Understanding parent abuse within a child protection framework

We hear a lot about the cross-over between domestic abuse and child to parent violence (CPV), but significantly less about how CPV is to be understood within a child abuse and protection framework. This is an area of work dear to my own heart, and one that has also been the focus of some research in the Netherlands. Recently Dutch researcher, Dr Remy Vink, was tweeting about a conference she had attended, and she kindly agreed to be interviewed about it for the blog.

You tweeted last week that you had presented at the ISPCAN conference. Not everyone will know what that is, so can you start by telling us what ISPCAN stands for and where the conference was?

ISPCAN is the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect. National branches of the ISPCAN are for instance the British BASPCAN and since 2013 in our country, NESPCAN. The ISPCAN organizes regional conferences (usually) annually in Europe, Africa etc. Last year the European one was in Dublin. Every other year there is a world conference. This time it was in Nagoya, Japan which was a great experience and quite a privilege. The people of Japan are so hospitable and friendly and the food of course is delicious!

Who were the people attending the conference?

There were 2500 attendees of which 500 came from all over the world: researchers, policymakers and practitioners (social workers, psychologists, etc. and a few sociologists like myself.)

Your own work covers a range of topics. Could you tell us a little about your presentation at this conference?

My work usually concerns research on child abuse and neglect and family violence in general. A few years ago however I was confronted with children as perpetrators when three domestic violence hotlines connected with us. They had the impression that the number of reports of child to parent abuse, made by both parents aswell as by police, were increasing. The hotline-professionals felt desperate because of the severity of the cases while at the same time they did not know how to respond and where to refer to. We also didn’t know to what extent child to parent abuse is a problem, nationally or internationally. So we proposed an exploratory study and applied for a grant. At the ISPCAN Conference I presented the results. You can download the summary of the research here.

You mentioned in your tweet that there was a lot of recognition of parent abuse at the conference, and that awareness is on the increase. How was this shown?

I was quite honoured because there were about a hundred people in the parallel session and it was translated into Japanese. There were a lot of questions and recognition of the problem, especially after the session, and also two personal stories.

When preparing my presentation I was a bit worried because I wanted to speak about the link between child abuse and neglect and child to parent abuse. So I was going to speak to an audience with the focus on children as victims, not as perpetrators. And also, in our sample of 249 cases of child to parent abuse, registered by domestic violence hotlines, we found only 4% of perpetrators had a history of child abuse and we had anticipated this percentage would be higher.

We know from other studies that violence can travel through generations: a history of child abuse or of witnessing domestic violence, enlarges the risk of abusing or neglecting your own children later as a parent. It is often thought this mechanism also applies to child to parent violence.

My key message was: the intergenerational transfer of violence is only one of the explanations for child to parent violence. Child to parent violence is much more complex. We also found a very distinct group of perpetrators who had a psychiatric diagnosis, or with whom a psychiatric disorder seemed to become manifest at the onset of adolescence. Perpetrators living alone with their divorced mother was another group. And then there was a group where a lot of problems, including domestic violence was going on. In nearly all cases the perpetrators are very troubled kids with three or more problems in the family-system.

In Britain, there is still some difficulty for parents in accessing help from Children’s Services because of the focus on children as victims within the family. Is this something that is common in the Netherlands too? Is it something that was touched on at the conference?

Yes, this seems very much the case in our country as well! There is hardly any information on the internet and professionals are not aware and knowledgeable enough yet. And when parents start seeking for help, they often encounter youth care professionals working from the focus of children as victims of violence and/or the paradigm that better parenting and setting boundaries is the solution to every problem! But in our study we think we can identify three or four different profiles for perpetrators of child to parent violence. These parents then stand very much alone and often feel they are not taken seriously and are not heard by professionals. I think professionals should be aware of this and show more ‘solidarity’ with parents: parenting can be very hard, especially with adolescents and troubled ones as these perpetrators of child to parent violence seem to be.

How do you see understanding of parent abuse developing in the next year? (In the Netherlands or worldwide.)

Our study was only exploratory and has its limitations, we are just at the beginning of this issue in our country. We formulated recommendations for the Dutch government, mental health care, schools, professionals and for further research. Still a lot to do!

Thank you! It’s a privilege to hear about your own work. We wish you all the best for the future.

 

This is indeed an area of work that has been much neglected, and so it is good to see initial findings coming out and, importantly, reaching a wide audience. Dr Vink hopes to present her research in Britain next  year. I’m very much looking forward to getting together and chewing this over further. I’ll post more details of her findings and dates as soon as they are available.

 

 

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