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.