4th June 2015
130,000 children live with high-risk domestic abuse in England and Wales – and nearly two-thirds of these children are also directly harmed.
Fleur Buechler is the service manager at Stop Abuse for Everyone (Safe) in Exeter, and explains how SafeLives’ Insights data helped Safe get better at helping the whole family.
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When 5 year old Ella* was referred to us in December 2014, she was terrified to leave her mum’s side. Last year, she watched her mum’s new partner break into their home. After smashing a window and slashing the sofa, Ella saw him threaten to kill her mum with a knife.
When Ella came to us, she refused to sleep in her own bed. She was increasingly aggressive towards her mum, Sarah*, and had begun to talk about what had happened at school.
Living with domestic abuse causes huge harm to children. Children who have lived with domestic abuse often display symptoms of trauma, as well as other behavioural and cognitive problems, and depression or anxiety. Children can become aggressive or withdrawn, or experience separation anxiety. Some even lose previously learnt developmental skills, like the ability to speak.
One of the reasons children are so badly affected is because the abuse invades all aspects of their lives. Violence can become normality. One young person told us: “I’ve really missed out on my childhood. People say it is the most carefree part of your life. This wasn’t true for me. It was the worst part of my life – constantly living in fear.”
Stop Abuse for Everyone (Safe) has been running a community family service for children and their parents since October 2014. In April 2015, we reviewed the service because of what SafeLives’ Insights data analysis told us about our clients: 61% had children who lived in or regularly visited the household, and two-thirds of those families were currently involved with children’s social services. Adults supported by our Idva service are typically at significant risk of harm - so it was likely that the children within these households were also at risk.
We set about adapting our service to reflect this. Now, all families discussed at the East and Mid Devon Marac are offered support by our new community family service.
The community family service helps parents understand the impact domestic violence has on children, and support them to improve family bonds. We also work with children to build their self-esteem and confidence, giving them a safe space to explore and express their feelings and identify healthy ways to manage conflict.
When she came to us, Ella’s mother Sarah wanted to strengthen the bond between the two of them, but she also wanted to be able to have clear boundaries and make decisions in the best interests of her daughter.
We started by helping the family repair the damage to their house, so they could feel safe again. Ella and our family worker drew a “helping hand” of safe places and people she could speak to, and together they practised dialling 999. A dreamcatcher helped with her nightmares. Through art sessions, Ella began to explore her emotions and what to do about them – like thinking before hurting someone, or who she can talk to when she gets scared.
The team worked with Sarah to understand Ella’s developmental milestones, so she could see what was normal behaviour and what was being altered by the trauma she had experienced. We helped her think about her parenting style – and encouraged her to use tools like a reward chart with Ella. We helped Sarah get a place on the Freedom parenting course and she’s also planning to join our pattern changing programme later in the summer. The programme helps women like Sarah to recognise healthy and unhealthy traits in intimate relationships, and aims to improve their self-esteem and confidence.
Now, Ella is able to sleep through most nights. She told us that she no longer feels frightened at home, and knows her mum is keeping her safe. Sarah feels empowered to make decisions about how she parents her daughter – like allowing Ella to sleep with her until she felt safe enough to sleep on her own, regardless of what other family members might say. Both of them are doing better, and moving on from the abuse they suffered.
Without the initial spur of looking at the analysis of our data provided by the Insights team at SafeLives, we might have been slower to recognise the need to work with the whole family to recover from the trauma of abuse. We’re proud of the work that our community family team does to help families in Exeter live their lives safely again.
One of our family workers sums it up: “Every day I hear the pain of people affected by domestic violence and abuse. Yet despite this I see brave people wanting to change and grow, saying no to violence. These people are my inspiration."
Thank you to the Big Lottery Fund for its continued support of Insights – helping services understand how to better support families in their local area.