Javed Khan: Domestic Abuse Bill is welcome, but should go further

We need to invest in universal access to specialist support for children exposed to this form of abuse

Javed Khan
Javed Khan

This month, in a rare and welcome break from all things Brexit, the government published a draft Domestic Abuse Bill, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the response to this terrible crime.

This is a bold commitment, and the stakes are high.

Domestic abuse – whether physical or emotional – has a devastating impact on its victims. It causes immense trauma for adult partners, for children living in the home and for young people experiencing abuse in their own intimate relationships.

Importantly, in times of economic uncertainty, domestic abuse is also hugely costly to the taxpayer, accounting for £66bn in England and Wales last year in physical and emotional harm, lost output, health services, specialist support, police and legal costs.

But all that is before we consider the impact on children and their future outcomes. According to government data, domestic abuse is the single most common factor that leads to children requiring support from local authority children’s services.

At Barnardo’s we see first-hand the impact of domestic abuse, which is a key adverse childhood experience, or ACE. Sixty per cent of Barnardo’s services supporting a wide range of vulnerable children found that exposure to domestic abuse was a common factor. This is particularly true of children who have been sexually exploited and those who sexually harm other children.

Children who experience domestic abuse are more likely to become involved in abusive relationships themselves (either as victims or abusers) or to suffer mental and physical health problems.

Take "James", who suffered nightmares, racked with guilt for failing to defend his mum. He was hit when he tried to intervene and ended up being suspended from school for "aggressive behaviour".

Then there’s "Steph", who was confused because she still loved her father, but hated him for what he did. Her self-esteem plummeted, and she needed sessions on healthy relationships and how to identify abusive behaviour to help build up resilience.

The new bill provides political leadership and draws attention to the impact on children, who are too often the forgotten victims of this crime.

Welcome changes include: recognising economic abuse; rolling out Operation Encompass to help police and schools work together to protect children; and the appointment of a new Domestic Abuse Commissioner with a specific requirement to represent the interests of children.

But although the bill represents a huge step forward, we think the government could go even further.

First, the family courts routinely allow contact between children and parents who are accused of domestic abuse. Everyone is, of course, innocent until proven guilty, but decisions about contact must first and foremost consider the safety of the child. So we would welcome a review of how these decisions are taken and whether specialist workers, including those from Barnardo’s, should be more involved in the process.

Second, as with so many challenges facing children, one of the greatest barriers is the lack of local recourse. Children exposed to domestic abuse face a postcode lottery, leaving some without the help they need to recover from trauma and to thrive as adults. This is true both of children living with a parent or carer who is being abused, and young people who are themselves in abusive intimate relationships.

We all need to make tough economic choices, but given the clear link between domestic abuse and further (more costly) harm down the line, there is a strong argument for investing in universal access to specialist support for children exposed to this traumatic and life-altering crime.

Javed Khan is chief executive of Barnardo's

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