Last week, the government published its Domestic Abuse Bill and a suite of related documents. The Bill has been described as a ‘once in a generation' opportunity to tackle the devastating and lifelong impact that domestic abuse can have on victims and their children. I absolutely welcome the government's focus on this area, however, there needs to be much greater attention on preventing abuse from happening in the first place given its huge human, and financial, costs. Recent research from the Home Office estimates that domestic abuse cost the nation at least £66 billion in the year ending 31 March 2017, of which £47 billion related to the physical and emotional harms incurred by victims. This is likely to be an underestimate.
Domestic abuse can happen to anyone, anywhere. Both men and women can be victims or perpetrators and it can be fatal. It's also the most common factor in situations where children are at serious risk of harm today. It's estimated that upward of two million people, aged between 16-59, were victims of domestic abuse last year in England and Wales and around three or four million children and young people have been exposed to at least some form of domestic abuse in their lives. I repeat, three or four million children and young people. We should not accept this reality for any child or young person yet all too often we see domestic abuse cited as a primary reason for referrals to children's social care.
So, what more can we as a nation do to support children and young people who are victims of domestic abuse and prevent it from happening in the first place? Seeing the issue through the eyes of children and young people is crucial and making sure they can easily access emotional, psychological or practical support when and where they need it is important. But we cannot overlook the impact of nine years of austerity on the work that councils and their partners do to keep children safe from harm. The recent joint targeted area inspections on children living with domestic abuse found much good work is being done by local authorities and their partners across the country to protect children and victims, but the huge scale of the issue means that we have no choice but to focus our limited resources on those who are at immediate risk of harm, at which point the damage has often already been done.
The Domestic Abuse Bill is a welcome start but we need more action and, crucially, investment to enable local authorities and their partners to effectively prevent this abuse from occurring and to repair the damage that it does. I worry that the government still doesn't appreciate the importance of early help services in preventing domestic abuse from affecting millions of victims each year. The introduction of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner is an encouraging start, but can one person really have enough influence over the many government departments involved in responding to this issue?
Domestic abuse is a crime that has more repeat victims than any other and preventing this cycle is key. Resources must be put into identifying and working with children and families at risk at the earliest possible opportunity if we are to truly tackle this crime and we must not lose sight of children.
Rachel Dickinson is executive director for people, Barnsley Council. This blog first appeared on the ADCS website