Domestic Abuse: Best Practice With Families
Updated: Jan 30
As social workers we have an implicit duty to protect the most vulnerable members of society which is enshrined in law. In an abusive environment, both adults and children are prone to emotional damage and physical harm. Domestic abuse is a failure of parenting, as it is impossible to be a good parent and an abusive partner. This article will discuss the effects of domestic abuse on victims within the family, and will suggest possible strategies to best help all those involved.
Domestic abuse has a serious effect on adult victims. Most are women, though it should be recognised that this is not always the case. The perpetrators of abuse can make them feel that they are unworthy parents, and the tactics used can leave victims feeling emotionally drained. Children are often encouraged to question their mother’s authority, damaging their respect for her, and undermining their mother's ability to provide appropriate routines. Abuse increases the risk of maternal suicide. Most cases also involve other safeguarding allegations, such as mental health concerns or substance abuse.
In cases of domestic abuse between parents, children can be affected in different ways and should be considered equally as the victim. When assessing the risk faced by a child in an abusive domestic environment, the resilience of the child should be considered. This can take into account whether the child is in a stable school, if they have supportive relationships with adults and peers, their self-esteem, and whether they are supported by positive routines at home.
Children may have developed coping strategies to deal with the abusive carer, such as appeasing them with co-operative behaviour, and working out how to not ‘trigger’ episodes of abuse. It is much more likely for children over ten to try and stop physical abuse.
SafeLives data (2018) suggests that 27% of children over 10 will intervene, compared to 15% of those under 10. Children exposed to abuse show an increase in behavioural problems and risk-taking behaviour. 52% find it difficult to sleep, and 30% feel the abuse is their fault. They are more vulnerable to exploitation, harm and other forms of abuse. Children typically suffer from anxiety, depression and academic problems as a result of domestic abuse .
When an adult is abusing another parent or carer within the child’s home, it can be difficult to establish the facts of the case from the child, as the child will likely feel intimidated by the abuser and will have conflicting feelings of loyalty towards him or her. Though it may be tempting to feel that children will ‘get used to’ domestic abuse between their parents or guardians, the truth is that the longer the exposure of the child, the worse the effects are.
Certain questions can help steer us towards an understanding of the complexities of family relationships. We could ask a child who they most trust within the family, who they are closest to, and why. We can ask if there is anything that stresses them within the family, and what changes they think would help with this stress. We can ask what they could do to change things, and what others could do. This line of questioning can be revealing, and can provide useful direct quotes which can later be used to make recommendations to a court.
The issues at work can be complex, and it is important that children are supported in their responses rather than leading them. Thought should also be given to the way the conversation is returned to ‘normal’, child-centred subjects, for when the parent is invited back into the room.
As social workers we must gather information from all parties involved, including the perpetrator, in order to make a holistic assessment of the risks faced by children. Domestic abuse within families is often under-reported and hidden by its very nature. When speaking with adult victims, practitioners should ensure that the victim is in a safe environment. If the interview is conducted over the phone, you should ensure that the perpetrator is not within earshot.
When looking to explore the issue of domestic abuse, the subject should not be introduced suddenly, and groundwork should be made for the initial disclosure. Framing questions can be used, such as “many of our service users have mentioned being intimidated or hurt by a partner, so we ask everyone about these things….”. Follow up questions should then explore the nature and duration of any abuse.
Any investigation should analyse static risk factors, which are facts based on an individual's past such as childhood abuse and a criminal record. Perpetrators can often be very convincing in interview, suggesting that they have learned from their mistakes and are deterred by future punishment. Practitioners should bear in mind that victims in contrast may come across as unhelpful or angry.
Even after the domestic abuse has finished, it can take time for a victim to adjust to living in a safe environment. Victims are likely to have experienced many instances of abuse before this comes to the attention of the authorities. It is also possible that abusive behaviour can still exist between parents even if they no longer live together. This can include stalking and harassment, in person over the phone or through social media. Subtle forms of fear and intimidation are often present.
It should be understood that healing takes time, and can result in depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. Victims may also lose their ability to trust others, lack motivation, feel hopeless and unworthy, and feel discouraged about the future. However, victims must be assisted to take the first step away from an abusive environment and understand that they are not alone. Parents should be reminded that it is their duty to safeguard their own well-being and that of their children, in order to break the chain of abusive behaviour and establish a healthy home environment for all involved.