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Hi, and welcome to the latest NSPCC Learning podcast. The episode you're about to listen to was recorded in January 2022 and focuses on domestic abuse. Over the course of the pandemic, the NSPCC's national helpline has seen a 35 per cent rise in contacts relating to domestic abuse, and so it's been vital for us to focus on this area.
The NSPCC was fortunate to secure funding from the UK Insurance and Long Term Savings Industry's COVID-19 Fund. This has allowed us to launch a three-year domestic abuse project and protect more families from domestic abuse by strengthening capacity to manage contacts, through employing more helpline practitioners, raising awareness of the helpline and increasing practitioner knowledge.
The funding has also enabled the NSPCC to appoint Lisa Begley and Naomi Hawthorne as domestic abuse advisors. Both Lisa and Naomi have many years' experience in the violence against women and girls sector (VAWG) and in working with children and families who have experienced domestic abuse. Their extensive skills and knowledge in frontline services, management and training is already being utilised in the Helpline via training guidance and caseloads. And this is enhancing the NSPCC's response to domestic abuse in both policy and practice.
Paddi Vint is our quality and development manager, overseeing the three-year domestic abuse project. She began by asking Naomi about the domestic abuse training.
And why was it so important, for yourself and Lisa, to develop that training, not just for practitioners, but also for Helpline advisors and practice managers?
Myself and Naomi have spoken about this. It's really to look at having that strengths-based approach. We're looking at what the non-abusing parent is doing to be protective and to prevent risks escalating. But also holding the perpetrator accountable for the things that are taking place. And that feeds into our risk assessments and how we go on to appropriately safeguard children when the likes of post-separation and contact presents itself to the Helpline.
And I suppose that is a high prevalence that comes towards us when we engage with these complex calls that need to be pulled apart and assessed in more depth so that we can look at what is going on, not only for the non-abusing parent, but also for the child. Because if the non-abusing parent is offered the right intervention and support and they are protected, that only has a ripple effect then on the children. That creates the stability and the security that is needed and helps build resilience and recovery for that child or children. So it's being able to identify that.
And if we can skill the workforce up to be able to probe and investigate and write up robust risk assessments, then that is something that's going to jump out at a social worker and make them want to then look, hopefully, at our interpretation of what has taken place not only for that child, but the non-abusive parent, and [then] hopefully provide the interventions that are needed.
How are we managing and monitoring that risk?
We’ve equipped the practitioners with a risk indicator checklist, specifically designed for the role of the Helpline practitioner. Things that they should be looking out for to alert them that the case might be high-risk or medium risk. Separation is definitely a key high-risk indicator. Pregnancy is also a key risk indicator. Escalation – so if the abuse is getting worse or happening more often. Issues such as immigration status, language, disability, limited support networks. Those are all factors that again heighten someone's risk. Stalking and harassment – so, for example, if the relationship has ended but the abuser is continuing to harass, threaten, monitor and this can be via phone calls, via text messages, emails. And what we find quite often, quite disturbingly, is the amount of tracking devices that are used. Not only on the parent – the non-abusive parent – but also on the children, where tracking devices are put into their phones or their watches so that the abusive parent can track them.
Other high-risk indicators would be threats to kill, threats to harm or threats of suicide from the perpetrator. And often we have survivors – victims – feeling fearful to leave their abuser because they have threatened to kill themselves if they ever leave them. There's also presence, or use of, weapons or access to weapons [which] is a high-risk indicator. And also injunctions or a previous police involvement. So, if there's been previous or current non-molestation orders, and especially if these have been breached time and time again, these are high-risk factors.
It is also really important that whilst we recognise that domestic abuse can impact on anyone whether that be male or female. It's also really important for us to acknowledge that actually the majority of the parents that we support who are victims, survivors are female and the majority of the abusive parents are male. And I think refusing to recognise this really ignores the established evidence base and minimises women's experiences.
And I think one other point that's really important [is] that we can get carried away in risk assessment and safety planning and referrals, but another important part of our work with our practitioners is to remind them [of] the importance of validation. So validating the caller's experience. Being empathetic and non-judgmental because it may be the first time they've told anyone about the abuse. So we give the practitioner examples of what to say. You know, "thank you for telling me this. This must have been really difficult and what you're describing to me sounds like abuse. It's really good that you've been able to say this to me today. It's not okay that someone is treating you and your children like this. Your safety at home and that of your children is our priority." So those key messages, even though they're so simple, they can have an incredible impact on that survivor's journey in getting the right support and engaging with services.
Obviously, for us within the NSPCC, we know that children experience domestic abuse. They're not bystanders. They experience the domestic abuse as much as the non-abusing parent or carer. Why is it so important to reflect the impact of domestic abuse on children?
In terms of children's experiences, they assume so many different roles and each child may live in a home, but their experiences are very different. And when post-separation comes about and children are either made to continue to see the perpetrator, the abusive parent, sometimes their needs are overlooked and their feelings and wishes are not addressed within some of the safeguarding roles that professionals are there to ensure the children are kept safe.
There are many short-term and long-term impacts on children, and those are really based around their emotional and physical needs. Certainly the fallout of domestic abuse and not listening to children's experiences leads children to then have mental health issues. They have sleep disturbances, they need reassurance and comforting from the non-abusing parents so they may regress. There's a level of distress, but there's also a need to protect the non-abusing parent. But also, whilst to-ing and fro-ing from contact, they can be used to continue to stalk and harass, but also to perpetrate further harm and abuse, monitor and surveil the other parent. So I think the recognition of really the fact that the victim, survivor has all of these experiences that are very unique to them, but also that coincides with the child that resides in the home. And sometimes, given their age and stage of development, children are… there's a level of responsibility placed upon them, and they're brought into an adult world, which they shouldn't be involved in. And it's being able to identify really, what has taken place for them; recognising the behaviour and being able to provide an intervention.
I think a huge part of the work needs to be focused around keeping the child alongside the non-abusing parent because when they're safe and together, that's where resilience and recovery is built upon. It's looking at the protective factors that the non-abusing parent brings into the child's world. Having that strengths-based approach. Even the simple things – soothing a child when they come home from contact, if they're distressed, or things are a bit chaotic or have been chaotic, providing a listening ear, taking the child for a walk to the park – all of those things are around coping. And in my experience of working with children, when they look back, they will always say or make reference to the fact that the non-abusing parent was the one that helped them cope through times of real difficulty and distress.
You might get a parent that says they didn't see it or they didn't hear it so I think it's really important for us as practitioners and professionals to help survivors understand the emotional and psychological impacts that often outweigh any physical impacts of domestic abuse. And I think that can help and give voice to their experiences as well and validate those experiences. So thinking about isolation, emotional abuse, intimidation – those can all be quite hard to verbally express. But if we can support and draw that out, for example, how you might have one child that is given affection and the other one isn't. And that is a tool that can be used by the perpetrator in order to create barriers between the children; where the abusive parent will discredit or undermine the non-abusive parents role. And what we sometimes see in the impact of that is then the children may repeat those behaviours and start to collude in the abuse of the non-abusive parent. These are all kind of the insidious, subtle ways in which domestic abuse can impact on children. It's not always just the physical manifestations of it. It's how it actually erodes the relationship of the non-abusive parent and the child. That is definitely the most damaging impact that I can see in my work with the non-abusive parent.
What's really important is that the whole Helpline – the workforce – are equipped with the tools to help them identify domestic abuse. Because often when a survivor, a victim, picks up the phone and calls the Helpline, they won't necessarily recognise themselves that they're experiencing abuse. As professionals, we have a responsibility to recognise and then reflect that back to the service user in a safe, appropriate and sensitive way. Because it can take a lot of courage for somebody to pick up the phone for the first time and talk about their experiences. So our response from the very get go, from the start, from the Helpline advisor right through to the practitioner, it needs to be domestic abuse-informed and trauma-informed to get them the right support.
Part of your work when you are supporting our Helpline practitioners is about recognising that safety planning, and that goes not just through our Helpline practitioners, but also our Helpline advisors who take the initial call. Could you give us a little bit more of an understanding of what those safety considerations look like?
It's really important when we are talking with survivors on the telephone that we ensure that they, first of all, are on their own and that they are in a private place and that no one's listening, especially if they're still living with the perpetrator. It's really important that we don't do anything to escalate the risk. We've produced safety considerations checklist for Helpline advisors and practitioners to help them safely assess [the] situation before they carry on with any domestic abuse enquiry. Once they've established it is safe to continue that phone call and carry on with that enquiry, we can offer practitioners examples of questions and how to elicit further disclosures and responses.
So, for example, we can ask them questions around exploring the abusive parents' pattern of the abusive behaviour towards the victim and children. For example, do they put them down? Is there name calling? Is there constraints on their time? It could be even as simple as thinking about who controls the household – it could be as simple as watching the television. Does it always have to be what the abusive parent wants to watch on the TV? Are they always controlling where the children go? Also their extended family – are the children allowed to see their grandparents? Do they do extra-curricular activities? What is the level of control there? So it's thinking outside of the box. We're not looking at just the physical incident model, but we're looking at how this abuse encapsulates their whole space for action and for accessing social networks and support. That's really, really key because we know that that level of coercive control can harm children emotionally, psychologically, physically, socially and educationally. So that's all the themes that we're looking at, and that's how we're supporting practitioners to assess that.
And what about in terms of ensuring, as Naomi mentioned, the safety – of being safe to manage the call and carry on the call? What sort of things are we putting in place to ensure that it is safe for that caller to continue speaking with us?
Before we start with a call, so for example, if we've got a situation where the person is living with the perpetrator but the perpetrator is not in the home, we would ask them when do they expect the abusive parent [to] be back? And also we establish a code word or a sentence, which the caller can say to indicate that it's no longer safe to talk so that they can end the call. For example, we can say to them, look if your situation changes and you're no longer safe to talk, please say, "thanks, but I'm not interested" and I'll know you have to go. So it's little things like that. Putting in those little safety mechanisms which really also gives the service user confidence in us, in that we understand the complexity of the situation and how risk can escalate and how risk is dynamic. It doesn't stay the same.
Some of the work that you do has been very complex and you've been acting as advocacy for some families and liaising with agencies. How has that worked, and those cases that you've been holding, how has that made a difference to the families that you've been supporting?
Often presentations around domestic abuse, they can initially present as child contact disputes. And we even also have concerned family members calling up about loved ones who they are concerned about, [who] are in an abusive relationships. So there is a different wide range of presentations initially that we receive. And part of our work is to support those family members, whether that's the direct victim, survivor or it's a concerned family member, to first of all listen, understand and validate their experiences of domestic abuse. And support them to recognise that what they're describing is actually abusive. That it is coercive control and that it is having a harmful impact on the children.
It's really important to recognise that children and young people can be direct victim, survivors of coercive control. And they can experience it in the same way as adults do. They feel afraid living constrained lives, feeling entrapped, and also feeling that they're walking on eggshells. So a lot of our support is around identifying the perpetrator's patterns of behaviour and then working with the non-abusive parent to identify their strengths – what they're doing that is protective, what strategies they're using to mitigate the risks from the perpetrator – and then looking at the impact of harm. So that's the depth of the work that we carry out within those complex high-risk cases.
And then we will make a referral to children's safeguarding and try to provide signposting as well to local domestic abuse services. And also sometimes advocate for that parent with their allocated social worker, because sometimes what we see is that, because coercive control is so insidious, it's often not recognised by the social worker. So our role is to effectively articulate what is happening and the risks as we see it, in order to safeguard that child from any further emotional harm.
And I think to go behind what Naomi has shared in terms of when we do have involvement with third party, be that a friend or a family member; a huge part of domestic abuse is that it thrives in secrecy and silence. And if you can break that isolation, then you open the gateway to support. By being able to have that initial conversation with maybe a grandfather, a grandmother, an aunt and uncle, sister, brother, even an adult sibling, then by providing a level of understanding – and a huge part for survivors of domestic abuse is just knowing that their experiences have been validated, listened to and believed – and when you're able to provide that to a family member, that opens the door to those conversations. It breaks the isolation that the perpetrator strives so hard to make sure that it's enforced.
I know myself and Naomi have both had experiences where we have spoken to the likes of an uncle and auntie, a grandmother, a grandfather, who have then been able to follow on from a conversation that we have had with them, where they feel better supported and understand really what is going on for their loved one. That they've been able to follow on that conversation and on the back of that, then we have had repeat calls from the actual victim, survivor themselves who have said, "I need that support. I'm willing to open up and have the conversation. This is what's going on for me and my children. What do I need to do to better safeguard myself and them?". And they're open to that support, and that's the opportunity that we don't want to miss on the Helpline and what we're striving to do within this project.
And signposting has been key for us in terms of updating and developing and creating those links with external agencies. How did you go about looking at our signpost and directory and ensuring its development?
Part of our role was about building a network of local and national links with third sector and community partners. And we looked at our signposting directory and made links with national specialist organisations. So we reached out to those organisations, engaged with them, understood what services they offer, where they offer it, how they offer it, and then looking at developing potential referral pathways with those organisations. So we've actually built relationships with a number of third sector organisations, and that's really helped inform our training and recognise the specific barriers that certain groups face. For example, victims and survivors from Black and minoritised communities that can face systemic issues such as racism, community pressures, and those who have disabilities that can hinder an individual's ability to report or get support around domestic abuse. It's really important for us to be able to provide tailored signposting and support to children and families.
And I think that referral pathway will be key for us moving forward within our project to be able to ensure that the right organisations are able to provide that support so that we would be able to, with the member of the publics' consent, refer directly into that most specific organisation. And that's something that we're currently working on developing – those referral pathways.
Moving forward, what are you looking forward to in the next year? We seem to have ticked off a lot of what we hope to do and develop, but moving forward, how do you see your role for the next year rolling out?
We have in front of us the referral pathways that are continuing to be created and the links in with all those external organisations and continuing to train and skill ourselves up is one of the things that I'm really looking forward to. We do have things in front of us as the project evolves. So that's really what I'm looking forward to in 2022.
In terms of nationally, it's an exciting time because the NSPCC Helpline's domestic abuse project has come at a time where government now recognises in law that children are direct victims and directly experience domestic abuse itself. Because before I think children were viewed as the collateral damage in it all and passive witnesses to domestic abuse. And I hope that we can integrate domestic abuse and child protection together in how we respond to it, and not work in silos. So that's really one of the aims I have for this project, and I hope that we will achieve that.
Thank you so much, Lisa and Naomi, for all your hard work to date and your persistence and your dedication to victims, survivors and the families that are affected by domestic abuse. And I can't wait for another year of moving the project forward.
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.