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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser