by Dr Christine Barter, NSPCC senior research fellow, University of Bristol
When peer violence and abuse occurs in foster or residential care the impact on the child can be overwhelming.
The vast majority of children in care share family histories of violence, abuse and neglect. The re-victimisation of children through peer violence can have a profound impact on young people already struggling to cope with negative life experiences.
Despite this, the issue has not been the focus of significant attention.
How extensive is peer violence in residential and foster care?
Our research, indicates it is a common problem for children in residential care. We found three-quarters of the children we interviewed experienced physical violence, and half experienced emotional abuse from another child in the settings. Girls were more likely than boys to report sexual violence.
One large study, based on young people’s experiences in 48 children’s homes, showed that just under half of children reported attempts at bullying and a third of girls stated another resident had attempted to take advantage of them sexually.
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My own experience as a residential worker in the 1980s was of homes with little guidance or specific aims, except to contain and control. Residential workers on the whole wanted to try and help, but were not provided with adequate skills or direction. We know now, from the plethora of child abuse scandals, that not all staff shared these values.
Peer violence, especially low level physical and emotional violence, such as name calling, were often viewed as a normal aspect of these settings: a finding which was reflected in our subsequent research.
However, research also showed there is significant variation in the rate of peer violence between similar homes. It is clear that homes can have a positive (and indeed negative) impact on children’s peer interactions.
As for foster care, it is perhaps shocking that no specific research has examined the prevalence and impact of peer violence.
One study found a fifth of referrals concerning abuse in foster care involved another child as the instigator – mostly other foster children, a sibling or carers’ biological children. This highlights the distinct dynamics of foster care where both fostered and biological children often share the family home.
Both national and international research has identified sexual violence as a major risk, especially if the child’s known sexual risk was not reported prior to placement. Sadly, this is an all too often occurrence.
Others have shown the impact that foster children’s violence and abuse can have on biological children, either through direct experience or by witnessing violence towards their parents. Research shows these children often receive too little recognition and inadequate support.
The incidence and impact of peer violence in foster care is clearly identified in relation to foster placement breakdowns.
One placement breakdown is often followed by another if the trauma underpinning the child’s behaviour fails to be addressed. The consequences for all the children involved can be considerable.
Why do some children in care use violence?
Most evidence points to two interrelated reasons: the impact of children’s previous traumatic family experiences and the failure of the care system to adequately respond to this trauma.
It is not enough to remove children from abuse. We have a responsibility to ensure they get the support necessary to overcome the trauma they have experienced. Too often this is not provided and it must be addressed. A safe and secure home, where children feel valued and consulted, is obviously a good start.
In a recent paper published in child abuse review, ‘A life less ordinary: Foster carers’ views and experiences of negative peer interactions in fostering households’, I set out some of the key messages.
Frequent and flexible support
Carers identified that good pre-planning with detailed referral information was a pre-requisite. This helped them make an informed decision on whether they can match the needs of all children in their household, the level of appropriate supervision, and what support would be required.
Practical, individually tailored, training on behaviour management strategies was also requested by many. However, overall what carers most wanted was for social workers to provide frequent and flexible non-judgemental support for all family members, which viewed carers as equal partners and acknowledged they were experts in their own family dynamics.
There is also a pressing need to have proven counselling and psychotherapeutic interventions which incorporate both an understanding of the impact of family abuse and neglect, the drivers of peer violence, alongside an understanding of the care setting.
We have some way to go to achieve this and this should start by recognising the impact of peer abuse.
This piece is based on chapter five of the NSPCC book, ‘Promoting the wellbeing of children in care’, published in March.