All families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina
This quote from Tolstoy is a timely – and timeless – reminder of how much grief and unhappiness exists behind the closed doors of the family home.
Across the UK there are countless unhappy, traumatised and lonely children and young people who have experience of constant or frequent domestic abuse in their homes.
Indeed, the NSPCC estimates that as many as one in 20 children are at the sharp end of this experience and 130,000 [such] children live in homes where there is significant and imminent risk of serious harm or death in the UK. I use italics here deliberately to underline the sheer enormity of the problem.
To put this into perspective, 130,000 people is almost twice the capacity of Wembley stadium for a cup final. This staggering statistic illustrates the numbers of children suffering repeated exposure to emotional and physical domestic abuse.
An article in the Guardian caught my attention recently concerning children who live with this ever present threat. It highlighted research on the impact it has on children and the potential and rarely acknowledged negative outcomes for children and families when attempts are made to intervene, albeit with the best of intentions.
It noted how the state and all the professions within the system are driven to doing something, anything, to stem the rising tide of domestic abuse, or face recriminations and suggestions of failure. Unsurprisingly, the public expects something to be done by the government and the professionals involved in safeguarding its children and young people.
To this end, social workers and law enforcers are able to use a host of services and tools for early intervention with varying degrees of success. For example, police routinely use the arrest of a suspected perpetrator to remove risk, either temporarily or more permanently. Likewise, DVPOs (Domestic Violence Protection Orders) are used to create a buffer between partners, and social workers have the difficult job of trying to deliver safety planning and interventions for children.
Meanwhile, in England and Wales, practitioners can use the DASH (Domestic Abuse, Stalking and Honour-based Violence) risk assessment tool – which aims to save lives through risk identification that drives intervention and prevention – and the MARAC (Multi-Agency, Risk Assessment Conferences) process, which enables a multiagency response to the management and reduction of risk to the victim and any children. All professionals work hard within the system to try to achieve positive outcomes for the intended victim and those unintended ones, usually children. But we still regularly hear of cases in which the worst of outcomes occur, often where partners and children die.
Domestic Violence Protection Orders
DVPOs, as mentioned above, are widely used to mitigate risk. I have worked with many forces in the past few years, meeting numerous frontline officers who describe varying levels of their use and success.
The service attempts to deliver what the government introduces. Nevertheless, DVPOs are often viewed as a draconian measure. They are used when victims – usually women and often women with children – do not wish to get involved with the suggested interventions on offer. This usually involves prosecuting their partner and leaving the family home for the safety of a refuge. However, police officers point to occasions where women have broken down pleading for them not to apply for the order.
Similarly, social workers attempt to create safety for children and young people through intervention, which on many occasions lead to the removal of children from the family home. But research suggests some experts take a different view, if the issue is solely one of domestic abuse, believing that the trauma of removal from the family home is potentially worse than living in an abusive home.
Risk assessment and voice of the child
The DASH risk assessment tool assists the police to assess risk around the presenting issues for the victim, and in addition highlights the existence of children and young people within the scenario. But DASH doesn’t deliver the child’s voice and their perspective.
The Guardian article suggested mothers want to keep their families together and often fail to tell the truth about the risks they are taking for themselves and their offspring. This is understandable given the implications of moving away from the family home to a refuge, without any of the usual support networks and possible privations, including poverty. The article suggested that – if the risks were at an acceptable level for the children’s welfare – then the delivery of support and therapeutic services is, without doubt, the way forward.
There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that appropriate early intervention is effective. We need to secure its delivery, making it easily available and well-co-ordinated and in this way we would see better outcomes for families and children as well as long-term reductions in specialist and expensive statutory interventions.
The problem with this vision is that the services don’t always exist and if they do exist in certain parts of the country there is insufficient staffing and funds to deliver all that is required.
Statutory Early Intervention?
If many of us acknowledge that early intervention services can and will make a difference then policy makers should be bold and secure their delivery instead of continuing to expect them to be delivered out of existing dwindling resources.
I believe it is worth considering the need for tax revenue to be statutorily directed to the delivery of early intervention services. This will make early intervention not just nice to have as an offer but a statutory requirement at a different level.
This idea has recently gained a small amount of creditworthiness, with health and social care budgets being devolved across Greater Manchester, and Rotherham Borough Council indicating it is ready to raise council taxes locally to pay for outreach work.
The Rotherham reaction is borne out of failure and crisis. My challenge is to consider raising, revenue, or even more controversially raising – as in increasing – revenue and allocating it specifically and wholly for the delivery of quality outreach, therapeutic and other necessary early intervention. In the longer term unsustainable workloads and spending at the higher end of the needs continuum must reduce and they can do so, if we invest public money properly now. In the really long-term view society will benefit massively from this radical policy change if made now.
We will always have happy families and unhappy families as Tolstoy wrote. My vision is for society which invests in itself to make those unhappy families safer and more acceptable for the children and young people of future generations.