Domestic abuse: ‘I was quite controlling, things needed to change’

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Amy and Peter were referred to charity For Baby’s Sake by social workers when they were expecting their first child
By Alison Holt
Social affairs editor

“I just thought it was normal,” says Peter looking back at how volatile he used to be with his partner, Amy.

The 25-year-old admits he was “quite controlling”, bombarding her with texts and phone calls demanding to know her movements.

And if Amy didn’t keep up with his communications, he says he would get “quite angry”. He now feels ashamed of his behaviour.

The couple, whose names have been changed and identities protected, have been helped by charity For Baby’s Sake.

It’s one of the organisations being evaluated for a project aiming to identify the best way to support children and families experiencing domestic abuse.

More than 800,000 children in England and Wales have spent the past 12 months living in an abusive home, according to new research estimates.

This is more than the number of children who will start primary school this year – says Foundations, a leading research centre examining family support services.

Overall, one child in every five has experienced some form of abuse at home, it says.

The research centre is leading the £2.6m study which aims to produce better evidence to ensure public money is spent on the most effective schemes.

“We’re currently operating in the dark,” says Dr Jo Casebourne, Foundations’ chief executive.

“We just don’t know what works to support children affected by domestic abuse, which feels completely unacceptable given the scale of children affected.”

‘It was really difficult’

Amy says their daughter, Rosie, is thriving

Amy and Peter were referred to For Baby’s Sake by social workers when they were expecting their first child.

At first, Amy, 23, admits she struggled to accept they had a problem, but she says “looking back, it was really difficult”.

“I would always be waiting by the phone,” she explains. “And I’d be worried about doing certain things just in case I didn’t answer the phone, in case it would upset him.”

Pregnant mothers can be referred to the programme by GPs, midwives and other professionals when there are concerns about domestic abuse. For Baby’s Sake will then work with both parents and support them for two years.

Amy and Peter saw separate counsellors each week, which they say allowed them to start working through their problems before their daughter, Rosie, was born.

Peter says it helped him understand the impact of witnessing domestic abuse and coercive control during his own childhood.

“I was thinking, ‘there’s no problems here,'” he says. “‘This is how I’ve grown up, I’ve seen relationships handled. It’s no one else’s business’. But then upon some deeper reflection, I noticed the impact I was having on her, I realised things need to change.”

Domestic violence is a major reason for referrals to children’s social care. And the police recorded more than 1.4 million domestic abuse-related incidents and crimes in England and Wales in the year to March 2023.

It can include physical, sexual or emotional abuse, including controlling behaviour. The Home Office calculates the social and economic cost of the damage it causes in England and Wales at about £74bn a year.

But the impact on the lives of families and children is incalculable.

‘Regulate my emotions’

Judith Rees, director of operations at For Baby’s Sake, says the group’s work has resulted in a reduction in domestic violence

Amy says the counselling made the couple realise the effect their relationship would have on their daughter, and that potentially it could “result in the same things happening to her when she grows up”.

When Rosie arrived, the For Baby’s Sake team also worked with them as a family.

Two years on, she is a chatty, happy toddler and the couple are expecting a second child.

Without the help, Amy doesn’t think their daughter would be “thriving like she is now – and as happy as she is”.

“Now I know what’s expected of me,” says Peter. “I know how to regulate my emotions. I know how to be the best dad and partner possible.”

Judith Rees, director of operations at For Baby’s Sake, says they start seeing families when the mother is pregnant because research shows stress levels can have an impact on babies in the womb.

They work with “the person causing harm and the person experiencing domestic abuse” in a non-judgmental way, she says.

Support to leave

Andrew says the project showed him “there was light at the end of the tunnel”

Another parent supported by For Baby’s Sake is father-of-two Andrew. The charity helped him separate from his wife.

“I was getting abused mentally, not physically, and this is when I fled,” he says.

As a man experiencing abuse, he says he found it particularly difficult to ask for help.

“You feel worthless,” he says. “You try to disguise it and pretend that everything’s fine and try to keep going. But it doesn’t work that way. It destroys you.”

For Baby’s Sake says it recognises many couples don’t stay together and it is important that they separate safely and in the best way for the children.

Its own results show most of the families involved have babies born at full-term and a good birth weight, which gives those children a healthy start.

Judith explains: “We’ve also seen that in 75% of babies that are reaching [the age of] one in the last six months, there has not been a police call out to that home. So, there is a reduction in domestic abuse within home as well.”

Thorough research

Dr Jo Casebourne says there is a moral and financial case for evaluating which services are most effective

There are many small organisations providing support for families experiencing domestic abuse, but most can’t provide this kind of clear information about their effectiveness, according to Foundations.

The project’s five-year plan is called REACH (Researching Effective Approaches for Children) which it believes could transform domestic abuse services.

It will start with thorough academic research assessing the effectiveness of six projects.

In addition to For Baby’s Sake, the projects are:

Bounce Back 4 Kids (BB4K): Mainly uses group sessions to support children and their non-abusive parentWeMatter: A video-based programme to support 8-17 year oldsRestart: Combines early support from social workers, housing teams and domestic abuse workers for familiesBreaking the cycle: A counselling service for 4-16 year oldsFathers for Change: A US programme which will be adapted to work with fathers with a history of abusive behaviour in the UK

The initial cost of the research is £2.6m, but the aim is to examine 80 different programmes over five years.

Foundations is asking the government to contribute £50m to the overall costs, with another £25m coming from grants and donations.

At the end of the research the most effective half a dozen projects will be pinpointed. The recommendations can then help authorities decide where to spend public money.

Dr Casebourne says the long-term impact domestic violence has on children means there is a strong moral case for finding out what works best for them, but with public services under such financial pressure there is an economic case too.

“We can’t afford not to do this,” she says.

Andrew says his weekly meeting with his counsellor helped him realise, “there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and you can survive with your children”.

His advice to others living with domestic abuse is clear.

“Seek help. Don’t sit there thinking, this is your destiny. Your destiny doesn’t have to be that way,” he says. “And there’s someone out there who will listen.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help can be found at BBC Action Line.

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