166 silhouettes representing French women victims of violence in 2007. Photo: Getty Images
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"I felt scared all the time": how children are the forgotten victims of domestic violence

>We need to help victims get away from abusive partners - but we also must recognise that children often need support and therapeutic help while they are still in these toxic environments.

It’s hard to imagine living in fear in your own home every day, but for thousands of children it’s a daily reality. In tonight’s BBC1 Panorama on domestic abuse, a young girl tells us exactly what it’s like to feel so afraid, to worry constantly that violence may erupt at any point at the age of just five: "I felt scared all the time. I did not know what he was going to do… I did not know if he was going to start hitting again." After being shaken and called a "little bitch", hiding in her wardrobe was sometimes the only thing she could do.

This child lived in fear for more than half her young life before her mother and her brother managed to escape; a hostage in a coercive and violent relationship. Her story is not unusual and an estimated 130,000 children in the UK live in this state of constant fear. NSPCC research estimates that one in 20 children experience constant or frequent domestic abuse at home during childhood.

This violence often exists alongside coercive and threatening behaviour which robs women, and sometimes men, of control. Children are often the pawns in this psychological and emotional terrorism, with an abuser sometimes threatening to kill or hurt children if a mother leaves. This kind of sustained, repeated exposure to stress and fear has devastating implications for children’s development. Police officers responding to incidents, as well as other frontline staff working with adult victims, must always be conscious of children in the home. But shockingly, this kind of awareness is too often lacking and the response is inconsistent. It is often too late before the child in domestic abuse cases is seen, or their needs thought about.

It is critical that we address the way in which we support children who are exposed to domestic abuse. Despite widespread recognition of the harm that children suffer as a result of exposure to domestic abuse, there is an inadequate supply of dedicated support services for children who are, or who have previously been, exposed to domestic abuse. The majority of services which do exist are recovery programmes that can only be accessed once a child is in a place of safety. However, this Panorama programme reminds us that abuse can continue for long periods of time before this place of safety can be reached. As well as highlighting the need to help victims safely exit abusive relationships, the reality reinforces the need to find ways to intervene early and help children who are still living in abusive environments. 

Witnessing domestic abuse is child abuse. It has severe consequences for a child’s immediate safety and is a factor in two thirds of serious case reviews, where a child has died or been seriously injured.  The Association of Directors of Children’s Services have recently stated that that "nearly every authority" states the prevalence of domestic abuse as a significant presenting issue in child protection plans and the reasons that children go into care.

Research also shows that exposure to domestic abuse can have profoundly detrimental effects on children’s development. It can have hugely negative impacts on their behaviour, affect their performance at school, derail their relationships, put them at greater risk of substance misuse or mental illness and increases the likelihood that they will experience violence in their own intimate relationships.

However, intervention and support can make a difference. While they are in short supply, there are services available to help children recover from the adverse consequences of domestic abuse. One is the NSPCC’s Dart programme. Dart helps children who are finding it hard to talk to their mums about what has happened, because of the difficult emotions involved for both. Another service, Caring Dads: Safer Children, works with fathers to show them the impact their violent or controlling behaviour is having on their children, and improve their parenting.

But what Panorama shows is that we also need a greater focus on early help for children who are being exposed to domestic abuse. The reality is that for many women affected, children will be living under the same roof for extended periods while terrifying and devastating abuse is continuing, with no end in sight. As well as services to help victims safely get away from abusive partners we must recognise that children often need support and therapeutic help while they are still in these toxic environments.

Early intervention is key if we are to better protect children and prevent the long-term damage experiencing domestic abuse can cause children. The NSPCC is currently looking at how we can provide services for children where domestic abuse is their daily reality. The image of children like the girl featured in the programme, cowering and afraid in her bedroom or hiding in her wardrobe, feeling powerless while her mother tries to protect her, is a powerful image of why services for others like her are so necessary. 

Panorama’s "Domestic Abuse: Caught on Camera", is broadcast tonight on BBC1 at 8.30pm. Tom Rahilly is Head of Strategy and Development for looked after children and high risk families at the NSPCC.

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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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