Written evidence submitted by
Jane E.M. Callaghan, BA, MSocSci, PhD, C.Psychol.
Professor of Child Wellbeing and Protection
University of Stirling
17 July 2018
- Children and young people experience a range of lifelong harms when domestic abuse occurs. These include harms to mental and physical health, educational and employment outcomes, and social and relational outcomes. Their life chances are therefore significantly and negatively impacted by domestic abuse.
- When children and young people tell their stories about their experience of domestic abuse, it is clear that they experience it directly, and the impact is similar to that experienced by adult victims.
- In particular, children and young people experience coercive control and emotional abuse in very similar ways to adults1–3 Families where domestic abuse occurs are permeated with abusive dynamics and it is unrealistic and potentially harmful to fail to recognise children and young people’s position as victims in such families.
- Failure to acknowledge children and young people’s experiences as victims of abuse functions to invalidate their experiences and further silence them
- Incorporating children and young people’s experiences of domestic abuse in existing child protection frameworks risks the victim-blaming attribution of ‘failure to protect’.
- Failing to recognise the legitimacy of children and young people’s victim experiences contributes to a service landscape in which the impact of domestic abuse on children and young people is largely overlooked.
I am offering evidence relating to children and young people’s experiences of domestic abuse, and to argue for their right to be considered full victims of domestic abuse, and not as an ‘aggravating factor’ or a witness to abuse. I offer this evidence as an academic with significant experience of work focused on children and young people’s experiences of domestic abuse, and having published numerous peer reviewed articles in this area.
The harm that children and young people experience when domestic abuse occurs has not been recognised in legal definitions and policy frameworks in the UK. I offer evidence that children and young people are direct victims of domestic abuse, and that the failure to recognise this does not provide them with adequate protection under the law, and does not incentivise the profession of appropriate trauma informed services for these children and young people and young people 2,4,5.
1) Recognising the impact of domestic abuse on children and young people and young people
When domestic abuse takes place within a child’s family, they are at risk of significant harm.
Children and young people are direct victims of domestic abuse, and the failure to recognise this does not provide them with adequate protection under the law 2,4,5. Children and young people who experience domestic abuse between their caregiver and another adult (a parent, or a parent’s partner) are potentially impacted in several ways:
- Lifelong elevated risk of mental health difficulties: this includes a risk of depression, anxiety, complex post-traumatic stress responses, as well as the risk of severe and enduring mental health difficulties6–10.
- Lifelong elevated risk of physical health difficulties11,12: this includes problems linked to immunity and the pain response (e.g. chronic pain conditions), addiction problems13, as well as cardio vascular difficulties, and cancer.12,14
- Risk of premature death: this may be the direct elevated risk of domestic homicide15, and the longer-term risks associated with higher rates of risk taking behaviours and involvement in risky activities16, as well as premature death associated with physical health difficulties like stroke, heart disease and cancer6. It remains unclear whether this is linked to health and lifestyle practices associated with domestic abuse12, or as suggested by adherents of an ACES model, that this is a direct result of the impact of stress on the developing child6
- Risk of poor educational outcomes and educational dropout: children and young people are more likely to underachieve academically, are more likely to drop out of schooling early, more likely to experience specific learning difficulties like ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia17,18. This may be linked to challenges in the early learning experiences of very young children and young people who experience domestic abuse.
- Risk of social difficulties, including problems making and maintaining friendships19 and intimate relationships20
- Risk of involvement in future abuse as victim and / or abuser. This includes child sexual exploitation, child sexual abuse, grooming for gang involvement, and future involvement in domestic abuse21–24
Recent research using the Adverse Childhood Experiences model has highlighted that domestic abuse is a strong predictor of an elevated risk score in general25. This suggests that the familial conditions that children and young people experience when domestic abuse is present place them at additional risk of harm.
The impact of domestic abuse on children and young people is well documented, and well evidenced. There is little doubt that children and young people experience direct harm as a consequence of domestic abuse. Its impact is not restricted to the intimate adult dyad. Children and young people are not collateral damage in this relationship, and they are not passive witnesses1. The impact of violence and coercive control pervades family life, and we need domestic abuse legislation, policy and practice that recognises its systemic nature and its systemic impact.
2) Hearing Children and young people’s Lived Experiences of Domestic Abuse
Excluding children and young people from the category of victim invalidates their lived experiences of coercive control and domestic violence. Their experience is one of direct impact. To illustrate this, I have selected quotes from the largest qualitative study of children and young people’s experiences of domestic abuse published to date, that aimed to facilitate children and young people and young people being heard about their experiences of domestic abuse1,5,26–28.
Lucy, Aged 11: I’d always hesitate of what I would say…even if I said “Hello”, I’d always think before like, is he just going to shut me out? Is he going to respond in a nice way, or be angry or anything like that? I’d always think ahead of what I was saying
The quote from Lucy illustrates clearly how children and young people are engaged in constant management of family relationships, always having to think about how they speak and behave, to avoid the risk of upsetting someone or provoking violence.
Rachel echoes Lucy’s experience of monitoring and acting to reduce the risk of violence (to self and other). This has been described as children and young people acting as ‘miniature radar devices’29, tuning in emotionally and physically to a dangerous world, constantly adapting reactions to that terrain.
Rachel, Aged 10: I went straight upstairs to my bedroom. I’d sort of like sneak downstairs and check that no one was arguing or anything and if it was all OK, I’d come downstairs and sit down and watch TV with my brother but if there was an argument I’d run downstairs, grab my brother and take him upstairs.
Domestic abuse impacts children and young people’s ability to feel safe at home (both during abuse, and after fleeing). Home becomes a space of danger and uncertainty, in which children and young people are constantly monitoring their behaviours and responses, to manage the threat of violence, coercion and abuse. These extracts illustrate the degree to which children and young people are conscious of, and impacted by, coercive behaviours in the home. Their accounts are not dissimilar from those of adult victims, who describe how they have to manage and change their behaviours to placate the abuser.
The impact of this kind of state of constant hypervigilance has implications long after the abusive relationship has broken down. For instance, Lizzy (14 years) says
Yeah, it was, it was like, ((erm)) you didn’t really wanna go outside ’cause like, every time you did you were like, is that him? Is that him? And you just, even like now, when I go in the car park and it’s dark ’cause I’m taking the rubbish out, it’s still like, is he still there? Or is someone there watching us or something?
Like adult survivors of domestic abuse, the impact of the abuse and threat of violence still hangs over her, and still limits her sense of freedom.
Children and young people articulate in complex and moving ways how domestic abuse impacts their emotional lives and relational worlds.
Emma, aged 15: Like obviously when I was little I’d hide away from him, yeah, but as you get older you can’t hide from that kind of thing, like if it’s in your head you physically can’t hide from it. I mean you can try and forget but that makes it worse ((.)) ‘cause it bottles up and then you’ve just, and when it does bottle up too much it just, everything just explodes in you and like, oh my God, why did this happen? And then you start thinking, oh if only I wasn’t alive this wouldn’t have happened, if I wasn’t born this wouldn’t have happened, that kind of thing.
Emma articulates clearly here how her experience of domestic abuse has impacted her sense of self, her self esteem, and her emotional world, producing suicidal thoughts and feelings. Hannah also talks about the psychological impact of living with domestic violence and abuse, focusing on her ability to manage her emotions and, particularly, to deal with anger.
Hannah, aged 11: When I’m annoyed it’s horrible, it’s not like other people, it feels like my mind’s blowing up and let’s just say it feels like I’ve been chopped into cubes, glued back together and been blown up. That’s what it feels like when I’m annoyed.
For many children and young people, this dominates their ideas about their future, impacting their aspirations and their sense of faith in a positive future for themselves:
Leo, aged 16: I was worried that maybe in an argument I would just snap and I would just start shouting or maybe start hurting maybe my own kid or someone else
When they flee domestic abuse with their non-violent parent, children and young people’s lives are disrupted, and they experience loss of friends, loss of their own house, loss of relationships (extended family, sometimes siblings and half siblings, and the perpetrating parent), loss of school, loss of toys and pets, and familiar things – the things that make up a child’s sense of home.
Michelle, 10: I just remember my dad being taken out of the house and taken off somewhere, for something
Int: He was taken off somewhere, and then you moved to (Town X)
Michelle: Yeah, in the same night… So I didn’t get to say bye to any of my friends. So now I think they hate me, and I don’t think they remember me anymore
Int: That sounds difficult that you had to move in the same night, what was it like for you?
Michelle: Horrible, awkward, disturbing, ((.)) sad, ‘cause I lost loads, all of my, loads of my stuff, and my aminals
Int: You left your animals as well?
Michelle: ((umm)), they got sold
Int: Did they?
Michelle: I got Tyra still
Int: Who’s Tyra
Michelle: My doggie.
Ben, aged 8: He’s made me lose on school work, ‘cause he’s made us move, move to somewhere (looks at voice recorder, and smiles, hesitating) … I’m not allowed to tell you where it is. But I’ve, it’s just been really hard and all I’ve been doing is since we’ve moved to this place… is just boring, ‘cause all I do is sit down and watch TV and I, it gets boring and I feel like I should be at school instead of sitting down all day but doing nothing but watching TV
Michelle and Ben both articulate a common sense in children and young peoples’ accounts of the loss and disruption to the everyday that they experience as part of domestic abuse. This is not ‘collateral damage’ or an ‘aggravating circumstance’. They are not passively witnessing adult violence; it is a direct experience of harm. For children and young people to recover, we need to name their experience of this violence and abuse, and recognise its impact, the disruption it has caused to their lives, and the emotional work they have had to do to rebuild their lives afterwards. By not naming their experience, we throw up an extra barrier to their ability to tell a coherent story about their lives – a story that they need to tell in order to be able to join together its various pieces, and make sense and meaning of what has happened in their lives.
3) The importance of labelling trauma experiences
Children and young people who experience domestic abuse want their stories to be heard and recognised3,30. However, there are many blocks to their ability to tell their stories27. A sense of family secrets is one key factor in silencing children and young people – they are afraid to betray family secrets, and afraid of negative repercussions if they do. Children and young people also do not have a sense of trust that their experiences will be understood or believed by others. In addition, professional gatekeeping around children and young people who are perceived as ‘vulnerable’ can prevent children and young people from being easily able to discuss their experiences31,32.
Labelling experiences of violence as violence is a key element in survivors’ healing after abuse. Being able to say “I experienced domestic abuse” is important to children and young people, as it helps them to acknowledge the violence and its impact, and helps them to relate their experiences to others who have had similar experiences. However, many children and young people struggle to name the domestic abuse they experience. As long as we have a policy and practice framework that does not label children and young people’s experiences of domestic abuse as experiences of victimisation, we are enabling their silencing, and effectively gaslighting children and young people. The accounts I quoted above indicate that children and young people do know that domestic abuse is part of their life experience, they do experience it directly and feel its impact, and they do understand that it could potentially have a long-term negative impact on them. An adult legal system that refuses to see them as directly experiencing abuse is denying them their experience, and preventing them from finding words to talk about it, acknowledge its impact, and find ways to recover from it.
4) Why is current child protection provision under the Children Act insufficient?
Historically, children’s experiences of domestic abuse have been addressed legally under the protections offered by the Children Act. This is an unhelpful provision, in that not all children and young people who experience domestic abuse should be seen as experiencing child abuse. The thresholds for intervention in child protection are set within a risk paradigm that focuses far more on children’s safety (primarily their physical safety). Just because a child does not meet requirements for protection under the Children Act, it does not follow logically that they have not experienced domestic violence and abuse.
In addition, it is important to recognise that excluding child victims from the definition of domestic abuse also has a potential a perverse, unintended consequence. Recent domestic policy and practice has stressed the importance of maintaining a focus on the perpetrator, ensuring that the actions of the perpetrator are recognised and addressed in policy and practice. When harm to children is only recognised in child protection legislation, the violence of the perpetrating parent is often less visible. It is typically the case that the non-violent parent is held responsible for protecting children, and that the non-violent parent (most typically the mother) becomes scrutinised under child protection for their ‘failure to protect’. In this way, the actual perpetrator of the violence is removed from the focus of child protection practices, resulting in the adult victim being blamed for failing to protect their child from the perpetrator33. This problem of victim blaming mothers is widely acknowledged in domestic abuse research that focuses on child protection 34–38. This actually reduces the chances that the victim parent, typically the mother, will seek support from child protection, since s/he often feels they are likely to be blamed and accused of failure to protect 5. This reduces the effectiveness of children’s services in managing the risk to child victims of domestic abuse.
In policing contexts, it is clear that children’s right to speak about their experiences and to have a say in decisions made about them are not well respected. In the UK, there is evidence that police do not speak to children and young people enough when domestic abuse occurs, and that children feel overlooked by police 5,30 In contexts where children and young people are recognised as direct victims, they are more likely to be spoken to, and their perspective taken into account39.
5) Emphasising a children’s rights approach to domestic abuse
A significant body of literature has focused on the agency of children who experience domestic abuse 5,28,34,40–46. This research highlights the personhood of children who experience domestic abuse, stressing the importance of recognising them, not as collateral damage to domestic violence that takes place within an intimate dyad, but as people who live in families permeated with violence and coercive dynamics, who experience this directly 4,5,47.
A definition of domestic abuse that does not recognise that children directly experience domestic abuse, and must therefore be regarded as full victims of such abuse does a disservice to children, and fails to recognise both the harms that children experience (and so their right to protection) and the agency children have that requires they be treated as full persons (their right to speak out on issues that directly affect them). Research with children and young people demonstrates that most children would like the harm that is done to them to be recognised legally, and that being recognised as a full victim and not as ‘witnesses’ to domestic violence and abuse is important to them3.
- To recognise children’s lived experience of domestic abuse, the new legislative framework must recognise that children are direct victims alongside adult victims of violence and coercive control.
- Any legislative framework that purports to protect children and young people should recognise the direct harm that children experience as a result of domestic violence and coercive control.
- An appropriate legislative framework should be based in a children’s right’s perspective that recognises children’s personhood, their rights to speak about experiences that affect them, and their right to be protected.
- In domestic abuse, this can only be fully achieved by recognising children’s own understanding that they are direct victims of the harm of domestic abuse. By recognising this, we validate their lived experiences, acknowledge their personhood, and make a clear commitment to righting the wrongs that they have experienced.
- Capturing their experiences under generic child abuse and child protection legislation does not recognise the specific nature of children’s experiences of domestic abuse.
- By positioning children and young people’s experiences of domestic abuse as ‘failure to protect’ we make it less likely that the harms committed by the perpetrator be recognised, and more likely that the adult victim (typically the mother) be blamed for failing to protect. This reduces the likelihood that adult victims will come forward for help and support for their children, because they fear being blamed (for instance, for not leaving the abusive partner), and fear the consequences of that blame.
- Failure to acknowledge children and young people’s experience of domestic abuse in legislation removes an incentive for services to recognise their victimhood and means that their experiences are overlooked.
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- Houghton, C. Young People’s Perspectives on Participatory Ethics: Agency, Power and Impact in Domestic Abuse Research and Policy-Making. Child Abus. Rev. 24, 235–248 (2015).
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