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Child-to-Parent Violence

Volume 636: debated on Wednesday 21 February 2018

[Geraint Davies in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered child-to-parent violence.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Child-to-parent violence is a very significant issue that, too often, is not spoken about. A parent in Chesterfield first raised the issue with me as part of a wider discussion about the paucity of support that they had received from Derbyshire County Council. As an adoptive parent, I was alarmed to learn of Adoption UK’s recent survey to which 3,000 of its 8,000 members responded. The survey revealed that as many as 63% of parents said that their adopted child had displayed aggressive behaviour. That followed Al Coates’ survey, which showed that 30% of adopters have experienced regular child-to-parent violence. The issue also affects around 3% of all families—some 330,000 children.

I will take this opportunity to highlight this important issue and invite the Minister, and all of us, to consider the extent to which current local authority interventions equip social workers and parents to tackle CPV. I will reflect on recent research in more detail and on the role that local authority funding cuts play in our ability to support successful adoptions. I will also ask whether the balance between protecting children and supporting their families is appropriately weighted. Finally, I would like to learn more about the specific steps that the Government are taking to investigate the scale of the issue and the support that they could put in place to help families.

Much of my contribution will focus on violence in families with adopted children, but clearly this is not purely an adoption issue. Families who have not adopted and do not have social services’ input or a diagnosis that explains why there are such problems can be even more isolated and alone, but my focus is predominantly on child-to-parent violence in adoptive families.

As parents, many of us worry that we are failing to live up to a media ideal of the perfect parent—I say that as the parent of a 19-year-old and a 15-year-old. As a nation, we are ludicrously time poor. The pressure on families to make ends meet and the demanding working environment that many families face, coupled with competing demands on our children, mean that modern parenting is a fraught business under the best of circumstances.

For adoptive parents, those pressures are often magnified. Three quarters of adopted children enter the care system because of abuse or neglect. Babies and children who have been victims of violence or physical, sexual or psychological abuse or have witnessed it routinely, who have been left to scavenge in bins because of neglectful or substance-dependent parents, or who have been left in the appalling situation of having to take over the parenting role at a very young age because of the inadequacy of their parent, will have experienced a level of trauma that can stay with them all their lives. Even in the womb, many children have disadvantages such as foetal alcohol syndrome or foetal alcohol spectrum disorders placed in their way. Chaotic, disruptive and disorienting experiences in the early years of children and babies, when they are at their most vulnerable, inevitably stockpiles future crises. It is a truism that hurt children hurt, and many adopted children have been badly hurt by the time they are adopted.

Adopting a child is not much like the brochures would have us believe. Adoption is not a silver bullet that takes children away from a bad situation and places them in a benign and friendly one that washes away all the scars of the past. One third of adoptive parents surveyed said that their local authority had withheld important information about their child before the adoption. Of course it is important that adopters are encouraged to come forward, and it is gratifying that despite all these problems, 88% of adoptive parents say they would still adopt and are glad they did. However, attracting adopters should never come at the expense of a pragmatic and realistic description of what life for an adopting parent can be like and of the many challenges that their children and family are likely to face. An appalling statistic that should give us all pause for thought is that children who have been adopted are 20 times more likely to be excluded from school and twice as likely not to achieve five good GCSEs.

Our starting point in countering child-to-parent violence must be to recognise the scale of the issue and ensure that it is widely discussed within the social work profession and more widely among adopter families. Parents who experience child-to-parent violence often question their own parenting and start to blame themselves. They wonder whether it is because of something that they have done, and whether if they had only taken a different strategy things would have been different. They take all sorts of steps to try to prevent it and they think it is a mark of their own failure. What they need is a support network that offers them strategies and understanding, rather than reinforcing the idea that they are to blame and that they and their families have become victims of violence as a result of their parenting.

We need a culture in which social workers realise that their work is not finished the minute the care order is signed and that adopted children need more support than other children. Supporting the family is part of that. After my wife and I adopted in 2004, we had a couple of cursory meetings in the run-up to getting the care order but, broadly speaking, that was it. After that stage, unless parents phone the social workers to say that there is a problem, they often get no further contact.

Many parents who experience violence from their children worry that if they highlight the extent of the problem, their parenting ability will be questioned and they will be taken down the route of child protection and investigations into their parenting, rather than the supportive environment they should have. Al Coates MBE—an adopter, a qualified social worker and a member of the Adoption Support Fund expert advisory group to the Department for Education—has interviewed many social workers and discovered that very few had had any formal training about child-to-parent violence.

The work of Al Coates and Dr Wendy Thorley, based on a survey of approximately 260 adopters, has led to a report called “Child-Parent Violence (CPV): an exploratory exercise”, which uncovered that as many as 30% of adopters had experienced violence. It also undermined the preconception evident in the Home Office report on adolescent-to-parent violence that this is an issue that relates to adolescence. It exposed the fact that the incidence of violence to parents is higher among seven to 11-year-olds than among children aged 12-plus. It also revealed that child-to-parent violence is at the heart of many families in crisis and is a growing problem that, like many other forms of domestic violence, is hugely under-reported. Highlighting the issue and ending the culture of parental blame will help to address that under-reporting. It is important that we all play a role in ensuring that adoptive parents recognise that child-to-parent violence is a common challenge faced by many others, not a sign of their own failure. The Government should commission or support much more detailed studies of child-to-parent violence in adoptive families.

CPV will not begin to be addressed until there is wider acceptance of the scale of the crisis in child social work. A combination of growing caseloads, shrinking budgets, higher public and Government expectations, a more violent society and more family breakdowns is stretching the system to breaking point. A BBC freedom of information request has revealed a 25% increase in long-term sick leave among social workers since 2012-13. In the 135 councils that responded to the request, 1,911 social workers had been off sick for more than a month. That mirrors my own experience and that of many adopters whom I have supported or met: when we try to pursue issues or get support, the social worker dealing with the matter is often off sick and the person who comes in instead has only a very scant knowledge of the case history. They take an immediate look at whether the child is in danger, but if that is not the case, the support the family receive is very small.

The scale of social worker absenteeism and sickness is simply unsustainable. It inevitably means that corners will be cut, warning signs will be missed and the quality of interactions with families will be diminished. An obvious impact is that social worker caseloads will grow and many of the interventions that would support families and prevent them from reaching crisis point will play second fiddle to addressing immediate crises. Children who hurt others but who are not themselves at risk of being hurt will be seen as less of a priority.

Recent research by the British Association of Social Workers showed that social workers put in an average of 10 hours of unpaid work each week to try to manage their case loads. The scale of local authority cuts makes tragedies inevitable. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that English councils faced a 27% cut in their spending power under the five years of the coalition Government and that the pace of those cuts has continued since then. In the early years, there may have been fat for councils to trim, but that fat has now gone. Every day, social workers battle with life-and-death decisions that undermine their ability to provide the service that their clients have a right to expect.

Councils in the areas of greatest deprivation have faced the largest cuts, which is indefensible. In recent weeks, we have seen the dam start to burst, with Tory councils in Northamptonshire and Surrey sending out warning signals about their finances. If those councils are struggling, imagine how difficult it is for councils in areas of greater deprivation. To continue to deliver spending cuts of the size currently being implemented is to accept that social worker absence will continue to rise, and more children and families will fail to receive the support they need. I make a real plea for future local government spending rounds to recognise that further council cuts will cost vulnerable children their lives and leave far too many families in crisis.

In addition to addressing the funding issues, the Government should look closely at the direction provided to social workers and to all those involved in the support of children and families. Child protection and the needs of the child are at the core of the Children Act 1989, but using them as the guiding principle often leaves families outside the room when key decisions are being made about their future.

I question whether a relentless focus on protection of the child that overlooks the needs of their families is actually advantageous to the children who we seek to protect. Often the prioritisation of social work case loads will be based on whether a child is at immediate physical risk. Often, children who are violent to their parents or siblings are not themselves seen as being at risk, even though such violence can often be the cause of an adoption breaking down. A more holistic view, which recognised violent children within a family unit as a crisis in itself, would lead to better outcomes.

Given the scale of adoptive families who are affected by this issue, as suggested by the research I have cited, there is an argument for greater counselling and therapies for children post-adoption before the crisis manifests itself, and a much more substantial commitment to adopter support would prevent families from reaching crisis point and may well save money in the long run.

The Government’s Adoption Support Fund is a welcome development, but the cap on funding and the number of councils refusing to match fund therapies demonstrate the limitations of the current approach. When the Minister responds to the debate, can she say what representations she will make to the Treasury about the scale of the financial crisis facing councils, and the difficulty that crisis places on the Home Office in supporting local authorities to keep people safe?

I was very conscious in calling for this debate that this issue goes across three different ministerial Departments: the Department for Education, which has a child social work purview; the Department for Communities and Local Government, which deals with local authorities and their funding; and of course the Home Office itself. That was why I specifically focused my speech from an education point of view, although the Government have chosen to respond to it from a Home Office perspective. Nevertheless, all those different Departments have an important role in relation to this issue and inter-departmental work will obviously be very important.

I wonder to what extent the Minister, who is a Home Office Minister, accepts that local government finances will inevitably have an impact on the quality of child social work and the outcomes for adopted children. What steps will the Government take to ensure that new generations of social workers receive better training on the occurrence of child-to-parent violence, particularly among adopters, and ensure that parents are supported and not blamed? Will there be mandatory training for child social workers on child-to-parent violence, and will future continuous professional development of child social workers place an emphasis on child-to-parent violence?

In addition, will the Government ensure that there is skilled and appropriate therapy available to children who have been removed from violent or neglectful family situations at the start of the adoption, rather than waiting for a crisis to manifest itself? Will there be an assumption that children who have experienced early trauma are likely to become violent themselves if that trauma is left untreated? Why do we wait for the crisis to grow until it is too large, when it could be more easily treated if it was addressed earlier? What steps can the Government take to ensure that the founding principles of the Children Act 1989 do not prevent the impact of violence by children being investigated because the child is not seen to be at risk?

What more can be done to ensure that the link between attachment difficulties and the education system is closer? Will the Minister commission a report to identify the scale of this issue and expressly recognise that this is not purely or even primarily an issue of adolescent violence but one that affects families with children of all ages?

Child-to-parent violence blights the lives of too many families; it must be a hidden problem no more.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) on raising this important issue and on doing so in a very thoughtful way. Obviously, this issue affects him and his family, given his experience of adopting children. I pay tribute to him and to everyone across the country who finds the time and space in their families to give love and support to looked-after children, and the opportunities that those children deserve.

Last week, I attended an international conference on tackling violence against children. The Swedish Prime Minister spoke very movingly of his own experience of foster care. He had been looked after by foster parents and he talked about the opportunities that they had given him, which enabled him to become Prime Minister of his country. It was the most incredible story of love, support, opportunity and ambition. Perhaps in due course the hon. Gentleman’s children will follow in the footsteps of the Swedish Prime Minister.

I am responding to this debate on behalf of the Home Office. As the hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out, this is an issue for which several Government Departments have responsibility. I hope that he will forgive me if I respond from a Home Office perspective, and of course I will ensure that my ministerial colleagues in the Department for Education and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government respond to the specific points that relate to them.

The reason the Home Office is responding to this debate is that while of course we have responsibility for crime, we are also very conscious that child-to-parent violence is an issue that is often neglected, even though it can have a devastating impact on the families concerned. Currently there is no legal definition of child-to-parent violence, but it is increasingly recognised as a form of domestic abuse. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman spoke very thoughtfully about the impact of babies and children witnessing domestic abuse in their homes, including the impact it can have on them developmentally, not only in childhood but in adulthood.

That is precisely why the Government hope to include in the draft domestic violence and abuse Bill, which we will seek to introduce in this Session, a measure that reflects the impact that domestic abuse has on children. That will be one of the most important measures in that Bill. We want to make it an aggravating feature of any domestic abuse offence if there are children present in the home when that abuse is carried out, to try to draw out and show the terrible effect that it has on young people.

It is very important to understand that, as with other forms of domestic abuse, child-to-parent violence is not only about physical violence. It is also likely to involve a pattern of behaviour that can encompass, but is in no way limited to, psychological, emotional, economic and physical abuse. It is an incredibly complex problem that presents a number of challenges to families who experience it. Family members may feel isolated and stigmatised, and they may even feel shame for being the victims of violence at the hands of their children. They may not know where to go for help and, as the hon. Gentleman has articulated, they may worry that if they do reach out for help, judgments will be made about their parenting skills and the children may be removed from them.

That is why the Government commissioned a 2015 report, “Information guide: adolescent to parent violence and abuse”, which provides materials and advice to support professionals in the police, the health system, the justice system, the education system, youth services and so on, when someone comes to them for help. I hasten to add that although the title refers to adolescent violence, the advice does not just apply to adolescents; it can of course apply to children under the age of 16 as well.

There are also at least two charities that can offer help and support to family members who are suffering from this kind of violence, including the free and confidential helplines that are run by Family Lives and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Child-to-parent violence includes not only violence by young people living in the family home, but adult children’s violence towards their parents. Sadly, that issue is similarly hidden and equally poorly understood.

Because of issues such as stigma and the worries that people may have about reaching out for help, there are no specific national statistics on child-to-parent abuse. However, we know that there are approximately 2 million victims of domestic abuse every year. Family Lives, a national charity, reported that over a two-year period its helpline received more than 22,500 calls from parents reporting aggression from their children. Also, the Office for National Statistics has shown that in the year ending March 2017 there were 11 recorded parricides, which gives an indication of how serious these cases can become and the number of families who are torn apart by this type of abuse.

Such abuse can affect all levels of society. There may be a history of domestic abuse within the house, but equally there may be other factors that exist alongside the abuse, including substance misuse, behavioural problems, learning difficulties and mental health issues. There is no single explanation for the abuse to which some parents are subjected.

In terms of the complexity, it is important to break the silence on this abuse, which is why I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue. Also, we know that exercises such as the recent storyline in the soap opera “Hollyoaks” have helped draw the issue to the public’s attention.

What have we done? The hon. Gentleman rightly and understandably asked for action. We have committed £920 million towards the troubled families programme, which aims to achieve significant and sustained progress for 400,000 families with complex needs by 2020. I fully appreciate that the adopted families he spoke to may not fall into that category, but none the less we have invested that significant sum of money to help families who are troubled. The programme works to support families through a dedicated key worker who works with them to draw up an action plan. It can include support for families where there is child-to-parent violence.

The hon. Gentleman asked about social care. In addition to the troubled families programme, the Government have identified that we need to support councils to identify improvements to children’s social care. We have made £200 billion available for local services, including children’s social care, up to 2020. In addition, the Department for Education has funded a number of projects with a specific focus on tackling domestic abuse as part of our children’s social care innovation programme, which is backed by £200 million. As part of the Government’s domestic violence and abuse Bill agenda this year, there will I hope be lots of national conversations about domestic abuse in its various forms. I would welcome the hon. Gentleman’s help in raising this issue so that we can see whether there are other measures we should be employing.

We are conscious that domestic abuse is not just about physical violence. It can be about emotional and mental abuse as well. That is why we introduced the new domestic abuse offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship in the Serious Crime Act 2015. We know that safeguarding is critical to helping families where there is child-to-parent abuse, rather than necessarily criminalising the child, with all the repercussions that has for their future career prospects and so on. We want to help and support professionals in identifying and dealing with the earliest signs of abuse, to stop violence before it happens and to prevent abusive behaviour from becoming entrenched. Critically, we want to provide victims and their families with support before a crisis point is reached. That is why we have the information guide I mentioned. I encourage Members to read it if the issue has come to them through their constituency casework. It provides guidance for practitioners.

In conclusion, we must and will do more to tackle the tyranny of domestic abuse and, in doing so, promote greater awareness of the different forms it takes. Our forthcoming consultation on the domestic violence and abuse Bill, which will be launched shortly, and the package of non-legislative measures that will sit alongside that Bill provide an opportunity to transform agencies’ responses to domestic abuse, to make tackling it everyone’s business and to promote a national conversation to bring this abuse out of the shadows. I hope I have reassured the hon. Gentleman of the Government’s commitment to tackling this terrible form of abuse, and I thank him very much for raising the issue.

Question put and agreed to.