The new Domestic Abuse Act 2021 legally recognises children as victims. We now need to make sure that this translates into meaningful change in the way we support these children.
We have estimated that more than 15,000 children suffer domestic abuse in any two-week period, and we know that the impact on them can be wide-ranging and long-lasting.
Child victims of domestic abuse are significantly more likely to experience abuse in their own adult relationships, to develop drug or alcohol dependency, and to suffer a range of mental health problems.
We have been working with four local places to understand their priorities in relation to children who experience domestic abuse, and the nature and availability of support for these children.
This work has exposed a raft of system challenges, which are impacting on the quality and availability of this essential support.
We know, for example, that local authority funding constraints remain a major challenge to the provision of local services.
Directors of children’s services across the country are trying to balance budgets and rationalise services, while retaining the most effective support offer possible for children and families.
Statutory services are focusing on crisis support and reducing the immediate risk of harm to children, while local authority funding for prevention activity or longer-term therapeutic support is short-term and vulnerable to cuts.
Many of these wider services are provided by the voluntary and community sector, and are propped up by piecemeal funding from a range of sources, leaving them in a precarious position.
Demand for support commonly outstrips supply, meaning children are missing out on the kind of help that can be vital to their health and wellbeing.
Efforts to improve the quality and availability of support for children are also stymied by the fact that we have very little understanding of what works – either to support child victims or to prevent domestic abuse in the first place.
By this we mean, very few of the programmes or practices currently delivered in local areas have been rigorously evaluated.
There are a range of reasons for this, including some methodological challenges (such as poor study design and small sample sizes), but, essentially, funding and carrying out local evaluations in the context we have described is incredibly challenging.
Local councils cannot resolve these systemic issues on their own. We are calling on the Government to establish a long-term, cross-departmental fund dedicated to improving our understanding of what works, and supporting the use of this knowledge in local service delivery.
This fund should invest in robust impact evaluation of the most promising and widely delivered programmes, building our understanding of the nature of approaches that are proven to be effective.
The fund should also respond to the current reality of local systems and build capacity to evaluate small-scale, local programmes, as well as practice-based approaches and system improvements.
The Domestic Abuse Act provisions are a welcome step forward and a critical recognition of the harm that domestic abuse does to children.
The Act will not in itself lead to a change in the way that these children are supported. We need to turn our attention immediately to ensuring that the support that is available is sufficient, sustainable, and informed by evidence.