The recent care review of children's services has highlighted the need for more supportive interventions for families. This post will give advice to social workers on how families can be supported at an early intervention stage when domestic violence and abuse is present in the family home.
The recently published "Case for Change" care review (July 2021) identified a number of priorities for improving the children’s social care system in England, one of which was that family support should be prioritised over care proceedings and child protection investigations. It has been reiterated that early intervention is of particular value to children's wellbeing, with Charlotte Ramsden, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), stating that:
Providing the right support at the earliest opportunity for children and families is key but we must also not lose sight of the child. Their welfare and rights must always be at the forefront of decision making - Charlotte Ramsden ADCS
This is at odds with analysis commissioned by children’s charities which found that council spending on early intervention services has fallen by almost 50% from £3.6bn in 2010 to £1.8bn in 2020. The analysis also noted that this decrease has coincided with an increase in late and crisis intervention spending, which rose from £5.7bn in 2010 to £7.6bn in 2020. These figures prompted NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanlass to call for the government to "make a significant and long-term funding commitment to helping younger people before they hit crisis point".
Practical Guidance for Supporting Families
DV-ACT experts have worked alongside children's services for many years and have developed interventions for families with the aim of supporting parents to avoid an escalation into care proceedings. With the primary focus on safeguarding children, we have put together the following practical actions that social workers can use to help suppot families at an early intervention stage when domestic violence and abuse is a concern.
1. Safety planning
It is vital that safety planning is carried out with all families that are living with domestic abuse which should have the children's safety and protection as the primary concern. Both the victim and the perpetrator should be included in the planning as well as older children (where appropriate). Establishing safety rules for parents to follow can also be helpful for de-escalating situations. These rules can include practical strategies such as no shouting, no arguing in front of the children and keeping a distance (an example can be found in our post on safety rules for parents).
Detailed guidance for social workers on how to complete safety planning with families can be found in our post How to complete safety planning with families with specific risk management strategies for children included in the post How can children be protected from abuse post lockdown?
2. Identify the risk concerns
The risk concerns need to be clearly identified and prioritised so that there is no confusion with the parents about what the issues are and which are the most important. To get to grips with the dangers in a situation and therefore plan properly you need to know who did what to whom and under what circumstances. Where there are allegations of abuse from both parents it is important to clarify who presents the greatest risk to the children.
It may be necessary to have an expert domestic abuse risk assessment completed that will give clarity on issues of risk, with the safety of the children as the primary concern. DV-ACT experts complete specialist assessments at any stage of the case even if there is minimal documented evidence of abuse. Assessments carried out at the CIN or CP stage will identify exactly what the risks are provide a realistic risk management plan and will offer recommendations to help prevent the case from escalating to court proceedings.
3. Focus resources on the perpetrator's abusive behaviour
Try to concentrate efforts and resources in the area where the greatest concern lies. Sometimes it is easier to focus on the problems which can be more easily addressed, often this is because the mother tends to be more compliant and there are numerous interventions to choose from. This can create a false sense of the risks being 'managed' when in fact the source of greatest danger is left untreated. The mother can also experience this as focusing on her faults when she is the main victim potentially damaging any future working relationship.
4. Use suitable interventions
Perpetrators who avoid culpability for their behaviour and discount its effects on victims are among those least likely to make progress on a treatment programme and will most likely be found unsuitable by reputable domestic abuse treatment programmes without motivational work. Be aware that any work other than a full perpetrator programme is unlikely to have much impact on risk.
Interventions for mothers should also be chosen carefully, most community domestic abuse programmes offer excellent education, support and advocacy to victims of violence and abuse, however, their generic nature that uses an academic learning style, may not meet the needs of women involved in children's services. Where the needs of the mother are complex, with enduring problems around adult attachments, accountability and prioritising their children’s safety, more intensive, challenging and focused work is needed in order to support lasting change. Read more in our post on reducing vulnerability.
5. Meet the victim alone and schedule regular meetings
Regular visits are highly protective for the children and the non-abusive parent and must be a part of any working agreement. If completing visits remotely due to Coronavirus restrictions avoid any video conferencing work in the home, due to the potential for the perpetrator to be present, thus restricting the victim's freedom to talk about what is really going on. We have found that meetings taking place in the maternal family home often have the joint benefit of having someone to care for the children while the session takes place. If this is not possible it may be necessary to meet in social work offices.
6. Encourage outside interests
One of the most effective methods to ameliorate the risks from domestic abuse is to ensure that the parents pursue interests outside the home. Securing employment is the most valuable of these, particularly for the victim, as it provides a sense of autonomy and financial independence. Contact with other adults also provides an opportunity to ‘reality check’ their own circumstances against those of other parents.
It is also 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. The contact does not need to be a professional but could be any trusted adult.
7. Involve suitable others to provide support
It is important to involve others (usually family members, particularly from the maternal side) who can give practical and moral support to the family 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, be made aware of the nature of the abuse including any ‘red flag’ indicators, and understand what their involvement in any safety plan will be. The provision of an easily accessible safe space for the children should be a priority.
8. Know when to escalate
The following are 'red flag' indicators and would necessitate further action/consideration:
A change in the balance of power within the household. Current research into the effects of the pandemic on behaviour indicates that a significant proportion of men become more controlling when their partner becomes the primary breadwinner;
the family are experiencing financial hardship or other stresses;
evidence that the perpetrator is restricting access to the victim or children by screening calls, cancelling appointments, or speaking on their behalf;
concerns that the victim or children appear to be fearful or anxious or a change in behaviour is noted;
failure to engage with social workers or medical professionals;
the family going missing;
police/ambulance notifications of domestic incidents or disturbances.
9. Consult domestic abuse experts
Domestic abuse occurs as a result of a complex array of static and dynamic factors and it is vital that any experts used to provide assessments and interventions understand the way in which these combine to create risky situations for children. Conclusions should offer clarity to professionals on a way forward and contain realistic risk management plans. For more information visit our post: Why only domestic abuse experts should be used for domestic abuse cases
DV-ACT experts are able to complete assessments and treatment programmes with victims and/or perpetrators for cases, regardless of the status of the case. Assessments will examine the use of abuse used in the relationship and the impact of this on the children and victim, with a risk management plan for each member of the family. DV-ACT can also deliver focused and specialised treatment programmes for both victims and perpetrators. We also provide a free 15 minute consultation meeting with one of our experts. If you have queries regarding a domestic abuse case contact us for further information.
The Coronavirus guidance section of this website gives further assistance on how to help families living with domestic abuse, including; what can be done to help families living in isolation with an abuser and completing emergency safety planning with perpetrators.
References and resources
The case for change: The independent review of children's social care
Article - Councils forced to halve spending on early help services for vulnerable children https://www.barnardos.org.uk/news/councils-forced-halve-spending-early-help-services-vulnerable-children
Helplines and resources
Helplines are available in the UK as follows:
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
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
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?