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Domestic abuse

Concern that a child is experiencing or witnessing domestic abuse is a very common reason why children’s services become involved with families.

Research shows that children can suffer long-term. And the legal definition of significant harm specifically includes a child by witnessing (see section 31(9) of the Children Act 1989).

Understanding what domestic abuse is

It is important that parents and carers understand what is meant by domestic abuse. And that they understand the ways in which children’s services might become involved.

This is because the procedures that should be followed by children’s services will depend on whether children’s services think:

  • A child needs extra help and support or
  • A child may be at risk of significant harm (child protection involvement).

These sections answer questions often asked by mothers and by fathers, who are involved with children’s services due to concerns about domestic abuse

What exactly is domestic abuse?

Domestic abuse is any type of controlling, threatening or violent behaviour between parents, ex partners or family members. It can involve any of the following:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuseand rape
  • Emotional abuse
  • Isolation
  • Controlling behaviour and coercion (see more information about this below)
  • Threats and intimidation
  • Economic abuse and financial control
  • Forced marriage and honour based violence.

Abusive, coercive and threatening behaviour can take place online and in text messaging, for example. It does not have to be face to face.

Note: Domestic abuse can include child to child violence. Or child to adult abuse. These pages do not focus on this, but contact details for specialist organisations who may be able to offer advice and support can be found in the Child abuse, bullying and exploitation section of our Useful links page.

What is controlling behaviour and coercive control?

Controlling behaviour can take different forms. It may involve one person telling another how to dress, or what to say. It may include isolating them from sources of support.

Coercive behaviour is where abusive acts, such as threats, form a pattern of abuse which is used to punish or frighten another person. It can be subtle and build up over time. Examples include:

  • Isolating someone from family and friends who could support them
  • Monitoring their time
  • Controlling where someone goes, who they spend time with and what they wear
  • Constant criticism
  • Controlling money
  • Depriving someone of their basic needs, such as food and sleep and
  • Threatening or intimidating someone.

It is a criminal offence to use coercive control. An abuser can be punished with up to 5 years imprisonment.

Who can be affected by domestic abuse?

Men and women can be perpetrators and victims of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse can occur within heterosexual and same sex relationships.  It can take place when people live together or apart. It can occur once couples have separated and it can occur between family members (e.g. a mother-in-law abusing her daughter-in-law or a son victimising his mother).

Statistics show that in the majority of domestic abuse cases, the perpetrator is male and the adult survivor is female. However, there are male survivors and female perpetrators.

How may domestic abuse affect adults?

Adults who experience domestic abuse may have a range of responses to it. Fear, anxiety, isolation, depression, drug or alcohol misuse are all common reactions. All too often mothers who are victims feel blamed. Men’s experiences of domestic abuse may differ in some ways to women’s experiences. They may also face challenges in disclosing the abuse and accessing help.

How does domestic abuse affect children?

Children can be harmed by witnessing domestic violence regardless of whether it is carried out by their mother or their father. Children can suffer long-term harm from living in a household where domestic abuse is taking place. A child seeing, overhearing, living in, or spending time in a household where someone is mistreated will likely be viewed as:

  • Evidence the child is suffered significant harm, or
  • Evidence the child is at risk of suffering significant harm.

I don't see what happened between me and my partner as a domestic abuse situation, it was a one off. Why are children’s services concerned?

There may be many different signs of a domestically abusive relationship including physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Emotional abuse can include psychological abuse. Witnessing emotional abuse can be very traumatic for a child yet this can be minimised and overlooked – even by those involved. It is not always easy to identify. But it can be just as harmful as other forms of abuse.  See our Emotional abuse page for more information.

Children services departments are responsible for:

  • Supporting children and families
  • Protecting vulnerable children.

They have general legal duties to provide any child in need and their families with extra help (see section 17(1) of the Children Act 1989). And to take steps to help keep children safe if they are thought to be at risk of harm (see section 47 of the Children Act 1989).

Children can suffer long-term harm from living in a household where domestic abuse is taking place. So, if children’s services receive information about a child and concerns about domestic abuse they will decide:

  • Whether to start an assessment
  • What type of assessment it should be (for example, whether to focus on support or on child protection)
  • Whether the child needs any immediate support or protection.

If the information children’s services have makes them suspect a child has been harmed or is likely to suffer significant harm then they must investigate. This is called making child protection enquiries. They have to do this by law.

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