Getting help for children affected by domestic violence and abuse

Research suggests that children can be harmed by witnessing domestic violence and abuse, and that abuse can affect children’s relationship with their non-abusing parent. Among the women we interviewed, fear for the safety of their children and the potential long-term effects on them of their partner’s behaviour acted as a trigger for many women to seek help. This was generally after they had decided to leave their partner or after some professional involvement had helped them to recognise that they, and their children, were experiencing domestic violence and abuse.

Jane saw the effects of her abusive marriage on her children once she was out of it. She regretted that their childhood was a battleground’ not a place of nurturing.

Age at interview 46

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Children can also play an important role in women deciding to stay within a relationship if they feel that disrupting the family by leaving would be worse for the children than staying. One of the biggest areas of concern is in relation to the issue of child contact following separation in domestic abuse cases. For some women, their decision to stay may be based on being able to keep an eye on their partner’s behaviour towards the children.

For Jane, getting support in place for her children and herself was an essential part of her planning to leave her long-term abusive relationship. She said that, before she left it was ‘paramount, having the right support in place for both myself and the children.’

Women sought help for their children from a number of places: their school, their doctor, a counsellor or therapist, the police, social workers, charities, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS). Many women were worried that professionals, particularly from the Department of Social Services, might question their parenting when they learnt about the abuse, and that they might lose their children. This acted as a barrier for some women in getting help.

Social Services

Women were divided on their experiences of social services. Nessa called the police during a violent attack on her, and the police contacted social services. Nessa initially found them to be un-supportive and at first she lied to them, minimising the abuse. However, she started ‘opening up’ after her partner left and she realised the importance of ‘working together’. She said ‘they’re here to help you and work with you, not to like take your children away and stuff like that’.

Social services involvement triggered Nessa to end her abusive relationship. She was able to keep her children safe and also get help for herself through a domestic violence Support Worker.

Age at interview 22

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Positive experiences of Social Services

Tanya and Jane both had a good experience of their social workers, who helped them get away from their abusive partners and safeguard their children. Tanya’s partner ‘battered’ their daughter. She was advised by her local refuge to contact social services and to leave her husband. Refuge workers told her that if she stayed the children might be taken into care.

Tanya found her social worker helpful in providing a range of support and referrals.

Age at interview 45

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Jane and her daughters were referred to social services and the police via the children’s school.

Jane’s social workers said that with support from all the agencies, her ex should never have to bother her again. She felt safer than she had done for a long time.

Age at interview 46

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Negative experiences of Social Services

Lindsay and Liz both felt let down by social services. Lindsay reflected that it was easier for social workers to ‘take my kid than to deal with it’ and she was offered no support.

Liz said, ‘I think the system is broken’. She phoned numerous agencies for help when her daughter was sexually abused by her husband, but was told by Children’s Services that she was not a priority as she was doing a good job, herself, in keeping her daughter safe.

Liz gave up trying to get help from professional agencies, until finally she contacted a charity, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

Age at interview 46

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Min had to endure a year of Child Protection proceedings following a false allegation made by her husband, despite immediately winning her appeal against the section’s (played by an actor).

Age at interview 47

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Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS)

CAFCASS is ‘the voice of children in the family courts and helps to ensure that their welfare is put first during proceedings’. None of the women we interviewed spoke positively about CAFCASS. Many women felt that CAFCASS did not really understand domestic violence and abuse and the impact it has on mothers and their children. Min said her CAFCASS worker tried to blame her daughter’s stress symptoms, like bed-wetting and chewing her nails on her, the mum. In the family court during child access proceedings Sophie felt ‘bullied’ to stay living with her husband and put up with her situation, since there was ‘not a lot of physical violence’.

Sophie was thankful she had a good solicitor who was able to use the Human Rights Act to protect her from contact with her abusive ex.

Age at interview 49

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Victoria said her CAFCASS worker didn’st have a clue’s and was taken in by her manipulative ex (read by a professional).

Age at interview 42

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With regards to support for children, the police were often the first port of call for women reporting violence or abuse. In Liz’s case, police did an ABE (Achieving Best Evidence) for the court case about her daughter’s sexual abuse. She felt shocked and un-supported when police told her that it was ‘rare’ for fathers to abuse their daughters and did not take her allegations seriously.


Schools can act as a link to social services if they are concerned about a child’s behaviour. Mothers who confided in a teacher about the abuse at home received sympathetic understanding and support for their children. Many women said how important it was to get help to stop the abusive partner picking up the children from the school as a way of accessing them. With the support of the police, social services and the school, Jane’s ex- husband was not allowed to pick his daughters up from school.

Tasha had a good experience with the school but felt frustrated that the school could only stop the partner picking the children up when a court order was in place.

Tasha said the school was fantastic’s and found a clause that said they did not have to give any information, such as their address, to the father.

Age at interview 40

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Jane and her children first starting getting help to leave Jane’s abusive husband after her daughter told the school counsellor that she had witnessed a violent attack on her mum by her dad.

The school gave Jane’s daughter constant reassurance, and after leaving their Dad she was offered one-to-one sessions to recover from the trauma.

Age at interview 46

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After ten years of ‘hiding it’ [the domestic abuse and violence], Irina said how important it was to let the school know about problems at home. Her son received sympathetic understanding and support at his pre-school.

Irina was initially reluctant to talk to her son’s teacher but the teacher questioned her directly after her son frequently appeared to be distressed.

Age at interview 33

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Kate became increasingly concerned about her children’s safety as her husband became more and more aggressive. She decided to talk to the teachers at the children’s schools and ‘sobbed [her] eyes out’. She said, ‘They were fantastic and very understanding and have remained so’. The headmaster ‘took it very seriously’, escorting them safely to her car.

Counselling and therapy

Lindsay, Liz and Min all said their children had received counselling after they had separated from the abusive partner. This was generally offered at the school or by the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS).

Liz’s daughter had counselling for sexual abuse through the NSPCC. Liz said:

‘The NSPCC have been brilliant because, you know, they are an organisation who puts the child first. And I really don’t think that even Social Services put the children first’.

The NSPCC were really supportive and got Liz’s daughter on to a Letting the Future In course for victims of child sexual abuse.

Age at interview 46

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Shaina said her middle son had difficulty in talking about his dad after he left. He ‘struggled to let it out, he had rage issues ,the stuff that was going on between me and his dad affected him a lot’. He had counselling at his school through the ‘Place2Be’ service which provides emotional and therapeutic services in primary and secondary schools, Shaina said was ‘really good’. Shaina and her children also had family therapy for over two years, referred via the local Domestic Violence Agency. She said her kids wanted to ‘protect her feelings , so it was good for them to be able to talk to a third party and express themselves’.

Tasha was worried about the impact of domestic violence on her children but she felt there was not much help available in general for children who have been exposed to domestic violence.

Tasha is now in a new healthy relationship. She hoped her children would learn that her relationship with their Dad was not normal’s.

Age at interview 40

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Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service

Women had mixed experiences of getting help for their children from CAMHS. Jane’s two daughters were referred to CAMHS from their school. The eldest had developed bulimia nervosa*, following physical and emotional abuse from her father, but CAMHS turned her younger sister down for help as she did not meet the criteria.

Jane thought the CAMHS staff should have seen through her younger daughter’s outward appearance of being happy and smiling’, and offered her some support.

Age at interview 46

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Lindsay’s daughter’s behaviour became unmanageable after her dad left and she was referred to CAMHS, but it was time-limited due to lack of funding. She also had a Youth Support Worker.

*An emotional disorder characterised by bouts of extreme overeating followed by fasting or self-induced vomiting or purging.