At the start of this month I became president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS). The president’s role is to speak up clearly on key national issues on behalf of ADCS members, while at the same time authentically capturing their views. I feel it would be amiss not to focus my first column on an issue that is increasingly prevalent in our society and is the most common factor in situations where children are at risk of serious harm in this country today. Domestic abuse.
Domestic abuse can happen to anyone, anywhere – both men and women can be victims or perpetrators and it can be fatal. Witnessing or experiencing domestic abuse can have a devastating, lifelong and intergenerational impact on children and young people. There are huge human and financial costs associated with domestic abuse on everything from social care, to housing and the criminal justice system – it costs the nation £23bn each year. It makes sense, therefore, that in tackling this issue we must maintain a strong focus on early help and prevention.
The Government recently outlined its approach to tackling domestic abuse in a draft Domestic Abuse Bill. At a time when more and more children and families are affected by domestic abuse any investment in supporting agencies to tackle it is to be welcomed but the piecemeal approach to funding aimed at different parts of the system means that the full impact of this money is not being realised. The ADCS is concerned that the draft bill falls short of the cross-government, sufficiently funded national strategy, that is relentlessly focused on early help and prevention. We desperately need to enable local areas to more effectively and robustly identify, respond to, and crucially prevent, domestic abuse, an issue that affects millions of men, women and children each year.
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 we know that far too little is being done to prevent domestic abuse and repair the damage that it does. The sheer scale of this issue means that agencies have had to focus almost all of their available resources on protecting children and victims from the immediate risk of harm, at which point the damage to children and victims has already been done.
The report calls for a public health approach to tackling domestic abuse, including the development of a national public service campaign aimed at raising awareness of domestic abuse and violence whilst tackling public culture and attitudes. This needs to be promoted with the same intensity and challenge as previous campaigns against AIDS, racism and homophobia. This is long overdue and sadly missing from the draft bill as it stands.
The thematic report also helpfully suggests that evolving practices could be ‘borrowed’ from other areas of practice where local agencies are working together to safeguard children and families. The report highlighted a stark contrast between local practices to tackle child sexual exploitation compared with domestic abuse – prevention work in this area is much more focused on working with perpetrators and building perpetrator profiles. A similar approach could helpfully be taken with domestic abuse, a crime which has more repeat victims than any other. Identifying and working with children and families at risk of domestic abuse (as well as perpetrators) at the earliest opportunity is crucial if we are to improve outcomes and reduce the prevalence of domestic abuse as well as the human and monetary costs to our society.
A shift to a more systematic focus on changing perpetrator behaviours is long overdue and the Government must lead this endeavour from the front as a matter of urgency
Stuart Gallimore is director of children’s services at East Sussex CC and ADCS president