Teenage victims of domestic abuse should receive greater support from statutory services after the government announced it would extend its definition of domestic violence to include 16- and 17-year-old victims.
The exclusion of young people from the definition left them without the support they needed to escape abusive relationships, a government consultation on the issue found.
Campaigners have strongly backed the decision but warned that specialist domestic violence services would need additional resources to meet the needs of teenage victims, given their particular vulnerability.
Teenagers at higher risk
The government's decision reflects evidence that teenagers are at particular risk of domestic abuse: the 2009-10 British Crime Survey found 12.7% of women and 6.2% of men aged 16-19 had suffered abuse from a partner compared with 7% of women and 5% of men in older age groups.
They are also particularly vulnerable, said charity Coordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse (Caada), which published research today on the experiences of 183 victims aged under 18 who used specialist domestic violence services from 2010-12. It found:
- 62% were at risk of serious harm or murder and 78% had experienced controlling behaviour;
- 14% had experienced abuse from more than one perpetrator, twice the rate for adults;
- 27% had self-harmed, 25% had experienced mental health issues and 21% had threatened or attempted suicide.
"The current Home Office definition of domestic violence indicates that abuse only happens between adults aged 18 and over," said Caada chief executive Diana Barran. "But this definition does not reflect reality: teenager victims exist and our data shows that they are amongst the most vulnerable in the UK today."
More funding needed
However, she said more funding was required to provide specialist support for teenage victims, including from independent domestic violence advisers, who work with victims to develop and implement safety plans and co-ordinate support.
Today's announcement was also welcomed by the NSPCC, whose ChildLine helpline receives about 3,000 contacts a year from young people about domestic violence.
“Teenage years are difficult at the best of times but a lack of experience in relationships and issues with self-confidence can mean young people feel they have nowhere to turn," said chief executive Andrew Flanagan. "Many victims, as well as perpetrators, come from abusive homes themselves and therefore don’t realise how wrong these kind of relationships are."
As part of today's announcement NSPCC has set up a young people's panel to inform the government's approach to tackling domestic violence against teenagers and young adults.
The definition of domestic violence, which currently covers "incidents of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse", will also be widened to include "coercive control", which covers patterns of controlling or coercive behaviour, such as restricting access to finances or regulating someone's everyday life.
This change was also strongly welcomed by Caada. "We know from our work with high risk domestic abuse services that a defining feature of the most dangerous cases is controlling behaviour, and that this behaviour is exhibited by abusers more frequently than other types of abuse," said Barran. "By changing the definition we will shine a light on the many victims who are constantly being controlled by their partners, and who may not realise that they are living with domestic abuse, but who are nonetheless at serious risk."
The changes will take effect by March 2013.
Domestic violence definition to include victims aged under 18
Special report on domestic violence good practice