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Learning together about how best to support children and families affected by, or at risk of, domestic abuse


9 Feb 2023

Despite the prevalence and severity of domestic abuse, we have some way to go before high-quality, evidence-informed services are available to all children and families who need support. David Rodriguez and Jonathon Blackburn outline What Works for Early Intervention and Children's Social Care's new work on strengthening the evidence base on how best to support children and families at risk of or experiencing domestic abuse.

We all know that domestic abuse is incredibly harmful to children. Evidence shows that domestic abuse negatively impacts children’s psychological outcomes, physiological outcomes, future relationships, and engagement with the health and children’s social care systems. Domestic abuse is also common. In the latest Children in Need Census, domestic abuse of a parent is the most commonly cited factor at the end of assessment.

Despite its prevalence and severity, we have a long way to go before high-quality services are available to all children and families who need support. A recent report from the Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales reported a postcode lottery of support and a patchwork of different interventions across different local authorities, often with precarious funding. The availability of services to children is jarring. Only 29% of polled respondents who wanted domestic abuse support services for their children were able to receive them.  

Where there are services in place, the thresholds for children to qualify for interventions mean that too many children miss out on vital support.

There are major weaknesses in the evidence-base

A major barrier to improving domestic abuse services is limited evidence on the effectiveness of support for children who have experienced or who are at risk of experiencing domestic abuse. Our previous work identified more than 100 domestic abuse programmes, with less than a third of these evaluated. Of those evaluated, many suffered from methodological weaknesses.

The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 recognised children as victims of domestic abuse in themselves, should they see, hear, or experience effects of the abuse. As Government seeks to strengthen services that are available, a lack of evaluation evidence is problematic for national and local agencies making decisions on funding support to tackle domestic abuse.

We would like to see a step-change in standards of evaluation over the longer-term and for interventions to be developed and tested using an evidence-based approach; alongside an improved evidence-base on what works, for whom, in which circumstances, and why.  

Furthermore, there is a need to generate evidence that is relevant to the ever-growing diversity of families and children and young people in England. Lastly, there should be investment in evaluation, supporting professional practice and local system improvement.

There is also more foundational work to be done on developing outcome measures and improving the use and consistency of these measures in evaluation.

Our new work on developing the evidence-base on effective domestic abuse support

We are taking initial steps this year to strengthen evaluation of domestic abuse services, working with four local partners/interventions - For Baby’s Sake, Survive and Thrive, LEAP Gaia Enhanced Casework, and Children Overcoming Domestic Abuse, delivered by the Early Years Alliance. These will refine theories of change and explore the potential for future evaluation and further rollout of programmes. More information is set out in the protocol for these studies.

The work will include a range of approaches to evaluation of interventions based on the WWCSC evaluation pipeline and the EIFs ten steps for evaluation success. We are alive to challenges of evaluating complex interventions for families and children with dynamic and complex needs.

We have also recently commissioned new research into the knowledge and skills of the family support and early help workforce in England with regards to domestic abuse, setting a foundation for future enhancement of workforce competencies.

Developing a longer-term body of work on domestic abuse

To meet Government ambitions for ‘every child and family who needs it to have access to high quality help’, we need to make serious attempts to generate better evidence on how best to support children and families at risk of or experiencing domestic abuse.

Later this year, WWEICSC will be launching new funding opportunities through a ‘Domestic Abuse Evaluation Accelerator Fund’ for providers to work with us to explore the impact of their work through pilot impact evaluations. A key aim of this work is to test the viability of impact evaluation and learn about the potential of different methods.

To build evidence on the most promising approaches, findings from a rapid systematic review led by the University of Oxford on domestic abuse interventions for children with child protection concerns, will soon be published. This will complement an EIF publication that reviewed the most promising interventions for prevention of domestic abuse and support to victim-survivors as part of a local family help offer. A review of the most promising approaches has also been published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US.

Going forward we hope to fund further high-quality evaluations in this space. Improving evidence about what makes the most difference for children and families will take time; but it matters too much not to be made a key priority as part of wider attempts to improve children’s and family's services. At the newly merged WWEICSC centre, we are looking forward to making our contribution to this vital area and learning together in collaboration with partners.

About the author

Jonathon Blackburn

Jonathon is head of impact and evaluation at EIF.