Over the past forty years there has been a welcome improvement in how we understand and define domestic violence and abuse within the context of current or former intimate relationships (Holt et al., 2018). We have moved beyond seeing domestic violence and abuse as being mainly about incidents of physical abuse, to encompass a wider range of harmful behaviours, and to recognise that such actions are most clearly about patterns of behaviour over time, rather than one off incidents (Devaney et al., 2021). We now have a strong evidence base about the impact of domestic violence and abuse on victims in both the immediate and longer term (e.g. Howard et al., 2013; Morrison, 2015; Postmus et al., 2020).
However, while we know that many couples experiencing domestic violence and abuse have children, and that children can be significantly impacted by their experiences of this violence and abuse (Callaghan et al., 2018), in most jurisdictions children are not seen, either in law, policy or practice, as victims in their own right. Hence we see reference to ‘victims and their children’ as recognising that children may be caught up in the ripples of the violence and abuse as experienced by their parent, but that their experience and the impact upon them needs to be understood and mediated by the experience of the grown-ups in the situation.
This is clearly the case in Scotland, where the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 has been rightly lauded as a far sighted and victim centred piece of legislation. The Act does not consider domestic abuse as a one-off incident, but as a pattern of control, intimidation and humiliation, bringing coercive control within the ambit of the criminal and civil justice systems on a par with both physical and sexual violence within intimate relationships. The Act though does not formally recognise children as victims of domestic abuse, but acknowledges that their presence in a family or situation in which there is domestic violence and abuse should be an additional consideration when the courts are considering the disposal of a case, and the severity of penalties to be imposed on the individual who has been abusive. This is particularly so when the individual who uses abuse:
- directs behaviour at or involves the child in carrying out the abuse;
- is abusive in the presence of a child; or
- if a reasonable person would consider that the abusive behaviour is likely to negatively affect a child living with the abuser and/or the adult victim.
However, in spite of the above, children are not seen as victims in their own right in domestic abuse policy and law in Scotland, and it also conveys a message that if you are an adult victim, without children, that somehow the abuse you have experienced is less significant, and warrants a less severe sanction. The rationale provided is that government wishes to avoid blurring the lines between domestic abuse and child abuse, even though there are no such sensitivities when it comes to sexual violence and abuse. It is therefore encouraging to see the acknowledgement of children as victims of domestic abuse in their own right contained with the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 in England and Wales.
Underpinning this, and other conceptualisations of domestic violence and abuse, is a still developing set of ideas about what counts as abuse, for whom, and how we measure the impact at the time and over time. In our new study we are keen to look at how organisations adopt and introduce new ways of working with children and their families in the context of domestic violence and abuse. A key question is what difference do we expect these new ways of working to make, and how do we measure or gauge this difference for children, their carers and for the services working with them. In the past we sought to count the number of times that a child experienced something, but as we have become more attuned to the subtleties of, for example, coercive control, we have recognised that for children the abusive behaviour is omnipresent, and that we need to be thinking of the impact on children’s well-being including their sense of self, sense of safety and actual safety.
In order to do this authentically we need to engage with young people to ensure that how we understand and seek to measure the impact of domestic abuse in the immediate and longer term avoids drifting into paternalism, but sees young people as having agency to both act and to construct their own identities that may challenge our simplistic portrayal of them as victims and what they see as the impacts that the abuse has on them and their lives (Houghton, 2018; Sutterlüty & Tisdall, 2019). This will require us to work with young people as co-producers of the research, and to extend our theoretical insights and methodological expertise regarding measurement of domestic violence and abuse in ways which are reflective of the experiences of children and young people.
We are only at the beginning of this project, so do keep checking this blog for further updates on our progress and reflections on key issues informing and influencing the work as we progress.
John Devaney is a Co-Investigator on CAFADA and Centenary Chair of Social Work, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh.
Callaghan, J. E., Alexander, J. H., Sixsmith, J., & Fellin, L. C. (2018). Beyond “witnessing”: Children’s experiences of coercive control in domestic violence and abuse. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 33(10), 1551-1581.
Devaney, J., Bradbury-Jones, C., Macy, R., Øverlien, C. and Holt, S. (Editors) (2021) The Routledge International Handbook of Domestic Violence and Abuse. London, Routledge.
Holt, S., Øverlien, C. and Devaney, J. (Editors) (2018) Responding to Domestic Violence Emerging Challenges for Policy, Practice and Research in Europe. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London.
Houghton, C. (2018) ‘Voice, Agency, Power: A framework for young survivors’ participation in national domestic abuse policy-making’ in Holt, S., Øverlien, C. & Devaney, J. (eds.). Responding to Domestic Violence: Emerging Challenges for Policy, Practice and Research in Europe. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London.
Howard, L., Feder, G., & Agnew-Davies, R. (Eds.). (2013). Domestic violence and mental health. RCPsych Publications, London.
Morrison, F. (2015). ‘All over now?’ The ongoing relational consequences of domestic abuse through children’s contact arrangements. Child Abuse Review, 24(4), 274-284.
Postmus, J. L., Hoge, G. L., Breckenridge, J., Sharp-Jeffs, N., & Chung, D. (2020). Economic abuse as an invisible form of domestic violence: A multicountry review. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 21(2), 261-283.
Sutterlüty, F., & Tisdall, E.K.M. (2019). Agency, autonomy and self-determination: Questioning key concepts of childhood studies. Global Studies of Childhood, 9(3),183-187.