Putting children and young people first in the family courts

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Building greater understanding and improving practice around domestic abuse

 

Sarah Parsons, Cafcass Principal Social Worker and Assistant Director, wrote for Family Matters (featured in edition 37, July 2016) about assessing the impact of domestic abuse on children and changes to the law around coercive and controlling behaviour.

 

Any avid Archers’ listener will be aware of the gradual process of Rob exerting coercive control over Helen Archer. For those who aren’t fans, the longstanding BBC radio serial has portrayed a storyline where a husband has perpetrated domestic abuse through his controlling behaviour over his wife and son (and ultimately resulting in Helen taking drastic action). This is timely, given that the Serious Crime Act 2015 made coercive or controlling domestic abuse a criminal offence on December 29th 2015. This change reflects growing understanding around the extent and range of domestic abuse behaviours, many not relating to a single event but a pattern which takes place over time, with one person exerting power, control or coercion over another. This form of abuse is now punishable by up to five years imprisonment where it is evidenced.

 

The change has been incorporated into cross-government definition and as set out in Practice Direction 12J – Child Arrangements and Contact Orders: Domestic Violence and Harm: domestic abuse is now recognised as any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or 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. It can encompass, but is not limited to, psychological, physical, sexual, financial, or emotional abuse.

 

PD 12J directs the family court to maintain focus on the welfare issues in cases where there are domestic abuse concerns, setting out the areas it should consider. Importantly it outlines that the presumption that the involvement of a parent in a child's life will further the child's welfare, should only hold where the parent can be involved in a way that does not put the child or other parent at risk of suffering harm. As in any other case, assessment and judgement needs to be individual for each child and each family.

 

Understanding and assessing the impact on children

 

Domestic abuse is associated with poor outcomes for children, including emotional harm and an increased risk of abuse or neglect. The impact upon children is well-researched, though more notably where this primarily comprises physical assault. There are, however, some interesting recent studies (e.g. Katz; 2016*) into the impact on, and strategies of ‘resistance’ employed by, children where the abuse primarily consists of coercive control.

 

The studies acknowledge that more research is needed into the long-term effects to strengthen understanding. But they do suggest that the effect on a child of coercive control may include: a need to ‘constrain their voice’ to avoid creating conflict; attempts to undermine the relationship with the mother; and a degree of social isolation.

 

Cafcass practitioners will assess the risk of harm to children in cases where domestic abuse is a concern, including harm from witnessing or hearing the ill-treatment within families. We use a range of evidence informed practice tools such as the domestic abuse tool ‘What we need to know’ and Safe Lives DASH checklist to consider whether these behaviours may be present. These provide a structure in which to assess the impact upon the individual children involved and provide recommendations to the court on how the child’s welfare can be promoted and safeguarded.

 

All social work staff joining Cafcass receive specialist face-to-face training on domestic abuse. We disseminate learning and ensure practitioners are abreast of new developments through a range of training programmes, knowledge bites, internal communications and access to consultations with clinical psychologists.

 

Driving practice improvement

 

We are developing a new practice pathway to provide practitioners with a structured and stepped framework for assessing and responding to cases where domestic abuse features. This will help assist clarity of thought when presented with a complicated case narrative.

 

We are also working with Women’s Aid on a research project this year to review our case files and examine the complications of cases involving allegations of domestic abuse and how the court responds to these concerns. A recent study of C100 applications suggests that domestic abuse concerns are present in 35% of private law applications.

 

Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programmes (DVPP)

 

The DVPP aims to help people, who have been abusive towards their partners or ex-partners, change their behaviour and develop respectful, non-abusive relationships. Cafcass will continue to refer all cases where there may be a potential for safe and beneficial contact for a suitability assessment if professional judgement indicates that successful programme engagement might reduce risk to the child and victim. While attendance may result in delay with a decision being reached, this is necessary in some cases to reach the best outcome for children.

 

We are also reviewing the court-ordered DVPP to test whether a new programme could better empower people to move away from unhealthy relationship patterns and develop alternative non-harmful strategies for managing emotions, behaviours and situations. However, timescales for this are not yet confirmed.

 

 

*Beyond the physical incident model: how children living with domestic violence are harmed by and resist regimes of coercive control. Child Abuse Review 25, 46-59

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