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Supporting children who experience domestic abuse: exploring the current system in partnership with local authorities


28 Jan 2021

Danny McGrath, EIF policy & practice adviser, introduces our new work with a group of local areas to improve our understanding of the local system and services around children and families who have experienced domestic abuse.

Over any two-week period, EIF has estimated that around 15,000 children will experience domestic abuse. This is thought to have increased during the successive Covid-19 lockdowns, with calls to the NSPCC Helpline about the impact of domestic abuse increasing by a third during the first period of restrictions introduced last year – which equates to one child every hour. We recently spoke to one area who were seeing a 200% increase in domestic abuse, based on police data and calls to helplines. The government’s domestic abuse bill, which we hope will become law by March, promises to build on the current cross-government definition in important ways, by placing it for the first time on a statutory footing, and explicitly recognising children who see, hear or experience the effects of domestic abuse as victims in their own right.

Prior to joining EIF, I practised as a social worker in a London local authority. As in many local authority areas, domestic abuse featured regularly on my caseload and my colleagues’. It is an issue that is both emotive and complex for practitioners, but the frequency of its occurrence should not lead us to underestimate the detrimental impact it can have on children and young people. Arguably, it instead highlights the importance of making sure practitioners are equipped to respond as effectively as possible.

I know from my current role at EIF that the evidence on how best to support children and families experiencing domestic abuse is too limited. We are conducting a review in this area right now, and finding very few interventions with strong evidence of impact. There are lots of reasons for this, including a lack of investment in evaluation and a lack of real consistency in the measurement of child outcomes at a local or national level. New work to test some of the most promising UK-based interventions is needed to ensure the large numbers of children and families experiencing domestic abuse are supported by services which are shown to make a real difference. Local authorities cannot do this by themselves, however. Central government has a vital role to play here in generating some of the evidence that is urgently required.

In the meantime, however, we are looking to local contexts to gather together a range of perspectives on how support for children who experience domestic abuse can be improved. We are really keen to understand exactly what the current multi-agency system of support looks like at a local level. We want to know what a child’s journey through services looks like, what is working well for children, and what some of the key challenges are in supporting them. Taking a view of the whole system of support might generate new hypotheses about how the system works and what can be done differently.

We are delighted to be partnering with four local authority areas to explore this: Stockport, Cambridgeshire, Northumberland and Westminster/Hammersmith and Fulham. We will be working together to map each local system in detail, incorporating the views of practitioners, managers and children and families themselves to help us better understand the complex network of local support.

This is a welcome and timely endeavour for Vicky Sattler, interim service lead of Stockport’s Aspire Complex Safeguarding Service, who notes that ‘improving outcomes for children who experience domestic abuse has never been more important, as the impact of Covid-19 and lockdown continues to increase risk and vulnerability for those living in abusive situations’. This sense of ambition for the broad impact of the partnership is also underlined by Cath McEvoy-Carr, executive director for adult and children's services in Northumberland, for whom ‘learnings from the research will go a long way in us reaching out and supporting more children and young people to get them the help and support they need’.

We know the landscape of support available for children can vary, creating something of a ‘postcode lottery’ for some of our most vulnerable children. For Julia Cullum, domestic abuse and sexual violence partnership manager at Cambridgeshire County Council, the opportunity to collaborate and learn from other local authorities in the partnership could go some way to remedying this. We know what a huge impact experiencing domestic abuse can have on children, but equally we know that there isn’t always a lot of specialist support out there. We have been lucky in Cambridgeshire to have received funding from the Home Office to fund projects for children affected by domestic abuse over the past two years. This has just highlighted that there is a very mixed picture of support.’

We are delighted to be working with such a committed group of local authorities. This will help us ensure that as we build up the evidence base in this area, our work will remain relevant to those who commission, manage and deliver services for children. We hope this marks the start of a long and productive partnership to strengthen the support available for children who experience domestic abuse.