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While services for female victims of domestic abuse have improved markedly over recent years, services for children affected by such abuse have been lagging behind. A scheme in Warwickshire indicates that this is beginning to change. Graham Hopkins reports

Research is increasingly compelling us to face the reality of domestic abuse. For example, each year three million  children and young people in the UK witness it.

And yet, despite knowing that domestic abuse has a damaging impact on children, services have usually been aimed at adult victims (mostly women) rather than specifically
for children.

Some local statistics confirmed the need to change that in Warwickshire. In one year, police attended 3,066 incidents of domestic abuse. The county’s Domestic Abuse Multi Agency Team (Damat) is aware of about 1,200 children who have experienced domestic abuse.

“In 2003 we discussed the number of referrals of children and non-abusing parents, usually mothers, coming to our attention,” says Vicki Hill, child clinical psychologist, North WarwickshireLessons learned Primary Care Trust. “We agreed that a group programme would be most useful because it allows children to talk about their experiences and break the secret, and helps them realise that they are not alone and not responsible – all of which is very important in post-abuse work.”

The social work role within Damat is to offer direct work with children. “We saw the merit of groupwork being much more powerful,” says social worker Kate Burns. “We would also be able to  access more children quicker; we didn’t want a waiting list.”

The Feeling Safe group, a programme of 90-minute meetings over 12 weeks, considers positive ways to help five to 18-year-olds learn ways to feel and be safer in relationships. A feature of the work is the Feeling Tree, comprising leaf shapes attached to a board. Each week the children’s thoughts and feelings are written or drawn on the leaves. The tree is a remind er of the positives that the children receive in the group or elsewhere in their lives to counterbalance the trauma they have experienced.

A women’s group was also set up for the mothers to support each other, and runs at the same time in a different part of the building. Social worker Linda Paine says: “This means it’s less worry for the child and they are less likely to be thinking ‘It must be my fault because I’m coming to these sessions’ because mum is coming as well. So, it’s a shared thing – and in domestic abuse it’s important that the people who are not perpetrators feel united.”

One such woman is Anjum Goswami.* She says: “I got nearly all my support from the multi-agency team because, as a Muslim, I found that my family didn’t accept the situation. They didn’t want me to come out of the relationship and wanted me to go for reconciliation even though they were fully aware of the extent of the violence. The team was more like a family to me than my own family. Without them I wouldn’t have had the confidence to go through the courts. I’m really grateful that I joined the group.”

Another women’s group member, Ann Carey,* agrees: “I’ve just finished a session with the group. I’ve got three children and it’s really helped with their confidence, particularly the middle child. His confidence hit an all-time low. But thanks to the group he’s now learned how to be brave and to say what he wants. He is determined that he doesn’t want contact with his father because of what he has done to him and how he makes him feel. He used to have sleepless nights, feeling and being sick, crying, having tantrums. But since he has made the decision not to see his father, he is nearly 100 per cent better. I’m so proud of him.”

She adds: “It’s been good for my confidence, too. The support of the team has been fantastic.”

A detailed evaluation of the programme is now under way, including reviewing the emotional and behavioural difficulties that are referred as a result of abuse. Anecdotal evidence provides grounds for optimism about the scheme’s success. Hill says: “There has been improved self-esteem in both groups. For example, women have said children’s bed-wetting and speech impediments have disappeared; and young people have said their peer and family relationships have improved. The most significant shared anecdotal feedback though, was everyone being able to acknowledge that they were not the only ones to have experienced domestic abuse.”

* Not their real names.


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