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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.