Are child victims of domestic violence being forgotten?

Higher intervention thresholds allied with the government's reductions in public spending are causing alarm among child protection professionals. Natalie Valios reports

 Higher intervention thresholds allied with the government’s reductions in public spending are causing alarm among child protection professionals. Natalie Valios reports

Children can become victims of domestic violence in several ways: they may be physically abused, be traumatised either from witnessing it, or from the emotional and physical fallout that affects parental care.

There are signs that these children are falling through ever-widening gaps in services because of a combination of cuts and increasing child protection thresholds.

Last week’s Community Care survey of 170 frontline child protection workers found 82% felt thresholds had risen in their area in the past year. This was across all types of abuse although it was most acute in cases of neglect and emotional abuse (which includes child witnesses of domestic violence).

One social worker who responded said: “There is a lack of support services in the community particularly services related to domestic violence. We have no perpetrators programmes in the borough so cases come back again and again but do not meet the now extremely high thresholds to stay open to long-term statutory teams.”

A Women’s Aid survey published last month found domestic and sexual violence services were being cut so much – in some areas by nearly 100% – that 70,000 women and children could be left without support. Nearly two-thirds of refuge services had no council funding and a further 60% of support services for child victims did not know whether they had funding for the next financial year.

Domestic violence services in England are provided mainly by voluntary agencies and, unlike those in Scotland and Wales, have no dedicated funding stream. This has made them easy targets for cash-strapped councils.

Devon Council, for example, has slashed funding for refuge and outreach children’s workers who deal with those on child protection plans.

The chief executive of North Devon Women’s Aid, Sue Wallis, says last year the group dealt with 140 children from 79 families. “All children who come to the refuge are traumatised and damaged,” she says. “We have had to make redundant our full-time children’s worker, who carries out therapeutic counselling, as well as our two part-time playroom workers. Without counselling these children are not going to be given any chance to heal and their life chances will remain rock bottom. They will grow into damaged adults who will repeat the cycle.”

The fear surrounding such cuts is that not only will they feed into higher child protection referrals, but some women may no longer be able to access any services.

As Wallis points out: “We work with people who have a tremendous fear of statutory services. Some women may bolt straightaway if we mention social services and they could go back home and place themselves and their children in danger.”

Nushra Mansuri, professional officer England for BASW – the College of Social Work, is also worried about the emotional fallout that these funding cuts could have on children. She does not believe that social workers have the time or expertise to work with children appropriately and says the cuts send a “crushing message” to them. “They need trained specialists; it has to be about a therapeutic approach,” she says.

Maddy Coy, deputy director of the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University, agrees: “One of the most critical things about the cuts will be the lack of experienced specialist workers to address the complex ways that children experience domestic violence. Voluntary organisations have decades of accumulated expertise that few statutory services have.”

Barnardo’s has several domestic violence projects providing therapeutic services to children. “Research shows that children who live with domestic violence are at an increased risk of behavioural problems, emotional trauma and mental health issues in adult life,” says Emma Ramsay, children’s services manager for the charity’s domestic violence protection project in Newcastle upon Tyne. “It is important that they have someone to talk to.”

Even in the short term, the damage could be fatal, says Fiona Dwyer, Women’s Aid’s national children and young people officer. “We have seen a decrease in the length of time women are staying with their partners but [fewer services] will lead to them staying longer, placing them and their children at more risk,” she says.

“Child deaths are a definite possibility. If we look into any serious case review of a child who has been killed, domestic violence is a factor in almost all the deaths.”



750,000 children a year witness domestic violence.

52% of child protection cases involve domestic violence.

54,000 children in England were affected by domestic violence in 2009-10.

68% of women using Women’s Aid services have children with them or are pregnant.

60% of refuge services have no council funding from this month.

70,000 women and children could be without support due to cuts.

Source: Women’s Aid



Children can experience emotional harm from a violent parent/carer in a number of overlapping ways, writes Dr Lynne Harne.

These include:

● Witnessing domestic violence either directly or indirectly towards the non-abusing parent (usually the mother);

● Being used in the violence and abuse against the non-abusing parent – usually in an attempt to undermine her self-esteem and her role as a parent – or getting caught up in the violence;

● Direct emotional abuse and neglect through harmful parenting; and emotional harm from having to cope with the consequences of domestic violence – such as having to leave home, experiencing loss of community, friendships, possessions and disruption to education.

There is a high overlap between the occurrence of emotional abuse from exposure to domestic violence and direct physical and sexual abuse and neglect of children by domestically violent parent/carers. Domestic violence is therefore a key risk factor for multiple abuse of children.

Research shows that the vast majority of children are aware of domestic violence through overhearing it, seeing it or observing the physical and emotional impacts on their mothers, even where parents believe they have kept it hidden it from them.

The impacts of domestic violence on children and young people vary, but studies generally indicate that they take the form of internal disorders such as anxiety, depression and withdrawal and, in some cases, trauma symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder, and/or external disorders affecting behaviour such as aggression.

Recent research on general populations of children in the UK experiencing domestic violence has noted that they are more likely to experience behaviour disorders than other children and that the impact on children’s mental health can continue into adulthood.

● This is extracted from a Community Care Inform guide (details below).

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Related articles

Social workers under fire in serious case review

Council cuts leave most women’s refuges facing closure

This article is published in the 21 April 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “Fatal consequences of service cuts”


Title Guide to assessing the emotional harm experienced by children exposed to domestic violence from a domestically violent parent/carer

Author Dr Lynne Harne, University of Bristol

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