A scheme aiming to uncover domestic violence and child abuse in Dundee and beyond

Domestic violence and child abuse are never easily discussed with children. David Harris visits a scheme that not only broaches such subjects but aims to prevent incidents and aid disclosure

Talking to children about child abuse is tricky, not least because many parents and teachers fear that it runs the risk of destroying innocence. Nevertheless, for the past decade Dundee Council in Scotland has been attempting to identify and prevent abuse by talking to school children from nursery level upwards in age-appropriate sessions. The sessions are universal and not usually targeted at a particular group.

The project Violence is Preventable (VIP), is run by charity Eighteen and Under and is available to all schools in the city. Laurie Matthew, chief executive of the charity and project founder, says the key to VIP’s success is simple: helping children discuss abuse, violence and bullying and enabling them to recognise it when it happens.

Courses are run by either the charity staff or class teachers and consist of six sessions of one hour a week for older children and half an hour for under-sevens.

The courses involve songs, games and quizzes, all aimed at encouraging the children to share their stories and talk about their feelings. After an initial course there is a top up course once a year. Among older children the initial sessions often confront homophobia.

High levels of abuse

The overall results, says Matthew, show that 33% of children disclose some form of bullying, domestic violence or sexual abuse. The figures for certain groups can be even more startling: the University of Dundee, which evaluated some of the project’s work found that in one group of 68 children there were 65 disclosures.

Most of these (50) involved various categories of physical abuse or witnessing physical abuse, but there were also two cases of sexual abuse, two of grooming, one of rape and an abduction.

There is, Matthew adds, no way of spotting with any certainty which children have been abused unless they tell you. For example, although some abused children may be quiet, many quiet children are simply quiet, not abused.

Others can display more obvious signs, particularly those who have been taught not to talk, such as one four-year-old who spent several months shouting: “I’m not going to tell” before talking to staff at his nursery about bullying at home.

The project started, says Matthew, because it became evident from her work with rape crisis that much abuse began when the victims were children. It seemed a natural thing to start dealing with the children directly, she says.


So far, the project has been mainly in Dundee, although it is now looking further afield, she says. But one of the problems for replicating Dundee’s approach, she says, is that because it reveals abuse it makes schools and councils feel uncomfortable.

“It makes your community look bad when it isn’t,” Matthew says. “The problem is in every community.”

Dr Ian Barron of the University of Dundee, who carried out the evaluation of some of VIP’s work, says that although there are many abuse prevention programmes worldwide, very few have been adequately evaluated.

The Dundee research set out to look at the effect on 11 to 13-year-olds who had undergone the programme. Barron used a questionnaire for all the children involved in the group studied, followed up by more detailed interviews with a small sample.

He began with the aim of looking at sexual abuse, but the fact that the project itself uncovered abuse in many more areas than that led him to widen his evaluation.


The children were asked questions including whether they liked the programme whether it would encourage them to help other children if they became aware of abuse and where they felt they were most likely to make disclosures.

The evaluation concluded that the programme is meeting its aims of increasing children’s knowledge of all types of abuse and encouraging them to speak of their own experience.

But Barron admits that this is not the same thing as saying that the programme has prevented abuse taking place, which is difficult to assess, particularly as the programme itself tends to uncover hitherto undiscovered problems.

Speaking up

Barron says the programme certainly does show that adults often fail children. For example, he cites a case where a small child stood on a desk in a normal school class and started shouting about the abuse he had suffered. The teacher’s first reaction was to ask whether the boy felt he should be saying that in class, so he stopped talking then and for years afterwards.

When children do speak, it is usually true, Barron adds. He dismisses fears that children can be coaxed into false disclosures, because most are verified. That verification comes from social services checking on stories and often from police involvement. Overwhelmingly, says Barron, children tell the truth about abuse.

“The biggest lies we are dealing with here are not from the children who speak, but from the children who remain silent,” he adds.

Encouraging children to talk

For Barron and for those who run the Dundee project, there is an inescapable conclusion to the VIP scheme: the best approach for identifying child abuse, in all its forms, is as simple as encouraging children to talk, and listening to them carefully when they do.

Domestic violence and child abuse are never easily discussed with children. David Harris visits a scheme that not only broaches such subjects but aims to prevent incidents and aid disclosure

Published in Community Care 12 February 2009 under the headline Let’s Talk about Sex and Violence

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