Children Living With Domestic Violence Is A Public Health Issue

The government has started to rethink the way it addresses domestic violence within families, with a focus on how it affects children and the way in which perpetrators are dealt with.

Child protection professionals are being urged to put preventative measures in place, so that violent partners cannot go on to new families and engage in a cycle of domestic abuse. The current policies in place which work to separate families from their abuser do not prevent that abuser from moving on to different families and engaging in domestic violence with new family members.

There are several pieces of legislation which have been brought in to address childhood experiences of domestic violence:

Under the Serious Crime Act 2015 (section 76), a new offence of ‘controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate family relationship’ came into force in December 2015.  This provision tells us that:

‘Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to: psychological; physical; sexual; financial; and emotional.’

There is also the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (section 120), which extended the definition of ‘harm’ as defined under the Children Act 1989 to include:

‘..impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another.’

A joint report published on 19th September, by Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services and HM Inspectorate of Probation in Wales entitled “The multi-agency response to children living with domestic abuse – Prevent, protect and repair”, highlighted a number of failings and calls the widespread prevalence of domestic violence a public health issue.

Amongst the concerns raised by the report, the most significant related to how professionals were going about preventing domestic abuse and finding ways to repair the damage it causes. It found that very little was being done to address these areas, that the amount of research and guidance on tackling these issues was minimal and that more work needed to be done to create and implement effective prevention strategies.

Just as importantly, the report noted that a long term approach to protecting children from domestic violence in the home needed to be established. Current policies which damaged children further were also highlighted. Requiring a child and non violent family member to relocate in order to avoid the perpetrator isolates children from their friends, family and school, and was cited as one such example of further and prolonged damage to children experiencing domestic abuse.

Alarmingly, child protection agencies appear to be routinely ignoring the perpetrator of abuse, placing far too much emphasis on the victim as the solution to the problem. The report does well to highlight the fact that separation can often lead to more violence. We know from research that the first few weeks of separation from a violent partner are often the most high risk – we also know that there is a spike in domestic violence when the non violent partner decides to leave the home.

The report also highlights an ongoing lack of understanding about how domestic violence affects children, which is deeply worrying, with some agencies not even asking about the welfare of children involved, at all.

Information sharing between agencies, one of our big bug bears, continues to be an issue, and low level awareness all round about how abuse affects children prevails, despite the new laws above that have been put into place.

It’s a depressing report.

However, the report is part of a wider picture which is emerging, as government bodies and members of the judiciary try to raise awareness and ensure that children are protected.

Five days before the report was published, The President Of The Family Division Sir James Munby, released a revised Practice Direction which he wrote on 7th September, looking at the impact of domestic violence on children. Practice Direction 12J, which deals with children and partners exposed to domestic violence, was amended to include an expanded definition of domestic abuse, new rules about information contained in court orders, and a call to all judges to familiarise themselves with the Practice Direction amid cries that it just wasn’t being implemented.

This is an extract from a statement Munby published on Family Law last week:

“The new PD12J contains numerous amendments, many of important substance. Here, I highlight only two:

  1. There is (see para 3) a new and much expanded definition of what is now referred to as ‘domestic abuse’, rather than, as before, ‘domestic violence’.
  2. There are mandatory requirements (see paras 8, 14, 15, 18, 22, 29) for inclusion of certain specified matters in the court’s order. I appreciate the additional burden that this may impose on judges and court staff, but there is good reason for making these requirements mandatory and they must be complied with.

There have been recurring complaints in Parliament and elsewhere of inadequate compliance with PD12J. I am unable to assess to what extent, if at all, such complaints are justified. However, I urge all judges to familiarise themselves with the new PD12J and to do everything possible to ensure that it is properly complied with on every occasion and without fail by everyone to whom it applies.”

If these developments tell us anything, it is that we need an excellent digital resource which offers up to the minute information and guidance on every area of child protection, in a quick and easily digestible format. Something else we have been campaigning for, for many years. We very much hope the government will consider this idea more robustly now, as it presents an incredible opportunity not only to protect children properly, but to do so at low cost, ongoing.

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In The News

The latest child welfare stories that should be right on your radar:

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Severe Child Abuse Injuries More Likely To Be Caused By Males Who Aren’t Family Members

New research has been published which suggests that the most serious child abuse injuries are caused by men who are not related to the victim. The findings were presented at this year’s American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) national conference.

This latest development turns current thinking about child abuse perpetrators on its head, and has important implications for the way abuse is addressed and prevented in America, Britain and the rest of the world.

Led by research fellow Dr Omar Z. Ahmed, M.D, the investigation involved reviewing the records of children admitted to hospital from 2013 to 2015 to evaluate and treat non-accidental trauma, identifying 225 cases of child abuse.

Dr Ahmed observed:

“Among the 150 children hospitalized after suffering non-accidental trauma during the study period, 68.4 percent were injured by a parent; 14 percent were injured by a step parent, boyfriend or girlfriend; 9.7 percent were injured by a daycare staff member or babysitter; and 4.6 percent were injured by a relative.

By far, parents were more likely to be perpetrators of the confirmed or suspected child abuse. However, children injured by a parent’s partner–a group that was overwhelmingly male–were more likely to be more severely injured, to experience severe head injuries and were more likely to require intubation compared with children who were abused by a parent.”

Dr Ahmed suggests widening the net when looking to create policies to prevent child abuse, by redefining targeted caregiver groups to include babysitters, mothers’ boyfriends and day care staff. He also believes a pre-emptive approach is best, which focuses on educating care givers about their duties and behaviours around children as well as knowing how to manage children when they become challenging.

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Dr Omar Ahmed

Question It!

Welcome to another week.

An article about a BBC documentary looking at what happens to children after they leave care, has suggested that 70% of prostitutes come from the care system. 

The debate around prostitution usually focuses on whether or not it should be legalised, from moral, ethical, financial and often legal standpoints. ProCon.Org offers an excellent summary of the perceived advantages and disadvantages to legalisation for what is often referred to as the world’s oldest profession.

Prostitution is legal in England and Wales, as long as the parties involved are consenting adults. Some activities surrounding prostitution, particularly those that could have exploitative qualities like managing a brothel remain illegal, however it is estimated that there are around 60,000-80,000 sex workers in the UK – the majority of them being women. An investigation by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee in 2016* has also called for more evidence with a view to legalising currently criminal activities surrounding prostitution. 

Advocates for the legalisation of prostitution, which include a significant portion of sex workers, feel that decriminalising the activity removes the stigma from a career that is not immoral, creates freedom of choice and protects prostitutes from violence.

Those in favour of criminalising sex work believe that the activity will always carry with it an element of unreasonable duress, is a choice made purely for economic reasons usually related to poverty, encourages human trafficking and no matter what legal protections exist, will not prevent violent incidents like rape.

Advocates could also argue that most jobs are sought out for economic reasons, are morally questionable – especially when working for large corporations – and also may involve acts of violence, like sexual harassment in the workplace.

But what about the original statistic we started the post with – that 70% of prostitutes come from the care system? The implication is that most of those offering sex work have been at one time or still are, vulnerable individuals.

Our question this week, then, is this: do you think the statistic creates a compelling argument to criminalise sex work in England and Wales?

If you would like to watch the BBC documentary, you can do so here (you have 14 days left to view the programme before it is removed from the BBC’s page).

Some thought provoking items on prostitution are added below:

Many thanks to Dana for alerting us to the article.

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Unqualified & Undetectable – The Child Protection Workers Running Wild Inside England’s Family Courts

A scandal involving unregistered and unqualified child protection employees using informal job titles to avoid detection inside the UK’s family courts has been uncovered.

A potentially enormous loop-hole appears to exist which allows men and women to work in child protection without any kind of registration or monitoring, at all.

Researching Reform was contacted by a service user who recently wrote to The Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), which regulates child welfare professionals, to raise concerns about a social worker at Staffordshire County Council.

The council is no stranger to controversy.  Branded a ‘shambles’ after accidentally leaking personal information about children in its care,  one of its social workers was also banned from working in child protection altogether after advising a vulnerable child to self harm. The local authority is fielding several more complaints and is currently under investigation.

The service user in this case needed the social worker’s full title and registration number to make a complaint, so she contacted Staffordshire County Council to get those details. The council replied that the social worker was a Senior Practitioner for Families First, a programme which aims to support vulnerable families, particularly those suffering from acute poverty.

As the service user was not able to find any registration details for the social worker, she went back to the council and asked if the social worker should be registered as a matter of course. The council said, yes, so the service user tried looking online again to confirm she was in fact registered.

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It soon became apparent that she was not.

Frustrated at not being able to make a formal complaint without the social worker’s registration number, the service user then contacted the HCPC to complain not only about the social worker’s conduct but about the missing registration information.

The HCPC’s response is alarming:

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Researching Reform then decided to reach out to the HCPC on Twitter. We asked them for policy information on unregistered users and which bodies if any monitored their activities. They sent us a series of tweets and Direct Messages, none of which answered our questions.

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Protected titles are job titles which fall under the jurisdiction of a regulation body, allowing the body to keep tabs on professionals and ensure they are held accountable in the event of wrongdoing. If a person chooses to represent themselves using a title which is not recognised as protected, they are then effectively able to practice unregulated.

The title of Senior Practitioner is not a protected title, so the social worker in the case above is not required by law to be registered. This means she can practice as a social worker without any kind of regulation. It also leaves service users unable to file a formal complaint with an independent reviewing body, should there be concerns about the social worker’s conduct.

This loophole is already well known in the context of practicing psychologists, where unqualified individuals roam free, dispensing advice completely unwatched by any regulation authority – advice which is often accepted by Family Courts, without any legitimate confirmation of qualifications or experience.

The dangers of allowing this kind of unregulated activity are huge. The case of the social worker above, who has been able to avoid registration and regulation just by calling herself a Senior Practitioner, is one such example.

Families First work is highly sophisticated work, and the role of a senior practitioner is hugely demanding, requiring a high level of experience as a social worker, so any poor decision making or incompetence could change the life of a child forever.

It could lead to that child’s death.

So what can service users do if they’re concerned about a child protection officer?

Some relief exists in the Health And Social Work Professions Order 2001, under article 39(1) which reads:

Offences 39.—(1) Subject to paragraph (2), a person commits an offence if with intent to deceive (whether expressly or by implication)— (a) he falsely represents himself to be registered in the register, or a particular part of it or to be the subject of any entry in the register; (b) he uses a title referred to in article 6(2) to which he is not entitled; (c) he falsely represents himself to possess qualifications in a relevant profession.  

But what happens if the person you want to complain about hasn’t lied about their position or qualifications? In the case of negligent care and advice, the options seem bleak. The HCPC suggests complaining to that person’s superiors, however an internal review is unlikely to be impartial. With no independent body to call on and little information about the individual on offer, the room for wrongdoing to occur and go undetected is vast.

It’s time the government closed this loophole.

Very many thanks to Jane Doe for alerting us to this development.

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Social Workers Told To Keep On Posting, In New Social Media Guidance

The Health And Care Professions Council has published guidance notes for social workers and other members of its profession, on how to use social media whilst engaging in their professional duties.

The notes come after Researching Reform called on the President of the Family Division to issue guidelines for family professionals in May of this year.

The publication has been put together amid growing concerns that family specialists are routinely blurring the lines between professional and personal interactions with service users.

At a modest 8 pages, there really isn’t a huge amount on offer guidance wise. Community Care’s article on the document offers a good summary of its contents. 

The Guidance offers some tips for social workers using sites like Facebook and Twitter:

  • Think before you post
  • Think about who can see what you share
  • Maintain appropriate professional boundaries
  • Do not post information which could identify a service user unless you have their permission
  • Do not post inappropriate or offensive material
  • If you are employed, follow your employer’s social media policy
  • When in doubt, get advice
  • Keep on posting.

To bolster the guidance, the Council has also published case studies to highlight positive and negative uses of social media.

It’s a good start, but this Guidance really does need to be followed up by something altogether more robust. In particular, it needs to outline what is appropriate behaviour, and what is not, and set down best practice for how and when to reach out to service users.

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Emergency Protection Orders And Who Can Apply For Them (Yes, You Can).

Far too often the law is used as a way to make the playing field uneven for parties who are either financially disadvantaged or who have limited knowledge of family court process so when we get the chance to even out that playing field, we do.

The latest item we have been asked to write about is the Emergency Protection Order (EPO), and whether parents can apply for one.

The very short answer is, yes.

The law is very clear. Under S.44 of The Children Act 1989, ANY PERSON who believes that a child is at risk can apply for an EPO. 

An Emergency Protection Order is usually applied for when there are reasonable grounds to believe that there may be an  immediate risk of significant harm to a child.

If you are a parent who believes their child is at risk of imminent harm whilst in the care of a local authority, carer or parent, you can apply for an EPO.

Whilst it is incredibly difficult to find publicly available case law to highlight this practice, Researching Reform knows of at least one parent who has successfully used an EPO to remove their child from imminent harm and secured residency after doing so.

We also found this very helpful slide show which explains The Children Act 1989 very nicely, and offers some key points which are incredibly useful which includes information about Emergency Protection Orders. The slide was prepared by Nathan Loynes, programme manager for Child and Family Studies at the University Of Leeds. 

Nathan has produced a series of slide shows (124 of them) which have been prepared for students at the university, but they also work as an excellent resource for families going through child protection proceedings. The slide shows touch upon a range of topics, and highlight how the system works. Presentations which caught our eye include:

As for EPOs, The Children Act gives parents the power to protect their children through them, as long as the danger is imminent. In fact, the Act makes provision for any person to apply, which includes parents and family members, first, with local authorities and ‘authorised persons’ listed after.

So, don’t be shy. The law is there to help you, don’t be afraid to use it.

A very big thank you to Jane Doe.

THE LAW IS YOURS

Interesting Child Welfare Questions In The House Of Commons

Some thought provoking questions about child protection and perjury were asked yesterday in the Commons. They came in the form of written questions, which were put to the Ministry Of Justice (MOJ).

The Conservatives have clearly got a bee in their bonnet about lying in the Family Courts this week. Two ministers broached the subject, each from a slightly different standpoint.

Hugo Swire MP asked the Ministry Of Justice how many cases brought before the family courts have been found to be based on false allegations over the last 10 years. Answering on behalf of the MOJ, Dominic Raab, who is the current Minister of State for Justice, confirmed that this kind of information was not held centrally.

With so much box ticking and form filling taking place within local and central government these days, you’d think these departments would store important information like this. Good record keeping is one of our big bug bears, but that’s another post for another day.

The second question on the topic of lying in court was sent in by Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, who asked the MOJ how many people had been prosecuted for perjury in the family court since 2007, by gender. Once again, Raab is unable to offer an answer, citing unreasonable costs as a barrier to accessing this data.

It’s no coincidence that two, Conservative MPs have raised the subject of lying in family court at the same time, both asking for a ten year breakdown. The reference to gender, though apparently balanced, could be read as a hostile declaration of intent towards mothers, by two male MPs.

It’s likely that Families Need Fathers (FNF) have been busy lobbying Hugo and Andrew, as the Fathers’ Rights Group has strong links to the Conservative party.

You’ll also find Hugo’s signature on an FNF backed 2004 Early Day Motion calling for a presumption of shared parenting, which Fathers’ Rights Groups have been trying to force through for years. They are also notorious for alleging that women are the main perpetrators of dishonesty within custody disputes.

The last question moves away from perjury and looks at domestic violence. It comes from Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader Liz Saville-Roberts, whose impressive list of roles include  shadow spokesperson for Justice, Women and Equalities and Home Affairs.

Liz asks the MOJ whether the family courts take a child’s witnessing of domestic violence into consideration when making directions in child contact proceedings. Dominic answers with this information:

“The welfare of the child is the court’s paramount concern when making any decision about their upbringing, including with whom the child is to live or spend time. In all cases where a parent applies to the family court for a child arrangements order, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) in England and Cafcass Cymru in Wales undertake safeguarding checks with the police and relevant local authority children’s services. Relevant information about risk, including from domestic abuse, is reported to the court in writing prior to the first hearing to inform safe decision-making.

In determining the child’s welfare needs the court will apply the factors set out in the ‘welfare checklist’ in the Children Act 1989. One of those factors concerns any harm the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering, which would include any harm from witnessing domestic abuse.”

Whilst it might seem like a simple question, it is anything but. The harm children experience witnessing domestic violence has up until recently not been factored into care proceedings in any meaningful way, with past court policy being very much that seeing violence is less detrimental than experiencing it first hand. (This is an area we are passionate about and have written on often. If you would like to see the latest findings, we have some available on our website.)

Liz’s question is important. As emerging research is now confirming, children who witness domestic violence are very badly affected by it, and this phenomenon needs to be more widely acknowledged and addressed in court proceedings. (Even if Dominic believes it is a foregone conclusion within the system).

Regardless of incentive or motivation for questions about child welfare, we are glad that ministers are talking about these issues. Those of us who began campaigning ten years ago will remember the silence surrounding child welfare – one minister even told us at the start of our journey, “Don’t go there – you won’t get one politician to talk about what is essentially a taboo.”

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Callous Council Ignored Mother As It Played God With Vulnerable Children’s Support

A local authority has been heavily criticised by the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) for refusing to engage the mother in a review of her vulnerable children’s care packages. The support Packages were subsequently reduced, despite there being no just cause for their reduction.

The following is a list of breaches by the London Borough Of Lewisham:

  • Refusing to involve the mother in the reviews of her children’s care packages
  • Reducing those care packages without telling the mother why
  • Reducing the care packages despite there being no change in the children’s needs
  • Undue delay in dealing with the mother’s complaint, spanning many months
  • Taking a further 8 months to deal with the complaint after the Ombudsman’s intervention

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s role is to remedy injustice and improve social care services through shared learning.

The LGO has told the council to apologise to the mother, pay her damages of £550 and modify the care packages. The Ombudsman also recommended that Lewisham council should “improve its Care Panel decision-making process and review its procedures for identifying and dealing with complaints involving children and young people to ensure it meets its statutory duties.”

If you would like to complain to the Ombudsman about your case, you can find more information here. 

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Important Events For, And About, Care Leavers

There are several conferences and events taking place over the Autumn to give care leavers a voice, so we’re sharing them with you.

The Care Leavers’ Association is holding a conference and its Annual General Meeting (AGM) on 18th November. If you’d like to get involved, you can reach them here.

The CLA is also hosting an event called, “Between Care and the Criminal Justice System: setting the agenda for the next decade.” The event takes place on 27th November. If you’d like to attend, you can contact darren.coyne@careleavers.com

Finally, The Child Care History Network has sent out a call for care leavers who would like to share their experiences of being in a children’s home, during a conference they are holding on 1st November. You can find out more about the event and what sharing your experience entails here. For more information, contact Darren at darren.coyne@careleavers.com.

Many thanks to Dana for alerting us to these events.

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