Domestic abuse and child contact: key advice on understanding the child’s experience

Asking the right questions can make children feel comfortable talking about their experiences and allow the practitioner to understand their point of view

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Photo: fotolia/Jenny Sturm
This article comprises of excerpts taken from a new guide on Community Care Inform about domestic abuse and contact. The guide was written by Sarah Parsons, Cafcass principal social worker and assistant director, and is informed by the experiences of Cafcass practitioners and research. Subscribers can find the full guide as well as other resources on Inform Children and Inform Adults.

Cafcass practitioners assess the impact of domestic abuse on children when separated parents cannot agree on arrangements, and one party makes a private law application to the court. Local authority social workers may also be required by the court to undertake similar assessments under section 7 of the Children Act 1989.

The child’s experience

The child’s experience should be at the heart of every court report concerning issues of child contact. Understanding the complexity of cases involving domestic abuse helps practitioners focus on the impact it can have on children, who should be considered equally as the victim. When living with domestic abuse and the trauma it can cause, children will be affected in different ways.

In recognition of the detrimental implications for their development of living with domestic abuse, section 31 of the Children Act 1989 (as amended by the Adoption and Children Act 2002) defines ‘harm’ to a child as meaning “ill-treatment or the impairment of health and development including, for example, impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another”. But research from Katz (2015) has shown children are not always passive in abusive situations. They may physically intervene in a protective manner or use divergent strategies to offset the arguments. Domestic abuse creates a distressing, stressful and harmful environment, and the long-term consequences of this trauma can stretch into adulthood.

The effects of living with domestic abuse are often more complex than the issues practitioners are able to observe on the surface or children are able to express. When interviewing a child about their experiences, it is important to support and encourage them through their responses rather than leading them. Technology such as smartphone or tablet apps can be useful to help build a rapport with the child, while worksheets and colouring can be used with children of all ages to help them relax.

Asking questions can only reveal so much, but the right questions can make children feel comfortable talking about their experiences and allow the practitioner to understand their point of view. The right questions include:

  • Who is in your family?
  • How would you describe your family?
  • Who are you closest to?
  • Who are you least close to?
  • Who makes you feel safe in your family?
  • Are there some things which happen in your family which are scary? How do you cope?
  • What do you think needs to change to make things better at home?
  • How do you think you can change things?
  • What can other people do to change things?

Direct quotes from the child in answer to your questions can be powerful when writing a report and making a recommendation to the court. Practitioners should also consider how the child should be supported once the interview is finished, for example, by returning the conversation back to child-focused subjects before bringing the parent back into the room. It may also be helpful to have a conversation with the school, if consent has been provided, to discuss how they can support the child over the following days.

References

Katz, E (2015)
Domestic Violence, Children’s Agency and Mother-Child Relationships: Towards a More Advanced Model’
Children & Society, Volume 29, Issue 1, pp69-79

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