bit of a honeymoon period where there'll be lots of apologies, lots of feeling of guilt from the perpetrator, “I'm so sorry” and even sometimes pretending like nothing happened. And again this honeymoon period lasts but always in the background that stage one of tension building is never very far away. And that cycle will continue, often causing massive amount of confusion and upset for the victim and their children because they never know what's happening and they're always kept on that eggshells feeling, and that kind of momentum of that cycle is very hard to break free from.

Nikki:
One of the key things in the case reviews is what Paddi was talking about, this cycle with the honeymoon period, and that maybe can make a victim minimise what's going on because they might think, “oh everything's fine now, I was just overreacting before”. Or practitioners might only see a family when they're doing that honeymoon phase so that might give them a skewed idea of how safe the children are or what's going on in that home.

And the case reviews highlighted that there were certain things that practitioners need to be aware of that can really trigger serious incidents, so that they need to be aware that these things could happen. Like Paddi said, they could happen at any time and that can put the family at much more increased risk. We've already talked about things like relationship breakdown and the victim leaving. But other things that were picked up in the case reviews are things like loss of employment, the perpetrator being injured in some way, having physical and mental health problems as well. And all those can really exacerbate things. And I think something we could add to that as well now is the pandemic. We know that has exacerbated things for a lot of families where there's abuse as well.

Ali:
So the learning from that then for professionals...

Nikki:
Professionals need to be aware of the dynamics of domestic abuse and how it works. And they need to be aware that what they're seeing one week when they see a family might not be the whole picture. There might be this cycle going on behind the scenes. And they need to be aware that there are factors that might contribute to things getting worse. So if they know, for example, that a perpetrator has lost their job, they need to be aware that that might lead to the domestic abuse being exacerbated. And really, again, as we’ve said, they just need to prioritise what the child's lived experience is, and not just look at snapshots, but look at the overall picture.

Ali:
We have touched on it a little bit but this issue of disguised compliance, can we just embellish on that a little bit more?

Paddi:
Certainly. As Nikki mentioned, it is important to consider the potential for disguised compliance. One of the key findings was in relation to the engagement with services, with certainly the potential for perpetrators completing programmes in relation to domestic abuse while in that honeymoon period, but only as a way to allay concerns and potentially manipulate professionals and the victim into believing that they're working on the relationship and they're trying to make their relationship healthy again. And as we know from the cycle, that that isn't always the case. And certainly, I think it's really important that agencies that are working with families and are delivering programmes to support domestic abuse, liaise very closely with agents, with other agencies to ensure that no information is lost and that agencies are working very much together and tightly to identify when a perpetrator does drop off a course.

Ali:
I guess going on from that a bit Paddi, can we talk about how professionals need to be mindful that the victims themselves might be caught up in this honeymoon period in this cycle and how that might kind of play out?

Paddi:
Very often when a victim is in that cycle, they are led to believe that the perpetrator is trying to build on their own relationship and is trying to move forward, so they're less likely to come forward to agencies for support. We know that on average, there's about 36 incidents of domestic abuse before a victim will actually recognise that that relationship is unhealthy, whether that be through control or for physical violence. So it's important that professionals should be curious that domestic abuse almost doesn't exist. They should be using their knowledge on previous history and not to assume that there is no domestic abuse in a relationship simply because the victim doesn't disclose that it exists.

Ali:
Paddi, Nikki, thank you for speaking to us today about the learning from case reviews around domestic abuse.

Paddi:
Thank you very much.

Nikki:
Very welcome.

(Outro)

Thanks for listening to this NSPCC Learning podcast. At the time of recording, this episode’s content was up to date but the world of safeguarding and child protection is ever changing – so, if you're looking for the most current safeguarding and child protection training, information or resources, please visit our website for professionals at nspcc.org.uk/learning.