Dealing with domestic abuse is a rapidly-expanding area of work within the children's sector. Responding to the government's Strategy to End Violence against Women and Girls and forthcoming Domestic Abuse Bill, local authorities and commissioning partnerships are increasingly recognising this as a key policy area and strategic priority, and are developing ways to reduce demand and help families who struggle with abuse to move on.
The Adoption and Children Act 2002 recognised the impact of this type of abuse and amended earlier definitions of "significant harm" requiring safeguarding intervention by local authorities to include impairment suffered by seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another. Charity SafeLives estimates that 62 per cent of children living with domestic abuse are directly harmed by it, but nearly half of those experiencing domestic abuse are unknown to services and receive no support.
Domestic abuse may be "everyone's business", but this can create challenges for commissioners in ensuring a co-ordinated strategic response. Different support services might be commissioned by a range of statutory agencies and service areas, all with different funding arrangements. Other services may be delivered directly by practitioners or exist within local voluntary and community sectors. These arrangements often result in fragmented delivery landscapes, where some services may be duplicated but other service users, particularly children and young people, slip through provision gaps.
Despite emerging awareness of the importance of whole-family approaches and trauma-informed practice, limited resources can mean that support for children focuses predominantly on safeguarding.
Preventative work to enable young people to develop healthy attitudes to adult relationships is often under-funded, and there is little direct provision to help children cope with and recover from witnessing abuse besides overstretched child and adolescent mental health services.
In Central Bedfordshire, a newly-formed domestic abuse team has been established in children's services. We are learning from best practice in other authorities and reviewing our strategies and commissioning arrangements.
A more established approach to tackling violence against women and girls (VAWG) in London's Tri-borough partnership demonstrates how joined-up commissioning can directly benefit children and young people who have experienced domestic abuse. By aligning their commissioning strategy with the community safety strategic priorities for children and young people across three authorities, commissioners were able to map existing provision and spend, and secure leadership buy-in for combining team budgets, statutory partners and voluntary sector grant-funding to develop a co-ordinated community response.
The partnership developed domestic abuse specialists co-located within early years teams, and commissioned a young people's independent advocacy service, support for schools, children's workers in refuges and the nationally-recognised Talking Without Fear programme.
Meghan Field, the independent VAWG consultant who led the commissioning, identifies how younger survivors were empowered by the feeling of being seen, heard, believed and "held" by these services: between 80-90 per cent of all clients said they felt safer, better and more positive about their lives. Although the Tri-borough partnership itself has now separated, the VAWG programme has been extended for another year.
Partnership working can ensure that local services are aligned, with clear pathways into and between statutory, commissioned and voluntary sector provision; and that commissioning is more streamlined, freeing up resources for early intervention with children and young people to promote healthy relationships, attitudinal change and empowerment - which may be a more effective way of reducing the prevalence and impact of domestic abuse in the future.
How to develop effective domestic abuse support services
Embed support for children and young people who have experienced domestic abuse within local commissioning strategies, and engage with young people to ensure that their needs and experiences of accessing services underpins service development.
Children and young people should have a choice of services to access that can cater for the potential range of their experience of domestic abuse - both as affected children and as potential survivors and perpetrators of abuse, which should also include support for female genital mutilation and honour-based violence.
Research shows that many young people prefer to access services offered by providers or professionals they already know and trust (for example, youth services or schools). However, some young people need the option to self-refer into services anonymously or access provision which safeguards their confidentiality.
Although the need for joined-up commissioning and longer-term interventions is clear, funding arrangements often remain disjointed and short-term. Sustainability of support (through a ‘train the trainers' approach) should be a key consideration.
- Toni Badnall-Neill is strategic commissioning officer for children's services at Central Bedfordshire Council
Are They Shouting Because of Me? Voices of Children Living in Households with Domestic Abuse, Parental Substance Misuse and Mental Health Issues, Office of the Children's Commissioner for England, August 2018
Responding to Domestic Abuse: A Resource for Health Professionals, Department of Health, March 2017
Violence Against Women and Girls Services: Supporting Local Commissioning, Home Office, December 2016