A look at domestic violence among families from ethnic minorities

There are huge gaps in knowledge and services for women and children from ethnic minorities who are victims of domestic violence. Ravi Thiara and Ruth Breslin highlight the main issues professionals should consider when a case lands on their desk

The scale of children from ethnic minorities living with domestic violence is unknown and can only be extrapolated from the number of women from these communities suffering abuse. The recent British Crime Survey, which found that one in five women have experienced at least one incident of domestic threat or force since they were 16, pointed to little difference in prevalence by ethnicity.(1) The Department of Health estimated that 750,000 children were living with domestic violence in England and Wales. It is known that the presence of children in a household nearly doubles the risk of domestic violence for women, which in turn increases the vulnerability of children.

Although research on children’s experiences of domestic violence has increased, the experiences of children from ethnic minorities remain under-researched and have to be extracted from wider literature and scant specialist studies which highlight issues that have important implications for practice.(2)

Studies of children living with domestic violence have pointed to the damaging effects on their adjustment or well-being and the need to see them not just as victims but also as having personal resilience.(3) Recent research has drawn attention to the ways in which abuse can undermine the mother-child relationship.(4)

High numbers of children see or overhear the abuse and up to 90 per cent of assaults on women occur with children in the same or adjoining rooms. The presence of domestic violence is a powerful indicator of child abuse – the overlap being variously estimated between 30 and 60 per cent – and many children on child protection registers live with it.

Although these research findings resonate with the experiences of children from ethnic minorities, there are additional issues that compound their situations. While women and children from ethnic minorities are just as likely as others to be victims, there are differences in how they respond.

to violence and how they are treated by services. We also need to recognise that ethnic minority communities are diverse and some more visible and powerful than others.

The women and children in question are more likely to suffer abuse from multiple family members. It is also known that some are likely to be subjected to culturally specific forms of harm, as publicity on forced marriage and female genital mutilation shows. Increasingly, forced marriage is seen as a key form of domestic violence and child abuse and has been linked to high rates of self-harm and suicide attempts among Asian teenage girls.

Some cultural beliefs can act as barriers to seeking help – for some Asian families these include izzat (honour) and sharam (reputation) which play a role in controlling women and children’s behaviour, just as stigma and shame prevent many seeking help. Such beliefs can limit their choices as they become concerned about others in close-knit communities finding out.

Abusive men, aware of these pressures, can use this to exert greater control.

Isolation is a huge issue for women and children fleeing their families and communities. Research shows that the family can be both a source of support and abuse for children from ethnic minorities. Positive family contact can help children cope but its absence leads to greater isolation. Family contacts can be used to forcefully separate mothers from their children; indeed, the threat of or actual abduction is extremely high for some. Child contact remains a big issue with clear implications for women’s and children’s ability to rebuild their lives.

Widespread stereotyping and discrimination among statutory and voluntary services has been shown to be a common experience for many ethnic minority women and children.(5) Children’s expectations of and responses to professionals are often shaped by the professionals’ ability to understand their issues – if responses are inappropriate they lose trust and faith. Some
professionals see the problems of ethnic minority children as too complex, finding it easier to attribute their behaviour to oppressive cultural backgrounds. Moreover, children often end up translating with agencies, and not only hear traumatic events recounted but have the pressure of ensuring their mothers are accurately represented.

Racial harassment and abuse are real issues for children fleeing domestic violence as they are often subjected to this in unfamiliar areas and new schools. So experiences can be compounded by racism and bullying in school. The issue of immigration and “no recourse to public funds” continues to affect the lives and choices of minority women and children and determines whether they seek help or remain in abusive situations which place children at risk.

Although services for children affected by domestic violence can play a vital role in their recovery, they are  under-developed and there is a gap in provision for those from ethnic minorities; the needs of mixed heritage children are often entirely overlooked. Although specialist services exist in some areas, they lack capacity to meet the level of need. Family support services for minorities  are also often limited. Although recent research highlights the impact of domestic violence on the mother-child relationship, the recovery of which requires joint work, services for women and children remain separate, even in refuges.(6) If the relationship issues between women and children are to be addressed, a shift in service provision is needed.

In conclusion, there is a continuing gap in research and knowledge about the experiences of ethnic minority children affected by domestic violence. If policy and practice are to be adequately informed by children’s views about their needs, this gap needs to be urgently addressed. Services for minority children are also limited, clearly indicating an urgent need to explore the development of long-term provision.

Pointers for progress
Many of the issues raised in this article were explored further at a recent conference, organised by the NSPCC in partnership with a range of voluntary and statutory organisations, entitled Responding to Black and Minority Ethnic Children and Young People Affected by Domestic Violence.

A range of recommendations was made to address the needs of this group of children, including:

  • More funding for specialist domestic violence services working with children from ethnic minorities.
  • Improved awareness raising and training for practitioners on culturally sensitive responses to ethnic minority women and children affected by domestic violence.
  • More services undertaking joint work with women and children to rebuild their relationships in the aftermath of domestic violence.
  • Mapping and more research to identify service and knowledge gaps.
    Better and more co-ordinated interagency work.
  • Mainstream services to enhance their identification of domestic violence and signposting to specialist agencies.

    RAVI THIARA is a senior research fellow in the Centre for the Study of Safety and Well-being, University of Warwick. She has written widely on domestic violence and especially on ethnic minorities and domestic violence issues.
    RUTH BRESLIN is a planner researcher in the NSPCC’s child protection awareness and diversity department. She has a background in domestic violence research, and is currently focusing on developing public education messages for women and children  affected by domestic violence.

    The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected
    training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

    By drawing on the limited research on ethnic minority children and domestic violence, this article highlights important issues for
    practitioners to consider in their work with families from minorities.

    (1) S Walby and J Allen, Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Stalking: Findings from the British Crime Survey, Home Office Research Study 276, 2004
    (2) A Mullender and colleagues, Children’s Perspectives on Domestic Violence, Sage Publications, 2002
    (3) M Hester, C Pearson and N Harwin, Making an Impact: Children and Domestic Violence – A Reader, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2000
    (4) R K Thiara and colleagues, Talking to My Mum: Developing Communication between Mothers and Children Affected by Domestic Violence: Report of Key Findings, 2004
    (5) D Rai, R K Thiara, Re-defining Spaces: The Needs of Black Women and Children and Black Workers in Women’s Aid, Women’s Aid Federation England, 1997
    (6) C Humphreys and colleagues, Talking to My Mum: A Picture Workbook for Workers, Mothers and Children Affected by Domestic Abuse and Talking About Domestic Abuse: A Photo Activity Workbook to Develop Communication between Mothers and Young People, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2006

    This article appeared in the 2 November issue on pages 32 & 33 under the headline “Message is loud and clear”.


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