Child protection: Domestic violence and abuse

Written by: Dr Julie Leoni | Published:
Image: iStock

Domestic violence is a child protection issue that schools must be prepared for. Expert Dr Julie Leoni explains what abuse can look like, the impact on children, spotting the signs and taking action

What do you do when a mum phones school to say her child will be late in as there has been a row that morning? She has not got the car because her husband has taken the keys and she doesn’t have any money to give her child for the bus. Do you just add a late mark and think no more about it or do you ask her if she’s okay?

What do you do when you over-hear a teenager telling a friend about how dad hit mum again? Do you just pretend you didn’t hear or do you take the time to ask the teenager in private about it?

What happens when you are at yet another re-admittance interview and you notice the mum has marks round her neck? Do you carry on telling her how badly her child is behaving in school and what she needs to do differently or do you ask her about the marks and take time to listen? And if you would take the time to listen, would you know what to do to help?

All of the above scenarios could be indicators of domestic abuse. This article’s aim is to inform you about what domestic abuse is and how it is linked to child protection. There are self-assessment questions in bold italics to use to consider how well your school deals with domestic abuse.

  • What do you know about domestic abuse?
  • What do you think domestic abuse is?
  • How do you deal with domestic abuse in your school?

The facts

Domestic abuse is a crime. Every week, two women in the UK are killed by their partner and three women commit suicide as a result of domestic abuse. One in four women will experience domestic abuse in their life. Men can also be victims. A new law was introduced at the end of 2015 which means that coercive control (emotional and psychological control) is now also recognised legally as domestic abuse.

Schools are the single biggest opportunity we have to eradicate domestic abuse. Children living in a home where there is domestic abuse are in need of protection. According to the charity Refuge, 750,000 children witness domestic violence every year, while the charity Safe Lives says that 62 per cent of children living with domestic abuse are directly harmed by the perpetrator of the abuse, in addition to the harm caused by witnessing the abuse of others.

Children who see or hear domestic abuse will be suffering from emotional and psychological harm, which is a child protection issue. Schools need to integrate awareness about domestic abuse in order to safeguard their children effectively.

Figures from Safe Lives show that on average high-risk victims live with domestic abuse for 2.6 years before getting help, while 85 per cent of victims sought help five times on average from professionals in the year before they got effective help to stop the abuse. Schools can take a significant role in reducing the time it takes for a victim to get help by spotting the signs and symptoms and knowing where to refer victims to.

  • How well are your staff trained in spotting the signs and symptoms of domestic abuse and knowing how to talk to victims about it?
  • What protocols do you have in place for reporting and supporting concerns about families living with domestic abuse?

The role of schools

Whether schools like it or not, they already are involved with domestic violence and abuse because, statistically, all schools will have children attending them who are living with it, which makes it a safeguarding issue.

Schools can make a difference by making sure their staff are trained to spot the signs and symptoms of domestic abuse in children, parents and colleagues.

Ensure that staff who come into contact with parents are trained in spotting signs and symptoms of domestic abuse and know how to talk to parents who disclose. Ensure, too, that there is a clear protocol for who to refer children and parents to in the event of a disclosure.

Develop age-appropriate materials to teach children about what domestic abuse is, the different types, and how the victim is groomed at the early stages of the relationship.

  • How well does your school do this?
  • Where is domestic abuse dealt with in your school curriculum? In how much detail?

What is domestic abuse?

Below is a list of what Women’s Aid identifies as abusive behaviour (the list has been edited for reasons of space. For the full list, see link in further information):

  • Destructive criticism and verbal abuse: shouting, mocking, accusing, name-calling, threatening.
  • Pressure tactics: threatening to withhold money, disconnecting phone/internet, taking the car, taking the children away, threatening to report you to police/social services/mental health, lying to friends/family.
  • Disrespect: persistently putting you down in front of others, not listening or responding when you talk, taking money from your purse without asking, refusing to help with childcare or housework.
  • Breaking trust: lying to you, withholding information, jealousy, having other relationships.
  • Isolation: monitoring or blocking your phone calls, emails, social media, preventing you from seeing friends/relatives.
  • Harassment: following you, checking up on you, not allowing you privacy, embarrassing you in public, accompanying you everywhere you go.
  • Threats: making angry gestures, using physical size to intimidate, shouting you down, breaking things, punching walls, threatening to kill/harm you or the children, threats of suicide.
  • Sexual violence: including using force, threats or intimidation to make you perform sexual acts.
  • Physical violence: including slapping, pulling hair out, burning, strangling, pinning you down, holding you by the neck, restraining you.
  • Denial: saying the abuse doesn’t happen, saying you caused the abuse, being publicly gentle and patient, crying and begging for forgiveness.
  • Do you know anyone who lives with these behaviours or who behaves in this way?

Child protection: The impact on children

We know from child protection training that changes in behaviour, appearance, health, mental health, ability to learn and attitude can be signs that child abuse could be occurring.

However, it is less well-known that domestic abuse can lead to similar changes and it is important for schools to recognise this so that interventions can involve the abused parent as well as the child. In protecting parents, we are protecting children.

The NSPCC says: “Mums or dads who suffer domestic abuse don’t always realise how it affects their child. They might think that because their child doesn’t see what’s happening that they’re not affected. But we know that living in a home where domestic abuse takes place can be really harmful for a child.

“Domestic abuse can have a very serious impact on a child’s behaviour and wellbeing, even if they’re not directly harmed themselves. Children witnessing domestic abuse is recognised as ‘significant harm’ in law.”

Refuge states: “All children living with abuse are under stress.” It advises that this stress may lead to: withdrawal, aggression or bullying, tantrums, vandalism, problems in school (including truancy, speech problems, difficulties with learning), attention-seeking, nightmares or insomnia, bed-wetting, anxiety, depression, fear of abandonment, feelings of inferiority, drug or alcohol abuse, eating disorders, constant colds, headaches, mouth ulcers, asthma, eczema.

  • Do you know any young people who are behaving in these ways?
  • How much do you know about the causes of their behaviour or symptoms?
  • How will you find out more?
  • Where will you record what you find out?
  • Who will you pass that information on to?

Who should be contacted?

For emergency support, always call 999. The police on 101 can also be called to log an incident. The police may or may not take action, but the recording of the incident protects the victim and the children. If an adult tells you about a domestic violence and abuse incident, encourage the victim to call the free 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline. A helpline is also available for male victims (see further information).

Using PSHE

Teaching children about domestic violence and abuse is our best way of preventing it. We need to teach our young people the difference between equal and abusive relationships. If we can do this then we may stop the current epidemic of domestic abuse. Teaching children about domestic abuse in age-appropriate ways, not only educates them, but opens up a potential avenue for any child currently living with domestic abuse to reach out and get support for themselves and their parent.

In achieving this, PSHE has a key role to play. In January 2015, the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights said it would be better if schools were “required broadly to teach the same curriculum in PSHE” and that this should include issues in relation to violence against women and girls.

  • How well is domestic abuse is covered in PSHE?
  • Who is best placed to lead on ensuring domestic abuse is fully understood and taught to every child in the school?
  • How will you monitor the impact of the lessons?
  • How will staff record disclosures made during the lessons and what are the protocols for reporting them?

A role as employers

If you are aware that adults in your school are suffering from domestic abuse then you need to protect them and their children.

One of the stages in the development of an abusive relationship can be the perpetrator isolating the victim, which can lead to them giving up work. Some victims give up work as their mental health or their physical wellbeing deteriorates as a result of the abuse. Schools need to be aware of this and take time to enquire when women resign from their roles. Work may be one of the last points of contact that a victim has.

Schools need to become familiar with what abusive behaviours are (see above) and to have a zero-tolerance approach to those behaviours in the workplace. Schools also need to take seriously and challenge talk and attitudes which, in any way, support domestic abuse.

Schools can offer staff training on domestic abuse. This would not only mean that the workforce knows the signs and symptoms in order to help victims, but it would also give an opportunity for people currently living with domestic abuse to come forward for support.

Where an employee’s work seems to deteriorate, rather than just putting them on capability or offering CPD, take time to ask if anything is going on at home that is affecting their performance – and know how to support them if they tell you about domestic abuse.

  • How well do you do the above in your school?
  • What are the next steps for your school in becoming an anti-domestic abuse school?
  • Who will lead on it?
  • How will you resource it?
  • How will you measure impact?

Resources and support


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