Get families involved to protect children from domestic violence

Family group conferences, where families develop their own child protection plans with the help of professionals, have been shown to be effective

young boy sitting by door being threatened by adult man
For children who live with fear and violence, there can be wide-reaching effects (picture posed by model). Photograph: Paul Baldesare/Alamy

In recent years, there has been a considerable increase in research highlighting the impact that domestic violence and abuse has on children and young people. Studies show that for children who live with fear, violence and abuse, there can be wide-reaching effects. These range from psychological and emotional harm, and physical responses (such as bedwetting and poor immune systems) to educational and social impacts (school non-attendance and social isolation), and relationship difficulties (including poor attachments).

Researchers have also looked at the prevalence of teenage domestic abuse and tried to establish what can be done to reduce the number of young men who become perpetrators of abuse. As many families will be affected by domestic abuse at some point during their lifetime, concerns have been raised for both children and the family as a whole.

The government has attempted to respond to this concern and in 2011 launched an action plan to end violence against women and girls. In terms of a practice response, the children’s social care sector has developed a risk management approach within a multi-agency context to safeguard children who live in families affected by violence.

But despite the government’s acknowledgment of the problem and recent initiatives, there is a considerable disconnect between the three key sites of practice – statutory children’s services, the domestic violence and abuse sector and child contact agencies. This, in part, is because of the three sectors’ different histories and cultures. Statutory services have children as their focus, the domestic abuse sector has a strong women-centred culture and organisations concerned with child contact are caught up in the competing demands of child safety and fathers’ rights.

One way to address this problem is to use resources that bring together families, domestic abuse specialists and child protection services. Family group conferences (FGCs) meet this need. FGCs originated in New Zealand in the late 1980s in response to the disproportionate number of Maori children in the care system at the time. The model was brought to the UK in the early 1990s and has been implemented in a number of local authorities. However, they are not an integral part of child protection processes and tend to be viewed as an add-on.

Indeed, the value base of the FGC approach can clash with the bureaucratic responses to child protection in the UK. An FGC is a family-led decision-making forum, where families are asked to develop their own plans for the care and protection of their children. Professionals from a range of agencies provide information about what support is available, but it is the family who decide on the support plan. They are supported by an independent professional and given direction from social workers who make it clear what the bottom line is, ie what cannot be agreed to. This ensures children are kept safe.

Plans developed at FGCs contrast greatly with those made at child protection conferences and other planning meetings by professionals and imposed on families. At an FGC, a family has ownership of the plan because they have created it. A key rationale is that if a family develops the plan, they will be more likely to adhere to it.

FGCs have been widely used in Canada to plan for children where domestic violence or abuse has occurred. Research shows that where FGCs have been held, children have been better protected and there has been less family violence as a result. Furthermore, research from Hawaii has shown that where FGCs are held, information-sharing between professionals and with family members has improved. This is significant, considering the current disconnect between different agencies.

There are a few services in the UK that use FGCs where there are child protection issues as a result of domestic abuse. One of these is the Daybreak Dove Project in Hampshire, which is at the forefront of innovation in this sector. Allison Powney, manager of the domestic violence and abuse service at Daybreak, has found that outcomes for children from FGCs are good and echo the research findings from Canada.

There is a clear evidence base that suggests that FGCs can address the welfare and safety of children living with domestic abuse. It is an approach that shows promise for improved partnership and communication between agencies, professionals and families. But most importantly, it offers better outcomes for children.