Every year in the UK, three million children and young people witness domestic abuse. A child is either in the same room or close enough to be aware of what is happening.
But it need not be like this. A recent amendment to the Adoption & Children Act 2002 extended the legal definition of 'harming children' to include harm suffered by seeing or hearing ill-treatment of others, especially in the home.
At present, services provided by councils and their partners are patchy. In many cases they are not in the mainstream and funding to sustain them is a constant concern.
Margaret McGlade, director of social services at Derby City Council, says: 'The leadership role of the director of children's services covers all children in their locality, and it is difficult to see how the [Children Act's] five outcomes for children can be achieved without a comprehensive focus on preventing and reducing the harm domestic violence causes.'
A collaboration between the Association of Directors of Social Services, the Local Government Association, Women's Aid and the Children & Family Court Advisory & Support Service has produced commissioning guidance for people working with children affected by domestic abuse. It is essential reading for directors of children's services, and local children's safeguarding boards.
Kate Mulley, project leader of LGA's domestic violence project, says: 'Lots of councils are doing good work around children and domestic violence, but they are working in totally different spheres.
'One council will be looking at children's education programmes, another linking in child protection procedures with domestic violence, while another is working very closely with the voluntary sector. The guidance gives a good overview for councils to see the bigger picture and use a range of different responses through multi-agency working.'
Ms McGlade, who is also a spokesperson for the ADSS on domestic violence and chaired the working group that produced the guidance, says: 'The guide brings together all the sources of research and best practice into one place.
'The key message to councils with children's responsibility and their partners is that if you want to deliver the five outcomes for children, you need to pay attention to the extent that domestic violence is affecting the young people in your area. It aims to fill a gap for local children's commissioners, who are currently producing the first single plan for children.'
A vision for services for children and young people affected by domestic violence is
available at www.lga.gov.uk
First steps to halting abuse
>> Cabinet members with lead responsibility for children's services should pay particular attention and ask the director of children's services to report on how the new legislation is being implemented.
>> Directors of children's services should go to the person with responsibility for this area within children's planning and ask for a brief review of what services are available for children affected by domestic violence and how it is being incorporated in children's planning as a whole.
>> Make sure there is a strategic commitment to seeing any service/programme as worthwhile. Without the strategic commitment from all agencies involved, any project will founder.
>> Read the guidance with partner agencies, looking at the services already provided to address gaps, and discuss how to incorporate domestic violence into needs assessment for children.
What councils are doing
The Ontario Programme,
The Ontario programme at Sutton provides support for women and children who have been exposed to 'women abuse'. 'That's the term we use,' says Linda Finn, co-ordinator for the stronger families' project at Sutton LBC and Sutton & Merton Primary Care Trust
The 12-week programme, which originates from Canada, is endorsed by the Women's Aid Federation of England as an example of best practice.
'A whole range of agencies take part in the delivery of the model,' says Ms Finn. 'When we decided to implement it in 2000, we did an audit of 200 files and looked at the different needs groups. One of the biggest of these was children affected by the trauma of domestic violence. We had no services specifically for children at that time.
'We didn't need to reinvent the wheel as the Canadian model has being going for 20 years. We used Children's Fund money to get training from the team in Canada for 100 staff in Sutton in all the agencies - education, probation, mental health, voluntary sector and child and adolescent mental health services.'
Ms Finn has been seconded between the primary care trust and social services, to set up and implement the programme.
'Two years ago we ran one pilot group and now we have enough children for six groups. It has really taken off.'
The programme is for children between the ages of four to 16, but with tight age bands. For example, four to five year-olds share sessions as do 14-16 year-olds. The two-hour sessions run during school hours. Ms Finn adds: 'The children understand what violence is, how to have a safe place, how to call the police, how to not get caught up in it and how to identify safe people they can talk to.'
She continues: 'There are separate groups which run alongside these for mothers to attend, to understand through the eyes of the child how the violence has impacted upon their kids and explore ways they can support their child to help recovery.'
During and after the programme some children will be referred for counselling and psychotherapy.
Cheshire Domestic Abuse Partnership
The Cheshire Domestic Abuse Partnership was set up in 1997 to prevent domestic abuse and support those affected by it.
Sue Bridge, development manager and chair of the partnership, says: 'A few members were concerned about the levels of domestic violence in the community. The partnership came out of this in 1998 [with] a programme of domestic violence multi-agency training that built up our momentum.'
The range of agencies involved in the partnership include Cheshire CC's social services, education and community development councils, police, health, various charities including the NSPCC, crime and disorder partnerships; Relate, Cheshire Council for Racial Equality, Victim Support, Cheshire Diocese and the Children & Family Court Advisory & Support Service.
The partnership set out to raise awareness of the impact of domestic abuse on adults and children through information and training, but now works with other agencies to share ideas on prevention, protection and support. Its training programme has been delivered to around 2,000 multi-agency staff.
Services provided include: outreach support for mothers and children; placing children's workers in refuges to provide targeted support and NSPCC group work programmes which help children to feel less isolated and gain understanding about what domestic abuse is. Children are also taught about handling their emotions. Where possible, parallel sessions are held for parents to help them cope better with their children.
Through the education and family liaison team set up in 2003, schools are equipped to respond to domestic abuse and support children whose educational performance or attendance is affected. It also promotes work on domestic abuse in the curriculum.
For such partnerships to thrive, Ms Bridge says: 'It's important to secure sustainable funding within the context of rigorous monitoring. You have to be sure of support for parents, at a time where children and adult services are separating. This is crucial because children's services must realise that if they want better outcomes they may need to commission and pay for services, particularly to support the non-abusing parent.'
While the provision of services is supplied in partnership with other agencies, she stresses statutory organisations need to make sure their staff really understand the impact of domestic abuse.
Continuing the emphasis on prevention, Ms Bridge says future plans include a pilot to train workers in multi-agency fields - children's services, education and Connexions - to develop a programme to work with teenage men with relationship difficulties, for example bullying family members and girlfriends.