Are child protection practices and procedures are adequate in cases of domestic violence and parental substance misuse?

There is a considerable body of research which shows children who grow up in families where there is domestic violence and/or parental alcohol or drug misuse are at increased risk of significant harm.

Hedy Cleaver, Don Nicholson, Sukey Tarr and Deborah Cleaver present their findings from the study, The Response of Child Protection Practices and Procedures to Children Exposed to Domestic Violence or Parental Substance Misuse. The study aimed to explore how well agencies, such as social care and domestic abuse services, work together to ensure children are protected. The study was carried out during the period October 2002 to June 2005. Six English local authorities participated.

Findings from the research

  • Social work case files were examined to explore the response of children’s social care when children were referred because concerns for their safety and welfare were linked with domestic violence and/or parental substance misuse.
  • Children’s social care became aware of the children and their families in a variety of ways but most referrals came from professionals and the police were responsible for half of all the referrals. In many local authorities the police automatically refer if they attend a domestic abuse incident and find children present. Some local authorities reported a danger that they were at risk of being overwhelmed by the number of police referrals. 
  • Education staff were not reported as frequent referrers in this study which should cause some concern as domestic abuse has been recognised as a child protection issue for some considerable time.
  • Part of the selection criteria for this study was that the cases had been responded to by social care, it is interesting to note then that nearly half of the cases studied were re-referrals. 
  • Three quarters of the current referrals resulted in an initial assessment.

As a result of the current referral:

  • three-quarters resulted in an initial assessment 
  • a quarter in a core assessment  
  • approximately a fifth in a strategy meeting  
  • a fifth in s47 enquiries being undertaken 
  • and a third in an initial child protection conference.

The report found, however, that children’s social care did not always follow government guidance on safeguarding children.

The Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families (2000) and Working Together to Safeguard Children (Department of Health et al, 1999), both suggest that all cases resulting in an initial child protection conference should have been preceded by s47 enquiries (the purpose of which is to decide whether the authority should take any action to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare) and a core assessment (which is the means by which a s47 enquiry is carried out).
In some of the cases researchers could not find evidence that a core assessment had been started at the point that s47 enquiries were initiated and in some cases a core assessment had not been started even by the time of the case conference. 

  • The social work case files showed that domestic violence or parental substance misuse rarely exist in isolation. Many families experienced a combination of domestic violence, parental alcohol misuse, drug misuse, mental illness and learning disability. 
  • When domestic violence and parental drug or alcohol misuse coexisted the effect on all aspects of children’s lives was more serious.
  • Three-quarters of the children had unmet needs in at least one area of their development, 85% were living with parents who were not able to undertake all key parenting tasks, and the wider family and environment were having a negative impact on most children.

Some of the findings are particularly worrying. In three-quarters of cases the initial assessment led to some form of action being taken. In cases that resulted in no further action the findings from the initial assessment did not always appear to justify the decision. For example, 38 of the 62 children (61.3%) were shown to have severe needs in relation either to the child’s development, parenting capacity or family and environmental factors; two of which had severe needs in all three domains. This raises the question of whether children identified by children’s social care as ‘in need’ are being left unsupported and unmonitored in families who are unable to adequately safeguard or promote their welfare.

It is not acknowledged by the study that where social care are not providing a service to the family, school-based staff are often the only people in a position to monitor.

The study also raises the concern that specialist services such as domestic abuse services and drug and alcohol teams were only rarely consulted by social care workers.

When an initial child protection conference was held services for domestic violence were represented in only 5% of cases and services for substance misuse in 18.2% of cases, despite the fact that domestic violence was an issue in 72.7% of cases and parental substance misuse in 60.3% of cases. Drug and alcohol teams, however, were involved more often at the planning stages. In response to questions about the lack of involvement of domestic abuse services, some of the social workers interviewed stated that in their view involvement was not seen as relevant as the violent partner had left and some social workers reported a lack of resources or local services.

The researchers also reported on how parents felt about the services they were offered and also examined the differing views of managers from different services about their priorities and experience of collaborative working.

This study will be of interest for anyone working with children who are or have been subjected to domestic abuse.

Most domestic abuse services employ staff to work with children, these workers are usually very willing to offer schools support in respect of individual children and most services are willing to offer schools input into inset training sessions. Why not make contact with a local service and invite them in?

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