Domestic violence statistics make for disturbing reading. Affecting one in every four women, an incident occurs in the UK every 26 seconds. Many of these violent episodes will take place in homes where children are present, with more than half of these children experiencing abuse themselves. As a result many children feel isolated, anxious and confused. But there are few services for them.
In Sutton, a south London outer suburb, a programme which aims to help these children process their experiences of domestic violence has been rolled out. The Community Group Treatment Programme was piloted in 2003 after an audit of services for local families uncovered a growing number of children who had witnessed violence in the family home but were unable to access support.
The success of the pilot led the council to roll out the programme borough-wide, and it has now helped over 100 children. Funded jointly by the council, Sutton and Merton Primary Care Trust and the Children’s Fund, the service has been endorsed by Women’s Aid and the Greater London Domestic Violence Forum as an example of best practice.
The initiative is based on a model developed in Canada that offers children the opportunity to attend a 12-week programme to help them explore their feelings in a safe environment. Following referral and a comprehensive risk assessment, the children, grouped by age, attend weekly sessions where they explore topics including safety planning, identification of abuse, conflict resolution and improving self-esteem.
Children who have witnessed violence in the home often become consumed by feelings of guilt and self-blame, says Linda Finn, project co-ordinator. “We want them to understand they’re not responsible. They have a huge sense of responsibility and they face the dilemma of whether to intervene or not.”
The sessions also provide an opportunity to meet other young people in the same situation. Isolation is a common emotion and many children don’t realise that domestic violence takes place in other homes too.
When asked what they liked about the programme, young people indicated that they liked the opportunity to explore their feelings with other children who had been through the same experiences. “Talking to other people about my problems has made me feel confident,” said one young person.
The programme also runs concurrent sessions for the children’s mothers to help them understand how the violence has affected their sons or daughters. This is not an easy journey for the mothers, says Finn. “It’s a difficult piece of work because it’s probably the most painful place to take a mother to. Midway through the programme there’s often this awful realisation that ‘I thought I’d protected my child, but actually they saw more than I ever thought’.”
Suzanne Cripps, community and family support manager at Sutton, points out that the remit of the service effectively extends beyond the 12-week programme both mother and child may need individual counselling before or after attending the sessions, and working with families often uncovers a lot of unmet need to do with issues such as housing or benefits.
Although led by Sutton Council, the service draws on the resources of professionals both in-house and from other agencies to deliver the sessions. Getting buy-in from a range of agencies helps to raise awareness, says Finn. She adds: “Everyone who works on the programme will tell you that they’ve learned more on domestic violence from working directly with the mothers and children than they did from any training event.
“What the practitioners learn in the group sessions they take back with them to their team meetings or other work and that helps change the ethos in other agencies. There is now a greater awareness of the needs of children affected by domestic violence.”
This approach, though, is not without its challenges. Cripps says it can be difficult to keep all your partners on board and keeping momentum going is essential.
➔ For more information, contact Linda Finn on 020 8404 1973 .
…for setting up a service to address the needs of children who have witnessed domestic violence:
●Don’t take no for an answer. You need to get support at both a senior level and on the frontline – a top down and bottom up approach is what works.
●Engage with as wide a range of agencies as possible – domestic violence transcends organisational boundaries and you should try and reflect that.
●Ensure people delivering the service have the skills to be able to listen to children and to use language that is sensitive to their age group.
●Make the service inclusive so that you meet the needs of all children by, for example, arranging interpreters where necessary.