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Protecting children who live in a climate of fear

The rise in referrals to Scotland's Children's Hearing System related to domestic abuse is inevitable and quite deliberate.

It was a consequence of the law change in 2011 that empowered authorities to bring a child to a children's panel specifically because they had a "close connection" with someone who had carried out domestic abuse.

The open wording of the rule, which came into effect in June 2013, was intentional, too. Many children live with an abusive parent. But the law also covers situations where a parent's partner is abusive, or where a boyfriend or other adult who is known to be abusive is living elsewhere, but likely to be on the scene.

The Scottish Children's Reporter Administration says 3,275 such children were referred last year.

Prior to the 2011 Children's Hearing Act, police and social services were already taking the impact of domestic abuse on children much more seriously. It is to be hoped we are beyond the dismissal of verbal or physical violence against a partner as "just a domestic". But recognition of the impact on children has been a more recent development.

It is plain that witnessing violence in the home, whether actual, or threatened, or even psychological, can be damaging for children. Increasingly, police called to incidents consider the needs of any children involved. Referrals to the Children's Hearing System might then be made on other grounds relating to their welfare, school attendance, or safety.

While not every referral to the children's reporter will result in a children's hearing, the referrals themselves have become almost automatic. This is the right approach, and formalising it is valuable.

Why? For one thing, the effect on children of living in a climate of fear, or feeling the need to intervene to protect a parent, or feeling powerless to do so can be immediate. It can affect health and happiness or undermine education.

It can also be long term. There can be lasting consequences in terms of self-esteem and feelings of security. There can also, sadly, be effects carried over to adult relationships by children who grow up with a warped perspective about how to act within a relationship.

We have seen in the shocking report about child protection failures in Rotherham what happens when children's needs are not prioritised.

We also know domestic abuse is a red flag for further problems. Brandon Muir, the Dundee toddler who died at the hands of his mother's violent boyfriend, is one of the victims whose case led to a change in approach.

Moves by the police and the children's hearing system to prioritise the needs of children affected by abuse make a reality of written policies on early intervention.

If numbers continue to rise there may be issues about resources, and pressures on the volunteer-led Children's Hearing System. Any such questions will need to be addressed. But the principle behind Scottish child law is that a child's needs must be prioritised in all decisions and actions. This now applies to domestic abuse, too, and not before time.

Contextual targeting label: 
Families

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