How social workers can help support children in domestic abuse cases

Refuge charity Hestia explains how social workers can better interact with refuges to support victims of domestic abuse

by Abid Gangat

Each year more than 950,000 children across the UK are affected by domestic abuse, either directly as victims, or indirectly as witnesses. This is higher than the entire population of Leeds, with a further estimated 30,000[1] children staying in domestic abuse refuges across the UK – the population of Whitstable.

Children are often highly traumatised after experiencing or being exposed to abusive behaviours, controlling environments or physical violence. Without access to targeted support focused on their individual needs and experiences, these problems can (and often do) extend into adulthood.

Despite these staggering figures, the approach to supporting these children is heavily focused on the mother, assuming children will also benefit. While this is important, especially when ensuring initial safety, it fails to take into account the impact domestic abuse has on children.

Working with refuge staff

At Hestia, refuge staff work closely with external social workers providing multi-agency support for women and children escaping abuse. In 2014, Hestia supported more than 4,000 women and child survivors of domestic abuse.

Upon arrival it is important domestic abuse survivors receive the best support possible and, when working in a multi-agency dynamic, communication is key. Due to pressure and time restraints on social workers, it is essential that, when working with residents of domestic abuse refuges, they allocate time to talk with the clients’ key workers.

Refuge managers stress the importance of inter-agency communication; one said their best worked case was where a social worker came into the office, sat down and asked them for an update on every visit.

This reflexive inter-agency communication (be it a scheduled meeting or a cup of tea and a catch-up before meeting with a client) is crucial when supporting survivors of domestic abuse, as it has a complex impact on both women and children and on inter-family relationships. Without insight, the best interests of these children could be compromised.

Child development

It is imperative for social workers and other external staff to have full knowledge of child development, and the understanding that it can be severely impacted by domestic abuse. Post abuse, children may have behavioural problems such as eating disorders, bedwetting, and depression. The emotional and psychological damage often leads to children feeling guilt, shame, anxiety and withdrawal. Domestic abuse may stunt a child’s development, which can become apparent through their educational progress.

Hestia’s campaign, Hidden Child, aims to ensure that all children in refuges receive support. Its recommendations include that the Department for Education consider granting children living in refuges the same level of priority as ‘looked after children’ regarding access to school admissions and pupil premium. Local authorities should also commission direct support services for children in refuges.

Clinical commissioning groups should fund specialist therapeutic programmes for children living in refuges, and provide funding to ensure provision of a children and family worker to support this vital work. The campaign also recommends that the Home Office addresses the needs of children in refuges through the next national violence against women and girls strategy.

Support for families

“Support” can come in many forms; practical support can involve acting as the families’ advocate, including accompanying families to other support agencies, attending court cases, and writing reports on the child’s welfare.

Alongside advocacy work, it’s important to engage children with positive activities – like play sessions, homework clubs and school holiday activity days. Through activities like these, families can adjust to new surroundings which, in turn, has a positive impact on the mental health and behaviour of the children.

Healing together is the core of our approach, and it’s important that agencies working with children in refuges remain aware of the impact of domestic abuse on the parenting dynamic. Much of our work focuses on restoring and supporting the relationship between mother and child, with whole-family activities offering huge benefits. Providing clearer insight and understanding into the family dynamics helps build positive family relationships needed to break the cycle of abuse.

For more information about Hidden Child, or to see how you can help these families, please visit:

[1] Women’s Aid, 2007

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