Caroline Bourke
University of Hertfordshire





An increasing social problem within British society is that of violence within families. These families with children may or may not be experiencing additional social difficulties. Extensive research by Mullender (1996), Dobash and Dobash (1992), and other commentators such as Cleaver and Freeman (1995) and Farmer and Owen (1995) has produced an understanding within the arena of social work that we can no longer ignore the impact on children within violent families.


However, there are substantial disagreements amongst academics and researchers as to what the cause of violence within families is. In addition, social work practitioners also appear to have differing perspectives on how to intervene or establish links with the families. Until recently British law did little to address the problem, centring the problem on a “private domestic” issue rather than a societal issue. Men are predominantly identified as the main perpetrators of violence towards women, with one woman in four reporting an experience of violence at some point in her life (Women’s Aid, 2003). Clearly then, there is considerable work that needs to be undertaken in addressing the effects and risks associated with violence and its impact on children.


 This article1  will focus primarily on the risk to children within violent families; it will explore the impact on their social world, health, education, and psychological and physical well-being. Identifying the conflicts in relationships within families will be addressed, separating the construct from differing perspectives  Issues concerning the growing risk to children if intervention is not forthcoming will be addressed, in addition to the role that social workers have in relation to family violence. .


When considering these issues it is first important to build a theoretical framework and establish the social construction of violence. Furthermore, an exploration of relationships between men and women is essential in order to develop a picture of masculine power and control.


Family violence accounts for a quarter of all violent crime. Every minute in the UK, the police receive a call for assistance with violence within the home—approximately 81% of the 1,300 calls are from women.


In 1994 Jayne Mooney undertook a study in North London where she found that 45% of women who had experienced domestic violence had told no one. Women tended to use informal links/networks from family and friends.


However, it is estimated that approximately 7,000 women and children are fleeing violence and finding sheltered accommodation in refuges (Women’s Aid, 2002).  This may be showing an increase in women’s disclosure ten years later. Although, as will be explored later, there are still significant problems for Black and Asian women fleeing family violence.


Research undertaken for the Home Office identified that of 224 female victims of homicide in 1997, 47% were killed by their current or former partner: this would indicate that roughly every three days one woman dies as a result of violence from their male partner (Home Office, 1999).


In the first national study in the UK using a random probability general population sample of 2,869 young adults (aged 18-24 years old), more than 26% had witnessed violence between parents at least once, and for 5% this was a constant or frequent occurrence (Cawson et al, 2000 in Gorin, 2004, p. 4).


These statistics demonstrate that violence and the extent of the risk to children will affect their health and well-being considerably. Indeed, because of the probability that children will witness violence within the home, along with the recognition of the frequency and severity of the violence (Straus & Gelles, 1990; Carlson, 1984), researchers have begun to investigate the effects on children’s development (Kolbo, Blakely and Engleman, 1996).


Family violence is indiscriminate and crosses race, gender, class, religion, age, sexuality, disability and ethic origin. It could be argued that gender issues raise some concerns for those that view this problem from a male dominant/powerful role and subsequently argue the validity of violence from women towards men. However there is evidence of women’s violence towards men, although it is somewhat controversial due to men’s position within the family. Although there could be a gap in research on this subject, it will not be explored in this article, as it is beyond the scope of its concerns.


Identifying love and abuse Finding a long term partner for love and support through difficult and trying times, to talk through concerns and problems in an appropriate and “adult” manner with, may be extremely difficult for some. Women and men are drawn to each other for many variable reasons; some relationships work for many years, others do not. However, it could be argued that women stay in violent relationships primarily for the children, to keep their world from being altered and assure them the stability that all children need in order to develop physically and emotionally. Some women, however, may stay in a relationship because they can see no way out, again for emotional or financial reasons. Some of these women may be experiencing some form of violence from their partner be it, emotional, sexual, physical, financial or psychological. What draws women to their partners in the first instance could be said to be “love”—however, this is a word with many meanings, especially when we consider the effect of violence within these relationships. It is an issue of concern for some when the violence cannot be “seen”; unless a woman is bruised or can be examined to have been raped by her partner little “sympathy” is given.


These relationships, I would argue, are fundamental to the impact of violence on women and the children because adults are, in terms of the social construction of relationships, encouraged to form intimate relationships. Thus, when these relationships break down there tends to be an issue of blame, either on the part of the woman or even the child. Intimate relationships between family members are complex, and social work and society in general might arguably put a great emphasis on these complexities rather than reflect on what is needed to support the children at risk of losing one or more member of their family, in many cases the father/male figure. The variable set of ideas, values and practice associated with being male which structure relations among men, as well as between men and women, affects individual, cultures and organizations. The traditional idea of masculinity as a set of psychological attributes was developed to understand difference between the genders (Seidler, 1991). Indeed, one structuralist perspective on the gender issue, taken from Marxism, sees women as an oppressed social group (Barrett, 1980). In a capitalist state women could be seen as a by-product of the interests of the capitalist perspective. This is important to consider when identifying women and children as a “less important” group due to their status in society, and never more so than when we consider the added conflict of family violence and the social understanding of these issues. Indeed, differences between men and women have historically been from a Marxist feminist perspective; perhaps these differences are easier to use within employment as women are potentially easier to control and can be financially supported by men when not in employment. However, further arguments exist in which women see their role in the household as work that should be financially rewarded. These issues concerning feminist perspectives and notions of oppression cannot be ignored when examining family violence. The association with feminism is essential when considering children and child rearing.


What needs to be reflected upon in order to deal with the notion of child rearing is the fact that men and women are different, and with these differences comes creative thinking and differing perspectives needed for children to grow in families with appropriate “role-models” (Sale, 2003). Conflict theorists see conflict and continuous confrontations as a necessary condition for growth and social change (Sprey, in Gelles, 1995). They concern themselves with the types of conflicts in families, the consequences of the conflicts, and how the conflicts are managed. The issues of violence, child abuse and spouse abuse are highlighted by applying a conflict perspective to families (Gelles, 1995) The main criticism here is that it (the conflict perspective) tends to overemphasise conflict and coercion in families and subsequently underplays the order, stability and agreement in families. Any work that is done to stabilize a particular family is ultimately aimed at changing it to fit this socially constructed model of “good” and “bad” behaviour/parenting, and perhaps emphasizing an ideal image for society and family life.


Rutter declares that “the qualities of parent-child relationship constitute a central aspect of parenting, that the development of social relationships occupies a crucial role in personality growth, and the abnormalities in relationships are in many types of psychopathology” (1991, p.162).


Fraser (2003) writes about love and abuse, and how this writing represents some of the aspects of engaging in dialogue with individuals concerning their feelings of love and the correlation to violence/abuse. This is important to consider, as many women who are experiencing violence within the home may talk of their “love” for their partner which could make it difficult to leave. In addition, they may believe that their partner will change and their lives will subsequently improve and the risks to the children diminish. As Jamieson (1998) and Landford (1999) suggest, many women’s hope for love makes them question whether the abusive relationships is really “irredeemable”. This arguably is an emotional roller coaster and a most problematic aspect to identifying the risk factor to those within the context of the violence. It is not to question the force associated with love, but as practitioners within this field it is essential to identify how we might view love within an equitable relationship where there is equal power and equal decision making along with respect for the individual. Those in these types of relationships might find the context of love in abusive relationships confusing, perhaps resulting in the reluctance to engage with the theory of love and attachment.


The use of Bowlby’s attachment theory is fundamental when addressing the context of child development or the separation of relationships for children. Indeed, when discussing violence towards children, the attachment theory is useful in measuring the risk of further abuse or exposure of violence to the child by actively involving mothers to ensure that they can keep the child safe.  Why is this so difficult to do for women who have a deep-rooted relationship with their partner and recognize the distress of separation in leaving the home? We are not just talking about the separation of persons, but of the home, friends, family, employment, schools and their local community support systems. People develop a bond with differing aspects of their lives and as practitioners it is important that we identify with the consequences of this loss and acknowledge the risk of further associated factors.


Love and hate, it could be argued, are two distinctly different emotions in description, but are notably intrinsically linked in emotional behaviour. For example, men who have examined their violent behaviour might recognize the feelings of jealousy when their partner is pregnant. These feelings can produce violence to the unborn child and the woman. Measuring this risk is difficult for many practitioners working with children and families. However, midwives are perhaps the first people to come across family violence within the health care profession—but how much time do social workers spend discussing the family’s medical history in order to establish the risk factor? As Price (2003) suggests, midwives feel that although they are ideally placed to question women concerning domestic violence they do not want to for fear of the unknown, in addition to the pressure of work and the possibility that the relationship would suffer. Furthermore, when considering the intervention of health workers, health visitors themselves have the opportunity to gather or observe the relationships between the family members. When considering the issues of witnessed violence and the concerns of child protection, research has shown that babies under the age of one are statistically the most at risk for abuse (Gordon 2001).  This highlights the role of the health visitor in acknowledging and intervening when risk to a child is established.


In addition, when considering the role of general practitioners within the health arena and their reluctance to question women concerning their domestic situation, Bacchus (2002) showed that 20% of women would object to being asked about abuse or violence in a general practice setting if they had gone there about something else.


The culture of denial and secrecy within families is a fundamental problem in measuring the actuality of family violence. Women and children can suffer in silence for fear of social work intervention, with the notion that once social workers are involved they lose control within their own families and ultimately feel powerless.

Essentially the power and control from male partners can continue even when the relationship has ended. Men are known to continue their abusive behaviour through “stalking” women and may engage the help of family and friends to find the woman once she has left the household (Hester and Radford, 1996). Indeed, in McGee’s (2000) study of children’s experiences of domestic violence she identifies one particular case in which the violent man was in prison, yet was able to use his control and power through friends who engaged in the stalking.


The issues concerning masculinity, power and control certainly have their place in family violence. Both women and children are affected, although further exploration of the impact on children is essential to gain a wider a picture.


Legal content


The effects of family violence on children cannot be minimized. With the growing recognition of the problem, agencies and individual practitioners need to find a way forward in order that processes be put in place. British law has gone some way in improving the outcome for families by the inclusion of The Children Act of1989, Family Law Act of 1996 and the developing Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Bill. However, this is still limited in its focus on the child, and appears to be focused on the court and police powers. The child and the safeguarding of children is clearly missing. There is also a lack of direction and information on how children can be affected. There are continued debates within the health care settings and educational establishments concerning the input from government policy directives. Whilst there are some important developmental aspects, such as the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Bill, there are continued concerns regarding the subjective issue of resourcing projects.


Indeed Sale (2003) recognizes the increased political awareness of family violence issues but suggests that the arena of short-term funding initiatives and re-bidding structures created a climate of crisis management rather than preventative interventions.


Various feminist views do suggest that traditional roles of male patriarchy continue to exist as those in the decision-making power base of policy and law are mainly men (Morris and Gelsthrope 2000). Hague and Malos (1995) further attribute these ideals to the belief of male supremacy over women.


Where does this leave children?


Expectations that the non-abusing parent will have the capacity to ensure the safety of the child are still rife, but of course unless we put facilities and support into the family we cannot ensure that outcome. Mothers who are facing violence will often not contact services due to the very fact that their expectations concerning intervention involve removal of the child. Of course, for those children in great danger this could be the only option.  Are we able to really offer the support needed in such a climate of disillusionment on the part of both the public and social workers themselves?


For those children living in a violent family their understanding of relationships, behaviours and safety are fraught with complexities in their bond with either parent. We can longer consider that a child is not at risk unless they themselves are experiencing abuse. Children are now identified as at risk through witnessing violence in any context.


In 90% of the cases reported by Women’s Aid, children are in the same or next room to where violence between their caregivers is happening. Between 45 – 70% of children living with an abused mother will be directly abused by the same violent man (Women’s Aid, 2002). Indeed Jaffe, Wolfe and Wilson (1990) stated that children are generally profoundly affected by witnessing violence—though the effects vary with age, gender, relationships with family members, especially their mother, and the degree and frequency of the violence. They go on to suggest that the resilience of the child could be an element in understanding why some children who witness family violence are not as adversely affected as other children are. When considering the secrecy of the violence Goddard and Hiller (1993) suggest that the violence and dynamics, and the effect of this, between individuals in this context can silence a child.


Children’s responses to violence are difficult to quantify due to age and gender. However, fear, denial, sadness, frustration and anger are all emotions that a child might exhibit. Clearly then, family violence is likely to have a detrimental effect on a child and their social, intellectual, physical development and emotional wellbeing.


Children can often blame themselves for the violence, believing that if they had behaved better or had done what was asked of them the violence would not have happened. The feelings of love and attachment that a child has for the parent might influence their non-disclosure or minimize the event that they witnessed. Feelings of collusion with the violent parent can often have an immense effect on a child who then begins to blame themselves for the continued violence.


Gender can be an influencing factor when considering the impact of family violence on children; it can vary considerably and there is no single common response to the way in which boys and girls deal with their experiences. Stagg, Wills and Howell’s (1989) study on the effects of witnessing violence amongst younger children (aged 4-6years), found an indication that boys displayed more externalising of problems than girls (in Hester, Pearson and Harwin, 2000:53). This is an interesting notion, particularly when we consider the issues of child-rearing and the expectations of boys to girls. For instance, the historical perspective of boys growing up in a family was very different to girls: boys’ toys would consist of guns and action men and the girls’ of dolls and doll houses. Perhaps this was implicitly enabling boys to “play” out their feelings while girls internalised the fears and anxieties associated with violence (Seidler, 1991). However, Jouriles, Murphy and O’Leary (1989) did identify in their study that both boys and girls demonstrated internalised problems (In Hester et al, 2000).


There are considerable risks associated with family violence for children; one of the more concerning is the notion of learned behaviour, identified through the social construction of risk and violence. There is no clear or agreed foundation to state that children who witness violence within the home will become violent themselves in adulthood. However, if we consider that the profound impact on their education is being disrupted (Gorin, 2004), their health is suffering due to bouts of insomnia, bedwetting, fatigue and associated health problems (BMA, 1998), the impact of violence on their developing further relationships with friends or extended family, and perhaps their taking the role of protector in the situation it is not difficult to assume that these children would themselves find establishing appropriate and respectful relationships in adulthood a difficult task.


For African-Caribbean children living with family violence, the effects can be multiplied when set against issues of racist or cultural hostility within society. This can also be true for children from Asian backgrounds where misconceptions of cultural identity and cultural norms differ from the predominant white Euro-centric perspective. One of the primary concerns is the impact and risk association of the structural element to social construction. There continues to be recognition of concern when addressing cultural differences linked to family violence, as if all children from whatever diverse culture will experience violence in the same way. Indeed there are arguments that society endorses violence (Dobash & Dobash, Hague and Malos 1993, Mullender, 1996), perhaps through the images associated with violence from television shows and even cartoons.


Essentially, when identifying the structural power base, there is a lack of social policy initiatives in order for services to be put in place, not only to highlight the problem but to identify culturally specific intervention. The lack of legal frameworks has a clear affect on the social capital for these children. This results in a growing concern regarding their social world and family living capacity. As Mullender (1996) and Dobash and Dobash (1992) suggest, there is a distinct problem of sufficient funding policies for refuges. This increases the risk of women having to choose to remain in a domestic household with the growing probability of further violence to them and their children.


While there are a considerable number of refuges within England, they are not necessarily equipped for families from differing cultural backgrounds whose first language is not English. This is an important factor when considering social work intervention, especially as there could be reliance on the child to translate. This in itself is a risk factor as the child might be influenced by one of their parents/caregivers; it is also difficult as the children may not have the capacity to manage such a huge task.


Mama (1989) declared that only half of the south Asian women in her study had ever had contact with social services. Even then there was a very low percentage that found the service to offer a positive or even appropriate delivery of service. Interestingly, McGee (2000) undertook a study on childhood experiences of domestic violence. Here she accounts for the lack of inclusion of Asian women due to problems in gaining research and interviews with these women. This highlights the gap in research and studies on this particular cultural community.


A further concern is the tendency to identify the social service and police as the main players in family violence cases, although other professional groups have a significant role to play. This is, however, not always a positive experience for Asian women fleeing violence dealing with housing needs. As Dominy and Radford (1996) highlighted in their study, there was a level of concern regarding housing personnel’s ability or capacity to arrange appropriate translation services in order to establish the experiences of these women. Recently, in the government’s “Green Paper”, Every Child Matters, it was agreed that the housing authorities should promote cultural sensitivity and sensitivity in general to women and children experiencing violence within the home. With the growing concerns of the risk to children, it is paramount to ensure that women and children can feel safe, and most of all supported. This is, of course, dependant on the authorities by which these women are linked, and it could be argued that national agreements on the intervention must be sound and consistent with each other.


Professional Intervention


One of the key factors once violence is disclosed is that it is believed and that the professionals involved take steps to ensure that the child is free from risk. However, there are differing perspectives from different professionals on what constitutes family violence. As Kelly (1999:115) points out, “police officers do not agree as to what counts as domestic violence, or what their role in response to it should be.” Further, as Mama suggests, while some women experience significant trauma and suffering, “many black women will be severely injured, and face the other dire consequences of violence rather than involving the police or making use of the law” (1996: 173). Not only would these women feel anxious about police involvement, there is also the argument that they experience racism from society and possibly from the police who are there to protect them.


Inter-agency working between professionals is imperative if children are to be kept safe. However, with growing resource issues many professionals find it difficult to ensure that their intervention with families is good enough. With guidelines and recommendations, good practice is potentially achieved, although many social workers still feel a sense of disillusionment due to the lack of financial support systems for children and their families. In educating social work students it is believed that we go some way in ensuring that children within violent families are seen, heard and communicated with. Yet, in the ‘“real” world of social work, do we allow time with families to better understand their history, their specific needs, and their own experiences of parenting? Children continue to be at risk from abuse within violent families because of the very fact that we have yet to really engage the problem and take some responsibility for the way in which society views families.





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For the purpose of this article family violence in this context is primarily men’s violence to women. The term domestic violence is not used, unless termed by others, as I would argue that it does not address the wider context of violence to women or children from outside the domestic household. The perpetrators might well be aunts, uncles, grandfathers, fathers, husbands, partners, and ex-partners; all of which can be argued to have a great affect on the children.

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