Cristina Odone is Head of Family Policy at the Centre for Social Justice
Domestic abuse affects almost twice as many women as men – 7.9 per cent of women survived domestic abuse in 2018, while 4.2 per cent of men did – but in terms of numbers and proportions, the single biggest group affected by domestic abuse is children: one in five will experience it in the home. Last year, half of the children who were assessed as in need of being looked after by their local authority had experienced domestic abuse. More than 60 per cent of women in refuge in 2017 had a child under 18.
This crime has spiralled during the pandemic and attendant lockdowns. Helplines recorded huge spikes in calls – in June alone, the National Domestic Abuse Helpline recorded a 77 per cent surge. SafeLives, the national charity, surveyed front line workers who said their caseload had increased by more than a quarter. Between April and September calls to the NSPCC almost doubled, reflecting the huge increase in the number of children impacted.
Covid-19 also has made supporting victims more difficult: domestic abuse services are struggling under the increased caseloads; refuges no longer feel like safe havens because of fear of infection; schools’ closure during lockdown deprived many children of much-needed support from teachers and counsellors; and some of the domestic abuse charities in the Centre for Social Justice’s nationwide charity Alliance have found that Covid has compounded mental health issues among parents: staff at Cheshire Without Abuse, a small charity in Crewe, have experienced two victims’ suicides and many more attempted suicides since lockdown began.
These developments will have a significant impact, over many generations. Psychologists and educationalists are beginning to adopt adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) as a framework for identifying those children most vulnerable to recruitment by gangs and county lines, and to ending up in care or as NEET. Domestic violence is one of these ACEs, and risks compromising a child’s future – from their cognitive development to their substance abuse. Research shows that living with domestic abuse between parents is as psychologically harmful to children as when they are direct victims of physical abuse themselves. Dame Vera Baird QC, Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, has found an overlap between children’s experience of domestic abuse and their offending behaviour.
The trauma continues beyond the “domestic” and into the courtroom, where the child may become the bone of contention between the perpetrator, who demands access, and the victim, who fears for their child’s welfare and longs to sever all connection with their tormentor. In many cases, domestic abuse may cause a child to lose their home and contact with grandparents and other relatives; it may also mean starting a new life in a refuge and a new school.
The new Domestic Abuse Bill, now in the Lords for its third reading, acknowledges the horrific trauma that this crime causes in children. For the first time the legislation explicitly refers to children as victims, not just witnesses, of domestic violence.
This is welcome, as are the establishment of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner and Office, and the recognition that abuse takes many forms, including economic, emotional, manipulative, and controlling behaviour.
More can be done, however. We would urge the Government to adopt the whole-family approach to address domestic abuse that is being delivered by Safe Lives charity with its One Front Door programme. This brings together multi-agency specialist teams of statutory and voluntary sector partners to identify the needs of every family member at the same time. “Every” family member means engaging with the perpetrators as well as the adult and child victims. For too long many organisations have argued that funding should not be taken from supporting the victim for the purpose of engaging with the perpetrator.
For this reason, interventions that deal with the perpetrator have received a minimal proportion of government funding. Fewer than one per cent of perpetrators, including repeat offenders, receive any kind of specialist intervention. Survivors overwhelmingly agree that there can be no solution to abuse without engaging with perpetrators, yet those working in the sector continue to balk at focusing efforts on offenders.
This has proved short-sighted. The level of re-offending is high – a quarter of high-harm perpetrators are repeat offenders, and some have at least six different victims. Yet the evidence is mounting to show that those interventions working with perpetrators significantly reduce the risk of re-offending.
A study by the University of Northumbria found that these sorts of interventions resulted in a 65 per cent reduction in future offences with a huge social return on investment of £14 for every £1 spent.
A new, family-centred approach would recognise the relational context in which abuse takes place, engaging with perpetrators and children as well as victims. Domestic abuse is not a gender issue. It is a social reform issue – one that the pandemic and its aftermath have made more urgent than ever. Addressing it offers a route out of disadvantage – for children as well as their parents.