The new Domestic Abuse Act legally recognises children as victims if they see, hear, or otherwise experience the effects of abuse. This is a welcome step forward which will focus minds on the perspectives and experiences of children.
We have estimated that more than 15,000 children suffer domestic abuse in any two-week period, and the COVID-19 pandemic has almost certainly increased that number. The impacts can last a lifetime; for example, child victims are significantly more likely to develop drug or alcohol dependency, mental health problems and experience abuse in their own adult relationships, to give just three examples. All this has an individual, societal and economic cost.
We urgently need to turn our attention now to the way in which we support these children. It is critical they have access to appropriate, high quality support at the time they need it. While the Act places a duty on councils to provide support to children in refuges or other safe accommodation, there is no requirement to provide support for the majority of child victims, who will still be living at home.
At the Early Intervention Foundation, we have been working with four local authority areas to understand more about the nature and availability of community-based support for child victims of domestic abuse. This work has exposed a host of system challenges that are impacting on the quality and availability of this critical support.
One of the major challenges unsurprisingly is funding. Directors of children’s services have the unenviable job of trying to tighten the budgetary belt while retaining the most effective support they can for victims. The situation means statutory services focus on crisis support and reducing the immediate risk of harm to children. And on top of that, local authority funding for prevention activity or longer-term therapeutic support is short-term and vulnerable to cuts.
The voluntary and community sector is left to try and plug the gaps in wider services, but with precarious funding it’s not a long-term solution. We end up with a situation where demand for support considerably outstrips supply.
Efforts to improve the quality and availability of support for children are also hindered by a lack of evidence about what works to support child victims. Very few of the programmes or practices currently delivered in local areas have been robustly evaluated.
We identified 107 programmes in the UK designed to support children affected by domestic abuse. Of these, only 24 had been evaluated, only three of these evaluations were sufficiently robust to demonstrate an impact on child outcomes, and only one – the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children’s DART programme – identified an impact on child outcomes specifically related to domestic abuse. There are a range of reasons for this, including some methodological challenges, but essentially, funding and carrying out local evaluations in the context we have described, is incredibly challenging.
Councils cannot resolve these systemic issues on their own, and we are calling on the Government to invest over the long-term to improve our understanding of what works and, crucially, to support the use of this knowledge in local service delivery. Three current policy opportunities stand out here. Firstly, the continued investment in the newly named Supporting Families programme not only ensures work with vulnerable families can continue but enables us to strengthen our understanding of the impact of this work.
Secondly, the independent review of children’s social care provides a chance to improve support for families facing challenges, including domestic abuse, to provide safe and nurturing environments for their children. This support offer would need to include high quality help for families suffering domestic abuse that is evidence-informed, sufficiently intensive, and led by skilled professionals.
Finally, the Government’s commitment to expand Family Hubs offers a chance to make sure that support for families is accessible, community-based, and non-stigmatising.
Domestic abuse remains shockingly prevalent. It is heartbreaking to know so many children are affected and are left to cope without the support that could make such a difference to their lives. The systemic challenges are substantial. It is time for a step change in the level of investment in support for families struggling in the face of adversity, and a long-term commitment from government to increase our understanding of what works and ensure this knowledge is used to shape and strengthen local services.
Steph Waddell is assistant director, impact and knowledge mobilisation, at the Early Intervention Foundation