‘Social care’s uncertain response to childhood aggression at home must change to better support families’

A new police-led study into childhood challenging violent and aggressive behaviour (CCVAB) has important lessons for social workers as well as police officers, writes Al Coates

Outline image of family with child at a distance from parents (credit: adragan / Adobe Stock)
(credit: adragan / Adobe Stock)

by Al Coates, social worker and adoptive father

“We are the service who can’t say ‘no’,” the police officer explained. “We have to go, we have to respond – and we will always go.”

I was interviewing the officer as part of a recently released report – Childhood Challenging Violent and Aggressive Behaviour [CCVAB]: Responding to Vulnerable Families – by Northumbria Police, CEL&T and Northumbria University. It was commissioned following the domestic homicide review of ‘Sarah’, a heartbreaking case in which a mother was killed by her son, where there had been years of services involved including the police and social care.

The report considered, among other things, the number of incidents of CCVAB the force was called out to, the relationships within the home and the characteristics of the child. The findings, gathered over a 10-month period, paint a stark picture of the lived reality for many families – but also raise questions of the responses of other services, including children’s social care, and the quality of information sharing that occurs. Those concerns that echo the findings of the domestic homicide review.

A hidden issue

Violent and aggressive behaviour by children within the home remains a hidden issue, but within certain demographics and communities it’s well known. Talk to parents or carers of children with special educational needs, kinship carers, guardians and adopters and you’ll hear the stories and anecdotes emerge of violence, assaults, damaged property and worse.

Over the timespan covered by the report, Northumbria Police responded to 515 incidents – to children as young as nine years old, with parents, grandparents and carers calling for help.

Frequently there was already social work involvement, but parents and carers described fears both of this, and of ineffectual responses or no response. The officer quoted at the top of this piece noted: “The families are at the end of their tether – they’ve tried everything and we’re the last resort, but we’re not social workers.”

Jeannine Hughes, a social worker and senior lecturer at Northumbria University, who co-authored the report, added: “Each call represents a family in crisis, desperate accounts of often vulnerable children behaving in a way that puts their carers or parents and often other children in the home in danger.

“We know that behind these figures there are many families that haven’t reached this level of desperation, but are living with high levels of adversity,” Hughes said. “The resource implications for social work to respond to CCVAB cannot be underestimated – this is a safeguarding issue.”

Familar narrative

The issues are complex and each family has unique and specific narratives.

The reasons for children’s challenging behaviour frequently stand at the intersection of biology, experience and systems, with many children struggling to regulate and control their behaviour, exhibiting ‘reactive aggression’ to their environment and those in it, or displaying ‘proactive aggression’ seeking to control their environment and those in it.

Sarah’s story plays out a familiar narrative for many families. Though it ends in tragedy, its elements are too well-known: isolation, victim-blaming, lack of response or what is perceived as ineffective response from services.

Over the past five years, as a social worker, I’ve worked with many families and organisations that support families living with children who display violent and aggressive behaviour. As they look to social workers for help, many describe feeling disbelieved, frequently blamed and often misunderstood.

The consequence of this is that many families become unwilling to seek support until they’ve no other options, until they’re at the ‘end of their tether’. Nobody wants to criminalise their child, or open themselves to the accusation that they can’t control their child – and to potential social work involvement. To call the police means to run that gauntlet.

Uncertain response

Social care’s response remains uncertain. Professionals in early help or safeguarding face complex problems where children, who are inherently vulnerable, are also perpetrating behaviour that draws other children and adults into the equation. It’s never simple and the frequently-offered parenting courses have the potential to further isolate and alienate adults caring for children, with very specific needs, in challenging circumstances.

There are some bespoke interventions such as Non Violent Resistance, Break4Change, and the Low Arousal approach – but such resources remain sparse, with many children and family social workers unaware or untrained. Sarah’s domestic homicide review made clear that her son’s behaviour was never fully explored with consideration to safeguarding her and, like so many tragedies before, information sharing with other services was inadequate.

Though anecdotal awareness of CCVAB has been present among many social workers for decades, the evidence base has remained limited. Now, the Northumbria Police report has offered social care a window into the lived experience of many families and the underlying causes of childhood challenging violent and aggressive behaviour, and – just as significantly – an understanding of its prevalence.

Social care needs to consider this seriously to better support families and children, show informed compassion and offer effective solutions to families.

The police officer said: “We will always go.” But I believe that as social workers, we need to act to ensure that is truly the very last resort.

Al Coates is an adoptive father and social worker who has received an MBE for services to children. He tweets @mr_al_coates.

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21 Responses to ‘Social care’s uncertain response to childhood aggression at home must change to better support families’

  1. Susan Skilbeck May 11, 2020 at 8:17 pm #

    This is such a true reflection of the horrendous situation our family has lived through for a number of years. As adoptive parents my daughter & son-in-law experienced all the negativity, the blame & the guilt put on them, often by the agencies who should have supported them. It appeared their only concern was the child, obviously, but ignored the effect on siblings & parents, grandparents etc.

    • Lisa Rogers May 12, 2020 at 3:20 pm #

      I’m so happy this has come out parents always get blamed even if them and their other children are in danger. I or other parents shouldn’t have to die till something is done

  2. RAINE May 11, 2020 at 8:18 pm #

    As both a social worker and a parent with these challenges in my own home, I want to say thank you for this article. I hope it informs future training and resource provision as both are sorely lacking.

    • Opal lady May 11, 2020 at 11:55 pm #

      As a social worker I have met several families where domestic abuse from a child has been an issue. (I also have a niece who has been violent to her mother and sibling).

      Whilst I recognise that criminalising a child is not the solution. Sometimes parent(s)/contact the police out of desperation and need to protect themselves, along with other vulnerable people within the family and of course the child/young person.

      Yes strategies and providing emotional support for the child/young person and survivors of abuse can be given. This should always include establishing ‘triggers’ and reasons for behaviours but they should never be an excuse for violence.

      St this time of austerity! What, realistically is the solution?

  3. J Elroy Percy May 12, 2020 at 2:01 am #

    Currently in such situation and as a professional I have run out of ideas as the young person has refused to settle in any placement. It is emotionally draining me to the extent that I feel tired talking to the helpless parent.

  4. BN May 12, 2020 at 6:32 am #

    This is an interesting topic. I have personally experienced an increase in the number of cases where children between the age of 9 and 14 are perpetrating violence, controlling and aggressive behaviour etc within the home.

    Parents have informed me of feeling overwhelmed and disempowered due to approach taken by social services which are usually punitive especially on their parenting despite them being good parents to their children. Most parents welcome the idea of supporting them around their parenting to acquire additional strategies and / or tools required in responding appropriately to their children’s needs.

    However, they also wish that whilst they are getting the support they need for their children, instead of their children being seen as innocent by Authorities, justifying that some of the children have either witnessed some form of domestic abuse, affected by parental separation, siblings rivalry, additional needs etc, that the children, acknowledging the factors above, which may have contributed to their behaviour, should also get told off by the system and should have access to specific service where they will get a clear message that such behaviour are not acceptable.

    Some of the services that used to support such children are no longer in ring used due to government cuts.

    Parents do not fee comfortable involving the police to criminalise their children when more could have been done to prevent this. Parents only call the police as their last resorts, which may be too late.

    Some African parents send their children to Africa as their last resort. The children return to the UK well behaved and emotionally stable in the same family environment.

    • Penny D Craig May 12, 2020 at 12:47 pm #

      Interesting observation on African children being sent to Africa and coming back better. Any studies/ case histories that give insights into what happens in Africa to heal the problems?

      • Naomi May 12, 2020 at 6:40 pm #

        They tend to appreciate life more and live a less selfish and self centred life after living in a humbling environment where you see other children struggling.
        There is no entitlement mentality for the majority of children in African. The UK the culture gives children a sense of entitlement and for many due to family and social networks they are exposed to the idea that they can do whatever they want and get away it,.parents mainly feel powerless due to lack of understanding of the boundaries they can put in place for their children. In Africa children have boundaries and behavioural expectations.

      • Irene May 13, 2020 at 12:27 am #

        Which part of Africa by the way, considering there are 54 countries on that continent? In some countries there are better boarding schools that supports kids to focus better than UK schools. Again we should stop generalizing without research evidence showing whether children send to African countries where the UK family originates works or not?

      • Sarah Baker May 13, 2020 at 7:12 am #

        I am from west Africa and currently studying Social work in MA level. This is a topic I am interested in exploring with evidenced report..
        Any support would be appreciated.

    • HZ May 13, 2020 at 5:09 am #

      Well said BN. The fact that the same children change environment and come back well behaved and emotionally stable in this environment speaks volume. It means the system is failing them. There is something not right with the way things are done in this environment and until they are willing to take draconian measures utilising ‘tough’ love approaches, families will continue to suffer. It is high time both social workers and parents highlight these concerns to try and find meaninful ways to empower parents rather than leaving them feeling hopeless and helpless about their own children and also leaving social workers with ethical dilemmas & causing more emotional stress.

  5. John Scadden May 12, 2020 at 8:02 am #

    This article reinforces my view children social care needs to evolve to be more confident to meet the needs of families in a complex and multi-cultural society which is further traumatised by austerity. A way forward is to be trauma informed, therapeutic and have an understand of transference and developmental trauma in children alongside neuroscience which can really give social workers sophisticated skills to engage families. Children social care generically are heavily focused on assessments, care planning and care coordination which can impede on their abilities to have time to work with families and have an understanding of what has happened and what could happen next. This includes safety planning as well.

  6. ChrisMenz May 12, 2020 at 8:16 am #

    This is an issue that needs highlighting, if we are to keep families together we need to put resources into families at times they are needed. Where as the police have resources to attend late at night emergency duty teams do not. Families needing help with challenging behaviour may need intensive support eary morning or late evenings.

  7. Patgen May 12, 2020 at 8:21 am #

    Very well written article and rings true. Too often blame put onfoster cares re parenting and “not being able to control child”. Not enough effective support given by social care in early years of placement when it was most needed despite continuing pleas for help and raising of safeguarding issues.
    Inmy opinion more effective training for social workers needed so they can support families better and more robust and effective action needed from them. They can go home at the end of the day fister carers job is 24 /7

  8. Yvonne Leigh May 12, 2020 at 9:47 am #

    I had to deal with this situation for a child I was guardian too for a number of years, sought help from social services but none was given, police came on numerous occasions and had to calm child down, placement broke down which was heartbreaking for us all. I felt completely let down by social services

  9. Mark Matthews May 12, 2020 at 10:26 am #

    I have worked in social care settings for over 12 years.
    Social workers case loads are to high and like most social /health care professionals they are not paid enough.
    The role of supporting a family and implementing strategies is /should be the role of a family support worker..
    I refused to continue this role when I can and do get the same for working at amazon..

  10. Charlene May 12, 2020 at 12:54 pm #

    Thanks for this article, its true that many children are challenging and many parents are afraid to seek help because they end up being blamed. These children at times know that the state will always be on their side and some even dare you to contact the services. Many parents are living in fear of their own children. Sometimes parents are more worried about the future implications that will affect their children if the authorities are involved e.g that cautions might hinder their chances of getting a job. Welldone to the writer for highlighting these challenges.

  11. Helen Oakwater May 12, 2020 at 3:09 pm #

    Good article Mr Coates.
    It’s imperative that Social Workers, Parents, Therapists etc explore what is the driver underneath the presenting behaviour of the child. Is is trauma? Is it anxiety? An inability to self regulate? Narrow window of tolerance? etc etc. With forensic digging (good questions, excellent listening, exploring the past, etc) the triggers for the anger can be identified and with appropriate interventions the triggers disconnected. (Not quick but essential for long term healing).
    This approach needs skills and resources which are in short supply.
    Child on Parent Violence often has its roots in unresolved trauma.
    Lets please address this issue as part of a holistic approach, and up skill professionals and decision makers.

  12. FSweeney May 12, 2020 at 9:42 pm #

    The problem that I have seen, at least in the borough where I live is this:

    1. Poor funding
    2.limited access to training
    3.Little or no support from supervisors
    4. No continuity of worker
    5. No agency talks to each other

    As a result, intervention only takes place after something serious has happened and a family member ends up in hospital. When the Safeguarding partners meet, they find that all the agencies had information that could’ve prevented it. This happens time after time.

    Long story short; agencies need to be more proactive in the approach to handling children who have difficult/aggressive behaviour. Stop blaming the parents by telling them that the “child is expressing an unmet need, you need to ask yourself what that need could be” or words to that effect. This “advice” only makes a parent feel worse and less willing to engage with services even if they can get any.

  13. Joanna Cohen May 15, 2020 at 7:04 am #

    Thanks Al
    Article was insightful and helpful. Your podcasts with adoptive parents highlighted the real challenges/ dilemma’ they face.
    Its such a under researched and resourced area so practitioners are at times through
    possiblly no fault of their own ineffective when trying to provide solution focused strategies. Parents are afraid and very often describe it’s like walking on egg shells constantly on the receiving end of physical abuse and then blamed when things go wrong. A collaborative approach is required so care and support is coordinated and parents feel empowered and adequately supported.