That piece in the Sunday Times

Last Sunday there was an article in the Sunday Times, by Megan Agnew, titled “We had to hand our adopted child back – we had no choice.” The article is behind a paywall and I appreciate it may not be accessible to everyone, so I can tell you that it includes material from interviews with a number of adoptive parents, from Adoption UK, Nigel Priestley, Professor Stephen Scott and a spokesperson from the Department for Education. It talks about the changes in the adoption system over the years, about the need for support for families from the very start of the process because of the early experiences of children, and the tragic circumstances of families who no longer feel able to provide safety and security for their children and the rest of their family. Some of the families concerned were able to access support that was helpful, some went on to ask Children’s Services to accommodate their child under s20. In some situations this was seen as a success story; in others the plight of the child and the family became even worse. Essentially the piece is highlighting the need for proper support for adoptive families to enable them to stay safe and stay together; the reality of child to parent violence for many families driven by trauma and mental health difficulties; and the post code lottery of support available. In that sense it is not a new story, but by retelling it there is a hope that one day things might improve.

I was on holiday last week, and I read the piece on my phone sitting on a bench in the bright sun, outside a church while I waited to meet someone. I tell you this only to admit that the circumstances for proper reflection were not ideal! What I read suggested that the author had listened to the families interviewed with some compassion, and that she had sought to present their stories in all their messy details. There was a mix of outcomes to reflect life on the ground. Each of us will come to a story from our own perspective. Mine is that of wanting to raise awareness of child to parent violence, and to promote better services for families to keep all members safe; to understand that the children concerned are hurting as much as their parents; and that only by addressing the needs of all family members can we achieve safety and growth. As my wait on a bench came to an end, I retweeted the piece and added some comments about the stories being powerful.

As with all these things, there have been some who liked the piece and found it helpful and informative, and others who felt otherwise. (The response from Adoption UK, for instance, is here.) Some of these views have been expressed generally on Twitter, some have been directed to me personally and I would like to think about these. Some people were concerned about the content, that it was not representative, others were more hurt by the words themselves. There was particular concern that the the voice of the young people themselves was missing, and that it was thus a one-sided article; and furthermore that the actual phraseology was clumsy and damaging, particularly the words “hand our adopted child back”. I won’t try to defend the author – I am sure she can do a better job herself. It’s likely she had little or no control over the headline, that’s the way these things work. I will say that this was a longish piece, extensively researched and with the aim of telling a particular story. Inevitably it is difficult to include everything. I stand by my original observation that there was real compassion in the way the stories were told.

BUT … all of us would do well to consider the words we use, and I include myself very much in this. The reality that adopted children cannot always remain within their new family is a difficult one, and how to express the pain of many parents having to admit that they cannot carry on in the same way when they ask for help is one that needs sensitivity, informed by those very parents. “Parenting at a distance” has become a concept that many people now recognise, but how to describe the process by which this happens? “Hand back” is not a phrase that adoptive parents, nor the children themselves, would choose.

And secondly, how can we ensure that in future we better include the voices of young people, often care-experienced people, rather than simply as objects in the process? I know that when researchers have tried to hear from children using harmful behaviour, it has been a fraught affair, blocked either by ethics committees or by parents anxious about further increasing the harm. There is a growing library of words about the issue of child and adolescent to parent violence and abuse, but where this includes the voice of the young person, this is the exception. We need to find a way to change this, to hear more from young people about how they experience family life, what the violence means to them, what helps from their point of view, and importantly how they would like their experiences to be described. I hope that some will contact me, and help me to do better myself in future.

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National Congress on Child to Parent Violence in Valencia

After a delay of 2 years because of the pandemic, the National Congress finally met in Spain last week, attended by around 200 experts in the field. You can read a report on the gathering in the University of Valencia News, and there were people tweeting throughout the event, for more coverage.

“Within the last 20 years there have been many advances. Even though this still is an invisible problem its gaining visibility, and society is becoming more aware of this type of problem. Now we have intervention programmes specialized in child to parent violence and this is a huge step forward in hepling families and young people. We can also state that now there is an agreement among the professionals that it is a relational problem, that is necessary to work with the families and to involve the parents. It is also important to point out that at the beginning the phenomenon was only considered to be tackled from the judicial sphere and now the focus is on prevention and awareness”, María José Ridaura, vice-president of SEVIFIP and psychologist at Fundación Amigó, said.

Spain has long been a leader in the field for research, and developed a formal response to child to parent violence ahead of many other countries, based within youth justice and family therapy services. It is interesting in reading the coverage to note the advances made even recently, and how these are echoed within Britain, one notable exception being the agreement, within Spain, on a definition!

For Twitter coverage, see @Fundacion Amigo and @SEVIFIP

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A Response to the Review of Children’s Social Care

The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care has been published less than a week, but there have already been many, many responses, analyses and commentaries. Most speak from their own particular interest angle, and that is what I will try to do, though I would like to make some general comments first. 

As a social worker I have thoughts on the whole report and – full disclosure – my first qualified job was within a patch team where we served a small neighbourhood, working to build protective relationships and activate community initiatives, as well as providing direct support and intervention; so I am all in favour of small, locally based teams working together across different disciplines in a way that is defined by the neighbourhood itself, intervening early on before difficulties are entrenched or crisis point is reached. 

We already know a number of things about the state of children’s social care, some of which receive the attention they deserve in this review. Social work is underfunded, social workers are under-supported, case-loads are too big, you may not receive help till crisis point is reached. Young and inexperienced social workers, with only basic training and minimal support, are often thrown in at the deep end to deal with complex and traumatic situations. Sometimes more experienced social workers are trying to make sense of complex family problems without adequate knowledge, supervision or resources. At the same time, there is a body of devoted, committed, amazing social workers carrying out exceptional, imaginative and creative work to support families in the direst of circumstances and with minimal recognition. Being able to hold both truths simultaneously has become an important part of the analysis and commentary on the state of social work. 

Much of the work that social workers undertake involves supporting families in poverty, experiencing poor mental health or the impact of domestic abuse. It is good to see this acknowledged. But how to rebalance supporting families early on, with the need to properly investigate and protect when it is needed, is the crucial question. It is clear that what we cannot afford to do is to tinker at the edges. McAllister calls this adding another brick to the Jenga tower. Responding to crises has brought us to where we are. A “once in a generation chance” is a phrase that sounds impressive and attention grabbing. “Radical overhaul” and “no more money” though do not sit easily together, as people have been saying for the last 2 years. McAllister proposes a way through this conundrum that others more qualified than me will now pick over. So I will admit that I was surprised to find there was more to like than I had expected; but other bits that rang alarm bells in the level of expectation on communities to step-up; and I remain sceptical as to whether there is the political will, bravery, consistency and commitment needed to make the changes necessary to demonstrate that the safety and wellbeing of children and families are truly valued. Time will tell. 

But from the point of view of families living with child to parent violence (CPV), and those working to bring about hope and greater safety for them, what does the review hold out for us?

The underlying difficulty has always been that CPV does not easily “fit” within any particular department, including within children’s social care. A responsibility to protect the child from, usually, the parent, has meant that families seeking help and advice from social workers have often been sent away, or have been offered parenting advice, or have been investigated for causing harm to the child which has brought about the violence and abuse towards themselves, or for failing to protect siblings. Thankfully this is changing as more and more authorities embrace an understanding of CPV which includes the many and varied contributory risks, and focuses on safeguarding the family as a whole unit. 

Listening to the voices of families as to what they find most helpful, and to those of practitioners who are now experts in their field, there are a number of things that are consistently raised, at personal and systems levels: a need for greater knowledge and skills, an understanding of the family as a unit and the expertise that parents particularly hold, the importance of wider community and peer support, more consistent post-adoption and post domestic abuse support, better access to mental health services, the value of early help and of good communication between professionals and agencies – particularly involving education, the centrality of contextual safeguarding; but above all, the importance of respect and a non-blaming attitude, and of offering help not just assessment. 

Did I expect CPV to receive a specific mention in the review? It is a question I have been asked. To be honest, no, though it would have been nice, given the amount of attention it has received as an issue of late. But each of the concerns listed above does get space as either valued components of the job or as areas for change and improvement, and if these fundamental things are right then all families benefit, whatever their difficulties. You might think they are pretty basic. They certainly look that way when listed like that. Is it disappointing that they have to be suggested as improvements? You bet! 

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“A reduction of violent and abusive behaviours”, an Evaluation of the Building Respectful Families Programme

One of the constant features in recent reports about child and adolescent to parent violence and abuse has been the problem that there are few evaluations of the effectiveness of the support offered to families by the various programmes available. However, whether because of the rising interest meaning there is more funding available to pay for evaluation research, or because of the length of time many programmes have now been running contributing to more meaningful data, we are now starting to see increasing numbers of reports beyond the annual returns submitted to funders. The team at Safe! have recently commissioned such research, and I am pleased to share their report here, in a blog authored by Alice Brown, Service Manager for the Building Respectful Families programme.

Building Respectful Families (BRF) is a service run by SAFE! Support for Young People Affected by Crime, an independent charity based in the Thames Valley.  BRF works with families experiencing Child and Adolescent to Parent Violence and Abuse (CAPVA) and has been operating in Oxfordshire since 2015.  At the end of 2019, just before the pandemic, we were incredibly lucky to be generously funded through the National Lottery and Children in Need, to increase capacity and deliver support more widely across the Thames Valley region.  Funding allowed us to increase the much-needed individual 121 support for caregivers and their children experiencing CAPVA, alongside our existing group work offer.  Due to COVID, support was adapted and became hybrid in nature. Practitioners met families wherever they could safely, in-person, but we moved a substantial proportion of our support to online platforms. 

With National Lottery funding, we commissioned an independent researcher to undertake a two-year evaluation looking at how useful the BRF provision is for families experiencing CAPVA.  Through a mixed-methods approach, the researcher analysed data around demographics, pre- and post-assessment results and conducted and analysed in-depth interviews with families and practitioners.     

Recently I was asked, what have we learnt most from this process.  

Firstlymessages from the families included in the research are encouraging and show that BRF is useful in helping to reduce violent behaviours from children and young people towards their caregivers.   Our research report indicated some of the most reported behaviours from children toward their caregivers before support were pushes/shoves, kicks/slaps/punches and throwing things.  Evaluations showed a reduction in these behaviours in most cases; 63% of parents reported a reduction in kicks/slaps/punches, 55% of parents reported a reduction inpushes/shoves and throwing things.  This report shows that the BRF intervention does result in a reduction of violent and abusive behaviours from child to care-giver.  Interestingly, results suggest that other behaviours (verbal abuse) might take longer to change, which may be a reminder as to how complex CAPVA is and that families require long-term support; there is no ‘quick-fix’.  Sometimes, it is the start of a journey: We do have ups and downs but our home does feel calmer. We’re no longer walking on eggshells with each other” (Parent) 

Secondly, for families who felt BRF was the right service for them; the data from the research shows the intervention is not only reducing violence but helping families to begin to repair relationships and communicate respectfully.  Every individual in each family impacted by CAPVA will have their own needs and the context of every family’s story of CAPVA are unique.  There is a place for divergent approaches to support, indeed this empowers families by offering choice and we have been alerted to the benefits of taking a hybrid approach (meeting in-person and/or online); which is a positive thing to have come from the pandemic.  For many parents, the powerful impact of being part of an in-person group was able to be replicated online, indeed, this has meant groups are more accessible for many families who may otherwise not have been able to access support at all.  These groups achieved an 84% retention rate over the two-year period.  Messages from the parents who were interviewed in the study showed that group attendance provided them with psychological support; they reported feeling less alone and more confident to use the skills they had learnt.  However, for the cohort of young people who accessed BRF, most found it beneficial to meet in-person, on an individual basis with an allocated worker, so they could speak openly about what was happening, suggesting a group work approach for this cohort of young people could be less useful than for their caregivers.

We have seen referrals rise into BRF as the impact of COVID, challenges with attending school and financial pressures have all created something of a ‘perfect storm’ for many families with complexity running through each family’s story.  Even as an organisation which prides itself on a whole-family approach for CAPVA; capturing young people’s voices within our research was a huge challenge.   If we do not find ways to hear their narratives, we may only have half of the story and, potentially, only half the solutions.   We must find innovative ways to capture young people’s lived experiences of CAPVA, so that we might better understand and support families.  This requires time and funding.  

The BRF service seeks to support children and young people alongside their caregivers, but we acknowledge the vital role that many other individuals, teams, and organisations are providing through the support and interventions they provide.  These are delivered in diverse ways and we hope that through sharing our research report, we can share our learning and secure funding for families into the future so that we may continue to work for the collective benefit of families. 

The full report can be read here: An Evaluation of the Building Respectful Families Service

Many thanks to Alice and the team at BRF for sharing the very encouraging findings. And very best wishes as you explore ways to capture the missing information and to develop the service further!

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London Mayor welcomes ground breaking report into CAPVA

Over the years there have been a number of studies investigating the issue of child to parent violence within defined geographical regions, sometimes in response to specific incidents (Northumbria for instance) and sometimes commissioned by a particular body (this work in Lancashire for instance). In 2013 Condry and Miles published the first major work in the UK, which took as the main source the Metropolitan Police data over a 1 year period. 

Each of these have shed light on our knowledge and understanding of particular aspects of this issue. However, the London VRU report, “Comprehensive needs assessment of Child/Adolescent to Parent Violence and Abuse in London”, launched last week and welcomed by the Mayor of London is the first to offer a comprehensive examination of the prevalence and characteristics of child / adolescent to parent violence and abuse (CAPVA*) within the capital, and to scope out the help available for families affected by this form of violence and abuse.

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A response to the Government’s Tackling Domestic Abuse Plan

Somewhat delayed because of family circumstances, but I thought it would be helpful to have a look at the Government’s recently published Tackling Domestic Abuse Plan, and offer some thoughts.

Before I get started, a couple of caveats. First, the debate continues as to whether it is appropriate to consider child to parent violence and abuse under this umbrella. There are those who feel very strongly that it should be, because of the harm caused and the frequent links to the experience of intimate partner violence and abuse. (Academics such as Wilcox (2012) have made this case. PEGS literature is another case in point.) Others find the terminology and conceptualisation problematic, and shy away, preferring to focus on the age, the trauma and vulnerability of the children and young people themselves (for instance, many within the adoption community would feel this way). My sense from listening to people is that both views have merit, but that the circumstances around the harmful behaviour and family situation need to be taken into account in order to properly reflect each family’s situation.

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New work on APVA draws attention to links with sibling abuse and bullying.

In my own book, Child to Parent Violence and Abuse: a Practitioner’s Guide to Working with Families, I included examples of how different individuals had sought to “make real” the issue of data, and prevalence of CPVA for their own work and that of other practitioners and policy makers. Elizabeth McCloud had spoken to me at a conference some years earlier about the project she was undertaking, and she is one of the people referenced in my work. So I was thrilled to hear that her research was completed, and available to all. My one regret is that I did not find the time to read this earlier.

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Adolescent to parent violence: Call for manuscripts

A special issue, “Adolescent-to-Parent-Violence: Psychological and Contextual Influences” is to be published in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health over the course of the next year, edited by Dr Ana Maria Martin Rodriguez. (This is an open access journal.)

This Special Issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (IJERPH) aims to gather systematic research on CPV, performed from different levels of analysis. Papers combining high academic standards and implications for intervention and assessment are welcome. A special call is made for longitudinal studies, given their relevance in the research of causal relations between risk/protective factors and CPV.

Full details of submission requirements can be found here.

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Research priorities

I was chatting to someone recently and we were pondering the next direction for research in the field of child to parent violence and abuse. We are not without guidance in this respect. Most reports and papers conclude with recommendations, including further research needed to fill gaps in knowledge and understanding, and in the development of good practice.

Indeed, in the recent rapid literature review for the Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s Office (here and here), Victoria Baker and I made a number of proposals for the way forward, with eight separate research priorities which can be summarised as follows: 1) establishing a nationally agreed terminology, 2) collecting robust data, 3) longitudinal research looking at the long term implications including “cost to society”, 4) a focus on young people’s experiences and perspectives, 5) how the experience and presentation of CPV is affected by the intersection of different identifying factors and situations, 6) high risk cases and those involving sexualised behaviour and abuse, 7) robust examination of context, and 8) the impact of COVID-19 for families and support services.

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Opening up the issue of abuse from children over the age 16

Following on from my last post, and in one of those pleasingly serendipitous moments, it was great to hear the announcement this week from Professor Nicola Graham-Kevan and team at UCLancs, who have been researching child to parent domestic abuse from children over the age of 16, in conjunction with the Lancashire Constabulary and Lancashire Violence Reduction Unit, in a Home Office funded project: Understanding Child to Parent Domestic Abuse in Lancashire.

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