How can Children be Protected from Abuse Post-Lockdown?
Recent surveys indicate that children have experienced greater abuse during lockdowns. This post is designed to provide social workers with child-focused guidance for risk management and safety planning in domestic abuse cases.
Early research into the effects of the pandemic on domestic abuse is showing that restrictions used to minimise the spread of the virus have reinforced environments that aid the behaviours that abusers use against their families. The Childhood Trust surveyed 75 charities and other organisations representing over 85,000 children across London have published their findings including:
A high proportion of charities (41%) supporting approximately 35,215 disadvantaged children in London reported that their beneficiaries experienced greater abuse at home during lockdowns.
Support workers advised that this number may be higher as it has been difficult to track their beneficiaries’ experiences of abuse because many have been unable to maintain contact due to a lack of technology and face-to-face interaction.
Social distancing measures have severely restricted channels of support for children living in dysfunctional, unstable, or abusive homes an issue compounded by a lack of digital access in low-income families.
82% of charity respondents reported that their beneficiaries were experiencing serious mental health issues as a direct result of lockdown measures. - Read the full report here
Further research has found that an increase in the general level of domestic abuse has been largely driven by an increase in sexual and psychological types of abuse. The findings indicated that the increase was higher; among couples with children; when the family were suffering financially and particularly when the relative position of the man worsened (Arenas-Arroyo, E. et al 2021).
It has been well established by research that when parents engage in domestic violence, it is directly or indirectly witnessed by a high percentage of their children. Mothers often minimise and deny the presence of their children during incidents of domestic violence, often believing they have been successful in their efforts to shield the children from what is happening. However, children are usually aware of the abuse and can give detailed accounts of violent behaviour that their parents had assumed they never witnessed.
Following the domestic abuse bill in the UK children are now considered as victims in their own right in recognition that experiencing abuse has serious consequences for children affecting how they feel, think and behave. Research indicates that exposure to domestic violence as a child may have a more severe effect on their emotional and psychological well-being than direct assaults. Further, it is increasingly acknowledged that children living in an environment where there are psychological types of abuse can become trapped in the perpetrators' regimes of control and exhibit the same negative outcomes as those who have lived with more frequent physical abuse.
When talking to children about abuse in the home always ensure the children can speak freely without the perpetrator present. Caution should be taken when considering what is being said by perpetrators who exhibit controlling behaviours as they often create a plausible charming persona, making it even more difficult for victims who fear they will not be believed.
To gain an understanding of how children are being affected by controlling behaviours in the home, children can be asked whether there are restrictions placed on their movements or activities, whether there are things they do or do not do for fear of the perpetrator's reaction and if they are able to engage freely with family and friends.
For more general signs that a child is suffering from abuse please visit the NSPCC page for advice here. For professionals working with families where a safety plan is already in place the following would indicate that the level of risk is rising:
Evidence that the tension is rising in the home such as the parents frequently arguing;
Evidence that separated parents are having contact or the mother becomes pregnant;
Allegations of violence or abuse from a parent or third parties;
The parents fail to cooperate with any written agreements and fail to engage with social workers;
Inability to contact the parents or see the children;
A change in the behaviour of the children or victim together with unexplained injuries to them;
Police notifications of domestic incidents or disturbances in the home.
Possible risk management strategies for children
When considering the risks posed to children, past behaviour is always the most reliable indicator of future behaviour. Risk concerns should always be clearly identified and it may be necessary to have an expert domestic abuse risk assessment completed that will set out the risks and make recommendations as to how to manage those risks. The following are examples of risk management strategies that professionals can use when completing safety planning with families, they should not be used in isolation but form part of a comprehensive risk management plan;
It is important that safety planning is carried out with all families that are living with domestic abuse and should have the children's safety and protection as the primary concern;
There is good evidence to suggest that particularly older children should be actively involved in safety planning. The children should participate in the formation of a robust safety plan and their views on what is likely/realistic should be taken seriously. This should include specific plans such as escape routes from each room, places of safety to go to and who to contact in an emergency. It is crucial that the custodial parent honours the safety plan and agrees not to undermine any agreements or injunctions that are in place. For full guidance on completing a safety plan with families please visit our post here;
In a home where coercive controlling behaviours are being used, a safety plan needs to specifically address this type of abuse. For our full guidance on coercive control management and safety planning please visit our post Coercive Control: Management and safety planning for social workers.
When coercive control is suspected it is helpful to establish a routine of regular visits where the children are seen on their own.
If completing visits remotely due to Coronavirus restrictions avoid any video conferencing work in the home as this can be monitored by the perpetrator.
It is highly protective for children to have contact with other children and adults outside the family home, if the child is very young this could include securing a nursey place.
Involvement in extracurricular activities should be encouraged such as school, sport or cultural activities.
It is important to involve others who can give practical and moral support to the children as well as monitor safety. The supporters should be risk aware and concerned for the best interests of the children. The supporters should be invited to attend certain sessions and be made aware of the risk concerns and what their involvement in the safety plan will be (ie provide a safe space for the children).
Child contact provides an opportunity for abusive parents to continue their abuse of children and ex‐partners. When looking at the appropriateness of child contact, the safety of the children should always be the primary concern. Where contact is deemed safe only when supervised, the contact should be prearranged, regular, predictable and managed by a third party to limit continuing abuse or the children witnessing abuse or arguments.
Post‐separation coercive control can lead to children experiencing threatening, strict and authoritarian parenting or, in contrast, a vulnerable/victimised parent who appears indulgent but causes the children to feel responsible for their wellbeing while undermining the other parent. Children should have access to a trusted adult who can raise concerns regarding contact.
Separation under any form of duress carries a much greater risk of reconciliation, therefore, victims who have separated due to written agreements with children's services will require extra support during this time. Child contact should not be managed by the parents to avoid the chance of reconciliation and mothers must be given support to maintain separation, particularly around childcare. Visit our post How Can Vulnerable Mothers be Supported to Detach from Their Abusers? for further guidance.
References and resources
McNair, R., Banham, P. (2021). The Childhood Trust: Post Lockdown Children in Crisis - https://view.publitas.com/the-childhood-trust/post-lockdown-children-in-crisis-the-childhood-trust/page/1
Arenas-Arroyo, E., Fernandez-Kranz, D., Nollenberger, N. (2021). Intimate partner violence under forced cohabitation and economic stress: Evidence from the COVID-19 pandemic,
For further resources on children's safeguarding from abuse visit NSPPC at https://www.nspcc.org.uk/what-is-child-abuse/types-of-abuse/domestic-abuse/
Helplines are available in the UK as follows:
Childline - 0800 1111 you can also go to https://www.childline.org.uk/get-support/
NSPCC (Monday to Friday 8am – 10pm or 9am – 6pm at the weekends) - 0808 800 5000 or Contact counsellors 24 hours a day by email or online reporting form email@example.com
National Domestic Violence Helpline – 0808 2000 247
The Men’s Advice Line, for male domestic abuse survivors – 0808 801 0327
Respect phoneline for perpetrators of domestic abuse - 0808 8024040
DV-ACT are a team of domestic abuse experts, available throughout the UK, who provide assessments, programmes, consultancy and training to local authorities and the family courts. Our experts have decades of experience working directly with domestic abuse perpetrators and victims, as specialist assessors and as expert witnesses in the family courts.
DV-ACT was formed with the aim of using our expertise to help safeguard children from abuse, this is at the heart of everything that we do. To read more about us please visit our post - Who are DV-ACT?