National safeguarding leaders have identified an “overly simplistic and optimistic” approach to domestic abuse and its impact on children in a study of serious cases.
Most practitioners used the term domestic abuse without understanding its nature and impact, while there was also a lack of a co-ordinated multi-agency response and an overemphasis on physical violence as an indicator of the problem, said the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel.
The panel, which oversees and draws lessons from cases where children have died or been seriously harmed, and abuse or neglect is known or suspected, issued the concerns in a briefing based on 72 local case reviews, a literature review and discussions with, and evidence from, stakeholders.
Its findings informed the panel’s national review into the murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson, published in May, in which it found domestic abuse failings in relation to both cases.
While domestic abuse was referenced in all of the case reviews, the panel found that “nature and extent of it was rarely explored”, with just half (35) describing the abuse being perpetrated.
‘Overly simplistic, optimistic and, at times, dangerous’
In a scathing passage, the panel said: “There appeared to be an assumption that simply naming ‘domestic abuse’ as a concern for a child is enough for all practitioners to understand the situation and respond appropriately. This is an overly simplistic, optimistic and, at times, dangerous assumption that leads to potentially avoidable harm to children and non-abusing parents.”
It also found an overemphasis on physical violence as the primary indicator of abuse and as a means of assessing the risk posed by the abuser, reflecting a lack of recognition and understanding of controlling and coercive behaviour.
Non-physical incidents were seen as “low-level” and so were not responded to appropriately and often conflated with “parental conflict”, which the panel stressed required different interventions and services, making it essential for practitioners to be able to distinguish the two.
In other cases, practitioners were not able to identify who was the abuser and who the victim, leading to responses that inappropriately made the mother equally responsible for the risk.
“While situations where both parents/carers pose a risk occur, they are relatively rare, and professionals have a responsibility to identify the dynamics of the situation and thoroughly understand the risks to children,” it said.
Lack of focus on children as victims
While the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 enshrines children who witness abuse perpetrated by or against a parent or relative as victims of it, the reviews studied by the panel often categorised the impact on children as “emotional harm” or “neglect” instead.
Actions focused on the mother taking steps to protect the children, rather than on seeing the children as being directly harmed by the abuser.
A survey of local safeguarding children’s partnerships to inform the briefing found a varied response to the act’s provisions, with some awaiting further national guidance and others saying they had always considered children to be direct victims.
There was also “a notable absence of children’s voices” in the reviews studied, with children seen, but not spoken with directly, by practitioners, particularly from the police, in some cases, including because of a perception that they “seemed well”.
Where children were engaged with in a supportive way, this had a significant positive impact on their wellbeing.
Demographic analysis lacking
There was a significant lack of recording and analysis of demographic information about children, siblings, parents and carers, with religion, gender identity and sexual orientation missing completely, and ethnicity and disability under-recorded.
Meetings with stakeholders made clear that “the notable and concerning absence of ethnicity data and analysis in reviews reflects a lack of understanding from partnerships and services of the needs of children and families from black and minoritised groups. This included a lack of specialist services for them.
More broadly, very few specialist domestic abuse services, for adults or children, were referenced in the reviews, and none appeared as members of review panels.
This was evidence of the absence of a “coordinated multi-agency response to domestic abuse”. Cross-agency working was evident in high-risk cases, with 13 of the 72 reviews referenced multi-agency risk assessment conferences. However, the panel pointed out that these were used, as designed, to support adult victims, and were not able to co-ordinate support for children.
Otherwise, while multi-agency safeguarding hubs (MASHs) considered domestic abuse, these and other front door arrangements were mainly used to manage high volumes of police notifications of abuse where there were children in the household.
Agencies ‘stuck in cycle of responding to crises’
The briefing also identified a focus on crisis support, with services ending at the point when the family was deemed to be safe, which it linked to a lack of focus on the long-term harm to children from experiencing domestic abuse, an area the panel said was under-researched.
For adolescents involved in the case reviews, practitioners consistently saw the domestic abuse they had experienced as being in the past, with professionals “unable to see how these early traumatic experiences were potentially still impacting on them”.
About 7% of children aged 10-15 were estimated to be living in households experiencing domestic abuse in 2017-19, according to Office for National Statistics research, while the panel said 40% of cases notified to it by local areas in 2020 involved domestic abuse.
In response to the report, Association of Directors of Children’s Services president Steve Crocker said that agencies were “stuck in a cycle of responding to crises and attempting to protect children and victims from the immediate risk of harm, rather than on prevention.”
“It is hard to read that responses may have fallen short in in some cases but the whole system recognises that there’s more to do to get it right for children and families. The learning from this analysis as well as the tools and case studies within it should be considered by local partnerships.
He said that councils and their partners needed “significant new investment” from government “to bolster services at all levels and stages to see the necessary shift from intervention at the point of crisis to prevention of harm”, “as a matter of urgency”.
On the back of its study, the panel called for:
- Local child safeguarding and domestic abuse partnerships to involve specialist domestic abuse services and experts by experience (children, young people and adults) in strategies and service development, with specialist services appropriately resourced for this.
- Training should be improved across all agencies to ensure they provide a “domestic abuse-informed response”, which it said involved a “detailed understanding of abusers’ use of controlling and coercive behaviours”, looking at continuous patterns of behaviour by the perpetrator, not specific incidents, and focusing interventions on holding abusers accountable.
- Local case reviews should involve record the protected characteristics of all family members in domestic abuse cases, to ensure their diverse needs are identified and analysed.
The panel also referenced its recommendations in relation to domestic abuse from its review into Arthur and Star’s cases, which also called for local safeguarding partners to improve how they work with specialist services and improved staff training.
Call for multi-agency safeguarding units
In the Arthur and Star review, it said that its concerns around domestic abuse practice were central to the panel’s call for the creation of multi-agency expert safeguarding units to take control of child protection cases, to improve information sharing and staff skills.
The panel said: “[Improvements] must be made in developing the specialist skill and expertise of staff, and in information sharing
“These two factors are relevant to all elements of child protection, but we believe the situation in relation to domestic abuse is so severe
that these areas must be particularly strengthened for practitioners working with victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse.”
The Department for Education is currently considering its response to the Arthur and Star review, alongside that for the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, and is due to report by the end of this year.
The government’s domestic abuse action plan, published in March, included measures to address its impact on children, such as:
- Home Office-commissioned research to measure the effectiveness of different interventions to support children based on an agreed set of outcomes.
- A review of the national police response to children experiencing domestic abuse.
- Providing £4m to fund specialist services for children experiencing domestic abuse in 2022-23, up from £3m last year.