Pratice Panel: Dealing with suspected abuse within the family

Social workers and a former service user offer advice on a case involving a father’s violence against his wife and its traumatic effects on their children



A 70-year-old grandmother, Elsie, has called the NSPCC Helpline concerned about her daughter and her two grandchildren. During a recent stay with her, the older child was in tears telling her about the constant arguments that were going on at home between her mother and father and that on more than one occasion her father hit her mother in front of her and her younger brother.


The older grandchild is very frightened both for her mother’s safety and for that of her younger brother. Elsie confronted her daughter about this and was told not to interfere or the children’s father would stop them visiting her and that would make matters worse. Elsie says that her grandchildren are getting more difficult to manage at home, with the six-year-old grandson now starting to hit his mother. She fears for the safety of the children and mother but is concerned that reporting the matter to the police or children’s services would make matters worse.

The social worker view

Steph How, team manager, children and families team, Hampshire children’s services

This case combines concerns for the safety of the children, learned behaviours by the children that mirror the father’s reported violence towards the mother, and a victim of domestic abuse who is powerless and isolated.

Contact would need to be made with the grandmother to understand the family dynamics and clarify the details. It is imperative that work does not compromise the children’s safety or safety net.

Attempts would need to be made to engage with mum, in conjunction with domestic abuse police colleagues, to assess whether mum will engage with assessments and services, and has the capacity to prioritise and protect.

It is also imperative to work with the health, education services. Ideally the children would be seen in school away from the home environment without the parents. Decisions and interventions will depend on the responses from the children and parents. The decision as to when to involve dad requires careful consideration. The perpetrator’s responsibility is also a major consideration.

The children will be experiencing emotional harm at some level, and are at risk of physical harm. Clearly if the mother is wishing to be supported in safeguarding her children then child protection procedures may not be necessary. Equally the father may wish to seek support to change his behaviour. However, an early judgement must be made as to whether this can be done without compromising the safety of the children.

Dan StJohn, early intervention team – northern Norwich, Norfolk Council

We know from research that a person is assaulted on average by his or her partner 35 times before the matter is reported to the police. It is fair to assume therefore that Elsie’s daughter may have been assaulted on a number of occasions and it is high time the matter was addressed by relevant agencies. Elsie needs to be assured that by passing on information to these agencies she has played a crucial role in seeking to safeguard her daughter and her grandchildren from any future harm.

The local domestic violence abuse unit should be contacted to see whether the alleged perpetrator has a criminal record, and to find out whether any incidents have been reported to the police in the past. A meeting may need to be held with the police if any information comes back from the unit.

Even if no previous incidents have been reported, a multi-agency response needs to be planned. It may be possible to persuade the violent partner to leave the family home for a time while an assessment is undertaken and interventions are planned. Information from the children’s schools may prove critical, and health agencies and specialist voluntary agencies should be invited to participate in any safeguarding meetings.

Agencies such as Women’s Aid can provide outreach support to women who are in abusive relationships and, as well as offering refuge services, they also offer one-to-one support to children who have witnessed domestic violence.

The service user’s view

Hayley Prew, care leaver

This is a difficult situation. Professionals cannot ignore the children’s obvious signs of distress, and the fact that the parents may not be able to rectify their problems alone. It would have taken a lot of courage for the child to break her silence by telling her grandmother. The girl is probably afraid of what might happen to her, her younger sibling or her mother as a result of speaking up.

Rushing in on a situation like this could escalate the abuse. The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging it. The parents could be offered some form of counselling, either with or without the children, whichever the parents feel more able to cope with.

This contact needs to be offered in an open and friendly manner, without negative judgement. The parents need to feel as though they are being offered support and help rather than criticism. But the children also need to know that professionals are there for them too listening to the child is critical. If the meeting proves to be unsuccessful and professionals are concerned for the children’s safety, then perhaps some form of respite care can be arranged.

Professionals need to be emphatic and understanding and not treat the case impersonally because this will affect how they deal with the situation.

If you have a case study that you would like one of our panels to consider please e-mail Mark Drinkwater

Essential information on child protection

This article appeared in 2 April issue of Community Care titled “Children at risk from domestic violence”

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