Violence in young people’s relationships – Reflections on two serious case reviews

Dr Christine Barter is a Reader in Young People and Violence Prevention in the Connect Centre for International Research on New Approaches to Prevent Violence and Harm, at the University of Central Lancashire. In this blog, Dr Barter reflects on what professionals can learn from two serious case reviews regarding the deaths of two young women aged 16 and 17 years respectively, who were murdered by their partners.

In 2016 two serious case reviews occurred due to the deaths of ‘Lucy’ and ‘Jayden’, aged 16 and 17 respectively, who were murdered by their partners. The reviews showed that both young women experienced very high levels of coercive control alongside other forms of intimate violence. The review into the death of ‘Lucy’, who was pregnant at the time, documented a relationship which started when she was 15 and quickly became controlling and abusive, with her teenage partner banning her from going out alone or seeing friends and family, stopping her wearing make-up and telling her how to dress, accompanied by incidents of physical violence. Jayden’s abusive relationship followed a similar path.

Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents. We know from national and international evidence that abuse and violence in young people’s relationships represents a substantial problem. A recent evidence synthesis (Stonard et al 2014) which brings together findings from high resource countries, including the UK, demonstrates the magnitude of the problem:

  • Half of all young people (irrespective of gender) reported emotional abuse, most often being shouted at and/or called names
  • One fifth (irrespective of gender) reported physical violence – although a greater proportion of females report severe physical violence
  • A third of adolescent girls and a quarter of boys reported sexual violence through pressure or physical force – higher rates for girls if only physical force is included in the definition.
  • Between 50-70% of all young people, reported experiencing abuse through new technologies most often controlling behaviour and surveillance through messaging or social networking sites –  although pressured sexting was most commonly reported by girls.

Research which addresses both prevalence and impact shows that girls more frequently report a negative subjective impact, and more physical injuries, compared to boys. In our interviews with young people, girls repeatedly reported feeling too scared either to challenge the control and abuse or to end the relationship due to the possible repercussions (Barter et al 2009; Wood et al 2010; Barter et al 2015). Boys rarely reported this worry and most stated they would simply end a relationship if their partner didn’t stop.

However, girls’ fears are not unfounded. At the time of their deaths Lucy was attempting to leave the relationship and Jayden had recently separated from her abusive partner. We know from adult survivors that these are the most dangerous periods. It is therefore imperative that age specific safety plans are in place. The NSPCC and ATL have produced an age appropriate plan which includes discussions with the young person around safe adults and peers.

The serious case reviews also highlight that Lucy and Jayden experienced additional vulnerabilities and challenges.  However, professionals in both cases failed to see them as children requiring protection with significant risks in their lives and instead positioned them as difficult adolescents. Research has identified a range of risk factors which increases a young person’s vulnerability to relationship abuse including: domestic violence and child abuse; attitudes which normalise violence including gender roles; anti-social peers; psychological factors – including low-self-esteem; bullying; early sex, and alcohol and drug use.

In addition, US longitudinal studies show that young women victimised in adolescent relationships are significantly more likely to experience domestic violence in adulthood. Some young people also experience specific risk factors including young mothers, young people in same-sex relationships and young people who may be at risk of forced marriage or honour based violence.

Professionals need to recognise the impact of these risk factors and understand that being in a controlling and abusive relationship will have an impact on a young woman’s ability to recognise the abuse, and affect their decision making.

These dynamics mean that assessments and practice responses need to respond to the different risk and needs of young survivors. However, practice developed in this area has been slow and although some resources, such as Young People’s version of DASH Risk Identification Checklist or the Duluth Teen Power and Control Wheel, are available we remain unsure how effective these tools are.

SafeLives have produced a useful resource based on their own practice experience with young women which stresses the importance of: building a rapport before entering discussing about what healthy relationships/norms look like; exploring with the young person how their own relationships reflect these components and highlighting professional concerns and their reasoning behind these.

We can’t simply dictate to young people what to do, they have had enough of that from their abusive partners. We need to work collaboratively with young survivors over time to break down the barriers their partners have erected around them by supporting survivors to realise this is not ‘normal’ or their fault and by providing new routes to self-esteem away from their harmful relationships.

Violence in young people's relationships: on two Serious Case Re-Views

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