Children at ‘unprecedented risk’ of domestic abuse with frontline services struggling to cope

Children living with domestic abuse should be classed as victims of crime, with levels feared to “grow sharply” during the coronavirus outbreak, the victims’ commissioner said.

Dame Vera Baird said current Covid-19 lockdown measures pose an “unprecedented risk” to victims of domestic abuse, and she fears frontline services will struggle to cope.

But, she warns, it should not be regarded as a short-term problem, and children in households where abuse takes place are not simply “casual bystanders”.

Instead, the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales said the impacts can be “huge and far-reaching”, putting children at a greater risk of criminal and sexual exploitation.

She said: “The current coronavirus pandemic could lead to a substantial rise in the number of children and young people who experience domestic abuse.

“The domestic abuse they are experiencing today could act as one of the factors influencing their experience of offending behaviour, such as serious youth violence and criminal exploitation, in the future.”

One social work practitioner from Croydon Children’s Services added: “By not dealing with things at the outset for children of domestic abuse, you are sowing the seeds for the end result of violence amongst children that we are getting.”

The report identifies a “clear overlap” in children’s lives of experiencing domestic abuse and potential offending behaviour.

A quarter of children who were identified as having socially unacceptable behaviour also have identified concerns about domestic abuse of a parent or carer, it found.

Children and young people involved in gang-related activity commonly come from backgrounds of domestic abuse, experts told the review.

The report also found that children may seek alternative relationships outside the home if domestic abuse is occurring, while those in unregulated care homes or sent far from home are also particularly vulnerable.

Recognising children as victims rather than merely witnesses would allow them access to the support they need, Dame Vera concluded.

She said: “I am calling for children who experience domestic abuse to be recognised in statute as victims of crime.

“I want to see targeted interventions and support to help these children and young people recover from domestic abuse.

“Children must not be made more vulnerable to exploitation by sending them far away from their homes and support networks when taken into care.”

As many as one in five children in the UK witness or are exposed to domestic abuse during childhood, according to NSPCC figures.

Dame Vera’s report found there is a lack of evidence on peer-on-peer violence, and no accurate estimate of the number of children and young people involved in county lines drug dealing in England and Wales.

The Children’s Society said children are too often seen as “troublesome teenagers when they may be victims of domestic abuse, grooming and exploitation”.

Policy manager Iryna Pona said: “It’s a big worry that this risk may be heightened right now when the lockdown means that families affected by domestic abuse do not have the escape offered by work or school.

“Vulnerable children may not be visible to professionals and we would urge schools and social care to ensure all children they know to be at risk can attend school.

“All vulnerable children should have access to a trusted professional who can check on their safety and wellbeing.”

Andrew Fellows, public affairs manager at the NSPCC, said: “Hundreds of thousands of children are harmed physically and emotionally from growing up in homes where domestic abuse is taking place, with the current lockdown making their situation potentially even more difficult and dangerous.

“Now more than ever these children need the Government to officially recognise the impact domestic abuse is having on them.

“This will help ensure police and local authorities are able to act to keep them safe, and to provide support services to aid their recovery.”

It comes as the Government updated guidance on how victims of domestic abuse can seek help.

In the advice, it stresses that domestic abuse “is unacceptable in any situation, no matter what stresses you are under” and urges victims to seek help.

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2020, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) The Victims’ Commissioner.