Wider effects of violence and substance misuse in the family


Title: Child Protection, Domestic Violence and Parental Substance Misuse: Family Experiences and Effective Practice
Study Authors: Hedy Cleaver, Don Nicholson, Sukey Tarr, Deborah Cleaver
Publisher: Jessica Kingsley, London, 2007,
ISBN 978 1 84310 582 4


This book, following on Hedy Cleaver’s previous work in this area, draws on a range of evidence to explore the relationship between substance misuse and domestic violence and their effect on children. It examines the response of children’s and adults’ services when there are concerns about the safety and welfare of children. It reveals the vulnerability of these children and the extent to which domestic violence, parental alcohol or drug misuse impact on children’s health and development, affect the adults’ parenting capacity and influence the wider family and community. It includes an attempt to hear what parents caught up in these situations think about their needs and about how local services have responded to them. The research on which this publication is based used a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods. It looked at the policy context for local practice, how well different agencies worked together and the role of training in helping practitioners and their managers have a shared understanding.


This two year study had three core aims:

to explore how children’s social care responds to families where problems require the intervention of both adult and children’s services

to identify the factors that enable different agencies to work together successfully at the various stages of assessment, planning, service delivery and review

to explore children and parents’ experiences of professional interventions – what factors do they find most supportive?


The data were derived from six local authorities – two London boroughs, two Metropolitan boroughs and two shire counties. There was scrutiny of local ACPC (prior to the setting up of LSCBs) policies and procedures and a postal questionnaire sent to social workers to assess their knowledge of those policies and procedures. The second source of data was the study of 357 social work files. The intention had been to interview 42 families too but in the event – and the penultimate chapter describes some of the difficulties in reaching this group – the researchers gained the views of just 17 and no children were interviewed.


The book’s chapter headings show how the findings are structured: the response of children’s social care collaborative working families’ experience of referral and assessment families’ experience of services plans, procedures and joint protocols and training. The chapters conclude with summary points and here is a selection of what struck me as particularly important.

The coexistence of domestic violence and parental drug or alcohol misuse was found to have a more serious impact on all aspects of children’s lives. A separate focus on domestic violence, alcohol misuse and drug misuse showed they had similar negative effects on children’s development, but parental substance misuse (drugs or alcohol) had a more negative impact on parenting capacity than did domestic violence, while parental drug misuse was more strongly linked with negative family and environmental factors than the other issues.

At the point of assessment the expertise of specialist workers in domestic violence or substance misuse teams was not always drawn on to create a full picture of the family’s circumstances and needs. There seemed to be a range of reasons – difficulty of access, uncertainty about the team’s relevance – for example, when a violent partner had left the home, and, sometimes, ignorance about parts of the local resource networks.

As an extension of the point above, sometimes the failure to “join-up” seems to stem from the different focus of children’s and adults’ teams. The child care practitioners focused on the needs of the children – and sometimes missed out on the needs of parents who felt that their needs were ignored or poorly understood. The adult workers sometimes missed out on the needs of children for protection from their parents’ behaviour or declined to communicate those needs because of the potential consequences for the parents.

Effective inter-agency practice depends on a number of factors and is certainly not helped by staff turnover and shortages in key agencies. Joint policies and protocols are important for establishing explicit expectations of each other and identifying local communication channels.

Joint training is another key area to establish better understanding of each other’s roles and mutual respect. Gaps were found in local training programmes. This is scarcely surprising. Both staff and the knowledge base move on so there is a constant challenge to ensure that both new and established staff have up to date knowledge about areas of work in which they feel less confident.

There were familiar messages about some practitioner attitudes. People want to have their story listened to, their needs understood, their difficulties put into context. They want to be kept informed and treated as partners in making decisions about what help is to be offered. While there were encouraging examples of good practice, some parents spoke of how they had been upset about aspects of service delivery.

The overall tone of the study, with its frequent reference to policies and guidance that have been ignored or only partially adhered to, creates the impression of a rather disappointing school report from a rather disappointed teacher. For me, the summaries of the seventeen family scenarios, that are relegated to a final appendix, bring this study to life. The complexity and intractability of some these situations do not and cannot justify poor practice but they go some way to explaining why the understandable aspirations of policy-makers, and indeed practitioners themselves, are sometimes hard to fulfil.

Social work basics have not changed much in terms of what families want from us. What has changed enormously is the complexity of the practice worlds in which we operate, the turmoil in some of our agencies, the level of expectations and sometimes the absurd timescales within which large change is expected to be achieved, and not least the poor public perceptions of both who social workers are and what they do.

I know from my current practice something of the longer-term consequences for children of the violence that they have witnessed or endured directly and the devastating effects that a parent’s “absence” because of drink and drugs can lead to – neglect, lack of supervision and abuse by other adults passing through the household.

These memories are held, we have sadly learned, by children who previously would have been regarded as too young to be seriously affected. 
As a research area this, in my view, is a clear priority. We live in a world that wants quick solutions. One of the parents’ wishes referred to above is for “longer-term service provision”. A message for government as well as for us as policy-makers and practitioners is that we need fewer parachute operations, based on the assumption that a “quick fix” approach will do the trick, and more sustainable development. These issues need practitioners who are effectively trained, supported and supervised, who will work collaboratively, who will continue to learn, who will continue to listen and do the “hard yards” with vulnerable and potentially dangerous families. And, like everyone else, we need to learn from our mistakes.


Cleaver, H., Unell, I. & Aldgate, J. (1999) Children’s Needs – Parenting Capacity: The Impact of Parental Mental Illness, Problem Alcohol and Drug Use, and Domestic Violence on Children’s Development, The Stationery Office, ISBN 0 11 322278 5

Humphreys, C. & Mullender, A. (2000) Children and Domestic Violence: a research overview of the impact on children, Research in Practice

Kroll, B. & Taylor, A. (2003) Parental Substance Misuse and Child Welfare, Jessica Kingsley, ISBN 1 85302 791 X

Tunnard, J. (2002) Parental drug misuse – a review of impact and intervention studies, Research in Practice, ISBN 0 9542562 0 4

Tunnard, J. (2002) Parental problem drinking and its impact on children, Research in Practice, ISBN 0 9541834 1 X

John Randall is a post-adoption social worker with Families for Children, a voluntary adoption agency. He writes monthly reviews of recently published research articles for the Research in Practice Research and Policy Update.


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