What about the children?

Felix Morris, independent social worker with
Morris Young Associates.
Field: Children and families.
Location: Midlands.
Client: Beth Lewis, 22, is a care leaver with two
children: seven-year-old Shania,  and five-year-old Tallulah. 

Case History: Beth was abandoned by her mother as
a baby and was brought up by various relatives and friends, until
she was taken into care aged 13. She met Torin Hughes at a
children’s home and gave birth to Shania. After spells in a mother
and baby unit and several foster homes, Beth moved in with Hughes.
Tallulah was born shortly after but their relationship ended
following a prolonged escalation of domestic violence. She then met
Chesney Stevens, whose jealousy often erupted violently especially
after he had been taking heroin. Beth was soon pregnant again, but
lost the child after Stevens kicked her in the stomach. Five months
after becoming pregnant again, Beth was stabbed in the thigh by
Stevens, for which he was imprisoned. However, with the birth of
the new baby imminent, Stevens was set to be released with Beth
keen for him to return home. 
Dilemma: If Beth continues her relationship with
Stevens her children will be removed. 
Risk factor: Although her parenting skills are
generally good, Beth cannot see that her relationships with men put
the children and herself at risk.
Outcome: Although her children were placed in
care, she no longer sees Stevens and now lives alone with her three
children in a new home. 

Note: No real names have been used other than the

Domestic violence, which accounts for almost 25 per cent of all
violent crime in the UK, remains the most significant indicator we
have of child abuse. Inquiry after inquiry uncovers the same
pattern: children were killed by an adult already known to be
violent to their partner.

For Beth Lewis, 22, abandoned as a baby by her mother and brought
up largely in care, domestic violence has been the mainstay of her
long-term relationships. Torin Hughes, whom she met in a children’s
home and the father of her two children, Shania and Tallulah,
started being violent to her once they moved in together. The
violence increased and their relationship ended.

“With her next partner, Chesney Stevens, the domestic abuse started
slowly but surely,” says independent social worker, Felix Morris,
who was later allocated the case. “He started displaying
controlling behaviour and was extremely jealous, which gradually
escalated into actual violence, particularly when he was taking
heroin.” Indeed, Beth suffered a miscarriage after being kicked in
the stomach by Stevens.

“About five months into another pregnancy,” continues Morris,
“Stevens stabbed her in the thigh with a kitchen knife close to a
major artery. She was hospitalised and Stevens received a custodial
sentence. Over the next few months the family moved to several
addresses, including a safe house.”

With so many moves it is unsurprising that the children’s school
attendance suffered. “They both had behavioural problems,
particularly Shania who was only attending school in the mornings,”
adds Morris. However, it was the children’s fears expressed while
at school that Stevens would be returning home following his
release from prison that prompted a referral to social services.

“The initial assessment recommended that Stevens should not return
to the family home,” says Morris. “But a second referral on the day
of Stevens’s release stated that the children said Beth was going
to pick him up. A phone call to Beth confirmed this. The social
worker restated the department’s position of an unacceptable risk
if Stevens returned to the family home. Beth told the social worker
to ‘f**k off’. So, an emergency protection order (EPO) was served
and the children placed with foster carers.”

An EPO, which lasts for up to eight days, is made when a child is
in immediate danger. An interim care order was granted soon after
and the unborn baby placed on the child protection register.

“Initially, Beth was very obstructive and threatening to workers,
including school staff. And because the family home backed onto the
school playing fields, this meant that the children couldn’t play
outside at break times,” says Morris.

However, crucially, Beth’s relationship with Stevens broke down and
he moved out of the area. “At this point Beth started to engage
with social services and moved into a one-bedroom flat in a
refuge,” says Morris. “Part of my role was to assess her commitment
to not placing the children at risk in the future and of the risk
presented by Stevens. I also needed to address the children’s
behavioural and educational needs.”

Beth started having supervised contact meetings with the children
twice a week. As this increased, supervision was gradually removed.
“The ongoing observation and assessment noted that there were no
major concerns over her parenting skills, other than a failure to
protect,” says Morris. “I did a specific piece of work around the
threat posed by Stevens. This was particularly pressing as Beth
wanted him to attend the birth.”

With guidance from her solicitor Beth decided that she would
permanently end her relationship with Stevens. “She understood the
risk that he posed and said, ‘I had to make a decision between him
and the kids – it wasn’t a decision really,'” says Morris.

A core group assessment decided on rehabilitation. “With this in
mind contact was extended to include overnight visits and we worked
closely with the refuge and the foster carers,” says Morris.

As the new baby was due early October it was decided that Beth
would need some time with baby to allow them to bond. “We could
then assess them together and tackle Beth’s diagnosed post-natal
depression,” says Morris.

Half-term was identified as the best time for rehabilitation. Says
Morris: “A child protection conference decided to de-register the
unborn baby at about 10.30am. The baby – Dylan – was born that
evening at 7pm. A graduated rehabilitation took place later that
month and the beginning of November.”

The family were placed on the waiting list for accommodation and
remained at the refuge. “I’m pleased to say,” Morris adds, “they
have now accepted a four-bedroom property in an area Beth really
wanted to live. Things are now beginning to happen for them.”

Arguments for risk

  • The risks posed to the children came from Stevens and not Beth.
    With Stevens off the scene Beth was able to engage meaningfully
    with social services. While work was needed with her understanding
    that her relationships could put the children at risk, Beth’s
    parenting skills were good.
  • According to Morris, Beth has always come across as “an
    intelligent and honest person, and this was a key to being able to
    work very closely with the family”. 
  • Beth also eventually developed a close relationship with the
    school. “However, we started off with the perspective of getting
    Shania into full time education and this was achieved with a little
    pressure. She has now had a full special educational needs
    assessment and now receives additional support.”
  • Beth also enrolled on a ‘Future Choices’ programme – group work
    examining issues around domestic violence. “She had some erratic
    attendance initially as the issues raised were extremely
    challenging and difficult to come to terms with.”

Arguments against risk

  • Beth’s emotional attachment and need for men such as Torin
    Hughes and Chesney Stevens shows that she at times places her needs
    – dangerously so – above those of her children. Such disregard for
    them and for the professional advice and warnings she has received
    is worrying. Continuous vigilance is certainly needed over the
    coming months.
  • While it is clearly beneficial that these violent men are now
    no longer part of Beth and the children’s life, there are worrying
    traits – that may well be applicable to Beth – when it comes to
    domestic abuse. Female (and male) victims tend to stay with violent
    perpetrators for any number of reasons: concern for the children
    but also fear of the unknown – sometimes people prefer to deal with
    the devil they know. In a perverse way there is some comfort and
    routine in being regularly beaten if there is no acceptable
    alternative path clearly in view.
  • Leaving is a particularly dangerous time because this is when
    control is being removed and is most often the time when the abused
    partner is killed.

Independent comment   
This case illustrates how a good understanding of domestic abuse is
essential for working with families, writes Sue

Beth’s life story is very moving and Felix Morris has given
excellent support. The key to addressing future risk for Beth and
children is building her self-esteem and confidence. The Future
Choices groupwork should help her to recognise characteristics of
control and abuse in relationships.

Beth may need to increase skills that will make her more
independent. Access to community facilities through children’s
centres and so on may also meet some emotional needs for friends
and contacts.

Beth is likely to have concerns about the effect on her children of
living with abuse. A domestic abuse groupwork programme (for
example, in Cheshire we have the NSPCC Jigsaw programme) run
simultaneously with work with the abused parent may help.

These programmes have been shown to strengthen relationships by
helping children to understand domestic abuse. Safety planning with
Beth and the children is also core to this case. Do her abusive
partners know where she is? Are there safety measures in place at
home and at school? Child contact is often used by abusers to abuse
and control again.

The government green paper Every Child Matters fails to
reflect domestic abuse as it really is – an underlying cause of
many problems for many children – challenging their chances of
improved outcomes. Recognising the links to child protection and
the need to provide support to the abused parent are crucial to
meeting children’s needs.

Sue Bridge is chair of the Cheshire Domestic Abuse

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