Responding to parent abuse in Hillingdon: safeguarding adults as well as children.

I was privileged to speak last month at the London Borough of Hillingdon Safeguarding Conference, where I gave a presentation on parent abuse to around 160 delegates from health, social care, education and youth justice, as well as council members. Before I’d even started, I was excited to hear from the chair of the Children’s Safeguarding Board that they have developed a cross-over with the Adults Board, where shared issues are brought to attention, such as substance use and mental health. There seemed a real possibility that parent abuse might also be discussed here in future – more of that later.

While planning the presentation I had been directed by a colleague to a 2010 working group report into parent abuse in Hillingdon. The External Services Scrutiny Committee had set this up following awareness on the ground that parent abuse was coming to the attention of a number of agencies. The working group took statements from parents as well as professionals, identifying key issues and and making a number of recommendations. The correlation with poor mental health, substance use and difficult family history was noted, as was the association with criminality: the vulnerability of the family across the board.  The need to address stigma, the need for monitoring of frequency, better first response to referrals and enquiries, and the importance of a coordinated approach across services, were highlighted within a recognition of the importance of moving slowly to “get it right first time” while also asserting that “doing nothing is not an option”. Sadly, at the time, it was not possible to make additional funding available, and this may still be the stumbling block on which the development of services stalls.

For me, one of the key points of the report was the identification of what I term the “safeguarding dilemma”: that is, the conundrum within children’s social care of responding to an abused parent seeking help, when the responsibility of safeguarding is towards the child, rather than the adult. In stating, “It is generally thought damaging for a young person to find themselves as the perpetrator of abuse towards their parents and carers”, and “Members are keen to highlight that the perpetrators, who are children and young people, are vulnerable in their own right…” the working group drew attention to the need to move away from a binary understanding of the issue and towards understanding the family in the round. In the light of this, the possibility emerges of a more robust social care and safeguarding response. Members at the conference were keen now to ensure that the report does not lie dormant, but that proper monitoring and evaluation takes place of progress since its publication.

The presentation included an overview of knowledge about parent abuse, asking “why now” in terms of developing awareness and understanding, and looked at the development of services for families within Britain. Participants at the conference discussed a trio of requests for help from parents, looking at their gut response, what they thought was on offer now and what they would like to be able to offer to parents. Expressing surprise that parents had not come forward earlier to request help, and describing the family scenarios as “very scary”, we together discussed the importance of listening to both parties in the development of full assessments, of safety planning and possible respite, of the need for intensive work with the children and young people and emotional support for parents. Questions were asked about the role of ASD behaviours, as well as how to respond to parents needing guidance in the use of restraint.

The possibility of running the Who’s in Charge? programme in Hillingdon has been raised as a targeted service, but issues of cost at present mean that this is currently on the wish list. Within the current climate of budget cuts it can seem a pointless exercise to identify yet more ways to spend money. But it is at these times precisely that we need to understand more fully the issues facing families, in order that the services provided are the most appropriate, effective and efficient. Supporting families to change to a more healthy pattern of relationships will have lasting positive outcomes across the board.

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