Wednesday, 14 October 2015

All over now? Children's contact when there is domestic abuse


CRFR Research Fellow Fiona Morrison reflects on the findings of her recently published work examining children and mothers' perspectives of contact with fathers following parental separation in the context of domestic abuse.

People used to think domestic abuse was something that only affected adults. However a body of research[i] has shown that simply isn’t the case. Children overhear, witness, intervene and deal with the consequences of domestic abuse. A child may call the police following an assault. They may physically intervene to stop an attack. They may become homeless because of domestic abuse.  Through research, children have provided their own unique accounts of domestic abuse that have expanded our understanding of how domestic abuse affects children.

People often think that domestic abuse stops when couples separate. Unfortunately that’s not always the case either. Domestic abuse may continue following separation. Research[ii] has in fact found the presence of children to be a ‘risk factor’ for continued abuse following separation.

This raises difficult questions about post-separation contact between children and their fathers when there is domestic abuse. Post-separation relationships between children and parents are important. But what about the risks that contact may pose?

My PhD examined children and mothers’ perspectives of contact with fathers following parental separation in the context of domestic abuse. I interviewed children and their mothers about their experience of separation, making decisions about contact and children having or not having contact with their fathers. I have recently published some of the findings from my research. These confirm findings from other research – the ending of a relationship does not necessarily translate into the ending of abuse and contact often becomes a focus for the continued abuse of children and mothers.

My findings also elaborate on how parental relations continue to influence children’s contact with their fathers.  Far from being ‘all over now’, I found the relational consequences of domestic abuse to continue following separation through children’s contact. An absence of direct communication between parents created a vacuum that children often had to fill. This in turn rendered children exposed and vulnerable to continued abuse and parental conflict.  This was evident through fathers’ hostility towards mothers during contact, problems connected to parents’ re-partnering and conflict about legal proceedings and finances, all of which played out through children’s contact.

This raises further questions about how contact when there is domestic abuse should be considered. How can contact be safe? How can children be supported in this context? How do we ensure mothers are not undermined as a consequence of contact? How can fathers be supported in their relationships with their children while also accountable for their behaviour?

Contact is an important issue following separation and my research shows that in the context of domestic abuse we must be mindful of the risks that contact may pose as well as how parental relations affect the contact that children have.

You can read more about my research and other articles on Domestic Abuse and Safeguarding Children in a Special Issue of ChildAbuse Review.

If you have any concerns about domestic abuse or child contact you can get help from the following places:
ClanChildLaw provide free legal advice and representation to children across Scotland.
Childline provide confidential support to children.
ScottishWomen’s Aid provide information and support to women and children affected by domestic abuse across Scotland.

[i] Stanley N. 2011. Children Experiencing Domestic Violence: A Research Review. Research in Practice: Dartington.
[ii] Brownridge DA. 2006. Violence against women post-separation. Aggression and Violent Behavior 11(5): 514530.

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Do you want to develop your skills in research and consultation with children and young people? Take a look at our Continuing Professional Development courses, delivered by Dr Susan Elsley and Professor Kay Tisdall:

10-11th March 2016: Involving children and young people in research and consultation
28-29th April 2016: Using creative methods in research with children and young people

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