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.

Secondly, a reminder that the Domestic Abuse Act includes only those over the age of 16, recognising that family members as well as partners can be perpetrators of abuse. It is these clauses which bring children using harmful behaviour towards their parents into the equation. Children under 16 are not included within this legislation as those using harm, but are recognised as victims in their own right. This therefore excludes a large group of families, experiencing harmful behaviour from children as young as three or four, from this legal recognition.

The Plan is informed by the responses to the Call for Evidence (thank you to all who responded), and aligns with the updated VAWG strategy, 2021. The Government has made clear that more attention is needed to combat this “pervasive and insidious crime”, with £230 million allocated to bring about the changes outlined. There is a three-pronged focus: Prevention, Support for victims and survivors, and Holding perpetrators to account, with systemic reform which will lead to a more coordinated and informed response.

The Plan has been broadly welcomed by the leading voices in the Domestic Abuse sector, among them Respect, Safe Lives and Women’s Aid. Indeed, there is much to applaud and, if implemented fully, forthcoming action will build on work already taking place to bring about greater safety and security for all. So what does the Plan have to say about children and young people who use harmful behaviour towards their parents and carers?

First, the main section including commitments regarding child to parent abuse is on page 27:

Tackling behaviours early on is key to preventing future offending, as these learned behaviours can act as a steppingstone towards perpetrating abuse in later life. The Home Office will publish updated guidance for frontline practitioners on child-to-parent abuse (CPA) this year, working with frontline practitioners include those working in the police, health, education, and social care, to name just a few. The Home Office will also work with stakeholders to reach an agreed definition and terminology for this type of behaviour. This will underpin policy development on the response to CPA, and comprehensive guidance to support practitioners and service commissioners.

These are reiterated in the Commitments section in Annex C, and there is acknowledgement (p56) of the £25 million Home Office funding already funnelled in over the last two years, to introduce innovative approaches to addressing DA, including programmes focused on children and adolescents.

This is good news! We have been wondering what had happened to updating the guidance (first published in 2015) for some time, and so it is great to have this firm commitment to concluding the work. Furthermore, the commitment to move towards an agreed definition and terminology is one which has been asked for for as long as I have been involved in the work, most recently in the rapid literature review of 2021. Naturally the funding is very much welcomed and has already been put to good use, developing and rolling out responses across the country. I am slightly unsettled though by the framing of the response to CPA as one to prevent future offending. The experience of families is one which deserves attention very much now, recognising the harm caused now. (But fair enough, this is in the section about prevention).

To mention only these sections though would be shortsighted given what we know about child to parent violence and abuse. And so we welcome the focus on schools both in terms of delivery of the RHSE curriculum and as a place to screen for, and identify early on, children who have been victims of DA with a view to offering evidence based, effective support to child and adult survivors. (I refer back to my previous blog post here in supporting the development of work within schools as ideally placed for prevention, screening and delivery of support.) A stronger system (p58), which has a shared understanding of the issues, collaborates and coordinates responses is particularly needed with CPVA, not least in the area of agreeing what it is and how it comes about. I am excited too by the determination to recognise DA as a Safeguarding issue, with the need to work together effectively to identify and support children and young people exhibiting or victims of harmful behaviour (p65). I would suggest that the individual, interpersonal, and neighbourhood level predictors listed (p84) are as likely to be true for children and young people as they are for adults. A system that recognises these difficulties, and that works together, could be identifying those at risk much earlier on – not just for preventing adult and peer abuse in the future, but in starting to tackle CPVA before it becomes entrenched and builds to a point where children are coming within this legislation.

There are, naturally, things I would like to see more of. Data presented in the Plan suggests that more than twice as many people aged 16 – 74 reported experience of partner abuse than abuse by other family members (Annex B), and so it is understandable that the focus is on work with those who are partners and former partners. This is reflected too in the focus on the police and criminal justice system as the foremost source of help. Nevertheless, the data suggests a sizeable group of people (of all ages) experiencing abuse from family members including children, emphasising the importance of recognising the very specific issues for this group of people. Difficulties in reporting perpetrators who are children, and in making a break in the relationship, have been documented in many places (for instance Difficult) and may require a separate response which recognises these issues. This is true not just for those aged 16 and 17, but right through adulthood, where the peculiarity of the relationship adds stresses, and a sense of responsibility for a perpetrator who may be seen as vulnerable in their own right.

So: strong on prevention; good in parts. And commitments to furthering understanding and responses for the future. Going forward, I would like to see more about the very specific issues facing these families now, whether that be in terms of support for victims and survivors, or holding those responsible to account – and fingers crossed that there is more about this in the updated guidance! In the meantime, the battle to obtain recognition within the policies of other Departments continues, as we seek the formal recognition of the issues of child to parent violence and abuse from younger children as well.

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