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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 hearing or seeing someone else being harmed (see section 31(9) of the Children Act 1989).
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 abusive behaviour from one person towards another where:
- The people involved are ‘personally connected’ to each other behaviour (see more information about this below) and
- The abusive person and the victim are both aged 16 or over.
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse including rape and sexual assault
- Violent or threatening behaviour
- Controlling or coercive behaviour (see more information about this below)
- Economic abuse (see more information below)
- Psychological abuse, emotional abuse
- Other abuse
- Forced marriage and honour based violence.
Domestic abuse may be one incident. Or it may be a series of acts that happen over time – ‘a course of conduct’. It does not have to be face to face. It can take place online and in text messaging, for example.
Domestic abuse can include conduct that is directed at a third person. For example, the victim’s child. Or to a family member, friend or colleague (see section 1(5) of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021).
See Can children be victims of domestic abuse? How are children affected by domestic abuse? in the dropdown below for information about children and domestic abuse.
Note: These pages do not provide information about child to child violence. Or about child to adult abuse. 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.
When are two people ‘personally connected’?
Two people will be personally connected if any of the following are true:
- They are married to each other or are civil partners
- They were once married to each other
- They were once civil partners of each other
- They have agreed to marry one another
- They have entered into a civil partnership agreement
- They are in an intimate, personal relationship with each other
- They have been in an intimate personal relationship with each other
- They each have a parental relationship with the same child
- There has been a time when they have had a ‘parental relationship’ with the same child
- They are relatives.
This is all set out in section 2 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021.
‘Parental relationship’ means that a person is either a parent of the child or has parental responsibility for the child.
‘Relatives’ includes someone’s parents, step-parents, children, step-children, grandchildren, grandparents, brother, sister, aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews. It also can include the relatives of the person’s spouse (husband or wife), former spouse, civil partner or former civil partner (see section 63(1) of the Family Law Act 1996).
Two people do not have to be living together or co-habiting to be ‘personally connected’ (see Chapter 2, paragraph 14 of the Domestic Abuse Statutory Guidance).
What is economic abuse?
The law says this is behaviour that has a large or negative effect on a person’s ability to do any of the following:
- Acquire, use or maintain money
- Acquire, use or maintain other property
- Obtain goods or services.
- Controlling money
- Preventing the person from using their bank account
- Preventing the person from buying items they need.
What is controlling or coercive behaviour?
Controlling or coercive behaviour is designed to make a person feel inferior and/or dependent. It involves keeping the person apart from friends, help and support. It is used to harm, punish, or frighten the victim.
Controlling or coercive behaviour can take different forms. It can be subtle and built up over time. Examples include:
- Isolating someone from family and friends
- Controlling and monitoring someone’s daily activities. Such as where they go, who they spend time with, what they wear
- Controlling and monitoring basic needs. For example, what and when someone can eat. Or when and where they sleep
- Controlling money; monitoring bank accounts
- Threaten or intimidating someone
- Threatening to share personal, sensitive information
- Using children to control the victim. Such as threating to take children away
- Humiliating someon
- Refusing to interpre
- Preventing someone from taking medicine or getting medical care
- Physical violence, sexual abuse, emotional or psychological abuse, economic abuse, verbal abuse.
Controlling or coercive behaviour can amount to a criminal offence. An abuser can be punished in the criminal court with up to 5 years imprisonment.
For more information about controlling and coercive behaviour see Chapter 2 of the Domestic Abuse: statutory guidance 2021 and Controlling or Coercive Behaviour Statutory Guidance What the police and organisations should do to keep victims safe.
What has the Family Court said about controlling or coercive behaviour?
Coercive behaviour ‘will usually involve a pattern of acts encompassing, for example, assault, intimidation, humiliation and threat’ and controlling behaviour as behaviour ‘designed to make a person subordinate.’ (F v M  EWFC 4 (Fam)
That ‘the overwhelming majority’ of domestic abuse (particularly abuse perpetrated by men against women) is underpinned by coercive control and it is the overarching issue that ought to be tried first by the court. (Re H & N and Others (children) (domestic abuse: finding of fact hearings)  EWCA Civ 448.
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. They may also face challenges in disclosing the abuse and accessing help.
Can a child be the victim of domestic abuse? How does domestic abuse affect children?
The law says a child (up to 18 years) old) may themselves be the victim of domestic abuse. This is where:
- The child sees, hears or experiences the effects of domestic abuse and
- Any of the following apply:
– The child is a relative of the victim
– The child is a relative of the perpetrator
– The victim has parental responsibility for the child
– The perpetrator has parental responsibility for the child.
‘Relative’ here includes: parents, step-parents, children, step-children, grandchildren, grandparents, brother, sister, aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews. It also can include the relatives of the person’s spouse (husband or wife), former spouse, civil partner or former civil partner. See section 63(1) of the Family Law Act 1996.
Examples of where a child may be the victim of domestic abuse include where they see, hear or experience the effect of domestic abuse between:
- Their parents
- A parent and that parent’s partner
- Their parent and a relative such as a grandparent.
Children can suffer long-term harm living in or spending time in a household where domestic abuse is taking place.
A child seeing, hearing, 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.
Further information about the impact of domestic abuse on children can be found in Chapter 4 of the Government’s Domestic Abuse statutory guidance (paragraphs 128 to 145).
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.