How to identify children?

One of the most striking aspects of the findings is the ‘ordinariness’ of the children’s experiences, which on the surface disguises their detrimental impact. For example, it is developmentally normal for children to show distress when parents are arguing, for teenagers to feel self-conscious about their families, to argue with parents and to present challenging behaviour in school. What is different here is that children who live with domestic violence are likely to experience these maturational processes in an acute and sometimes pathological manner. While some of the children’s reactions had already attracted professional attention and concern, many of the others’ went unnoticed, probably because they were mistaken for typical, exasperating, juvenile behaviours. (Buckley, Holt & Whelan, 2007 p308).

From its early days, children who called Childline about physical abuse or their mother being beaten by their father often told us that it happened when the parent was drunk. Children rarely said explicitly that they were ringing because their parent had a drink problem. It usually emerged as a context to the problem they were calling about: physical or sexual or emotional abuse, neglect, domestic violence, running away or being thrown out of home, or severe family relationship problems. (Childline 1997, p4 [Foreword])

It can be incredibly difficult to know which children are affected as a result of living with parental problems such as parental problem drinking and parental domestic abuse. In some cases, it will be obvious (because a child is clearly showing physical signs of abuse or because you have seen a child’s parent drunk at the school gates, or because you are working directly with a parent because of problem drinking or domestic abuse).

However, some children and families will go out of their way to keep the problems at home a secret. The parent who often bears the brunt of the behaviour associated with the drinking and the domestic abuse may very much want to seek help but will be afraid that the children will be removed from the family or will fear the consequences when the drinker / perpetrator finds out. Moreover, many of the signs and symptoms that children might display are those that are indicative of a whole range of problems, or are the types of things that we associate with children growing up.

This section will give some ideas of the types of things you could look out for, or the types of questions that you could ask. Many professionals will also not be as familiar with the key things to look out for and will therefore miss opportunities to identify children living in these environments. It will also consider what kind of things you could ask about or look out for when you first talk to a child about their problems at home and you are trying to work out with them the best way to help them.

What to look for?

Despite the challenges inherent in identifying children who are at risk and deeply affected because they live with parental alcohol misuse or parental domestic abuse, these children can come to the attention of a range of professionals and services in a range of ways. For example:

  • Some will present to generic services (such as a doctor or health visitor) with a range of physical and psychological problems linked to their problems at home.
  • Some will come to the attention of social services because of the severity of complexity of the problems at home, and where issues of neglect or safety have prompted or necessitated such involvement.
  • Some will be struggling with school (attendance, appearance, completion of and quality of work, bullying etc.)
  • Some may even come to the attention of the police, youth offending or mental health services because of health or behavioural problems as a result of the environments in which they are living.
  • Some children can be identified because a parent (either a drinker or perpetrator of violence or aggression; or a victim who attends health or social care services, or who is also drinking and hence comes to the attention of an alcohol service) comes into contact with an appropriate service.
  • Sometimes it can be non-presence to services that should set alarm bells ringing for some professionals. For example, non attendance at school or to primary general health services. A Welsh study of 148 children under 16 years old who lived with their mothers in refuges (Webb et al., 2001) found that many children had a high level of need yet were unknown to general health service and so were missing out on routine and necessary health care like immunisation and developmental checks.
  • For many families, identification can take place through the mother seeking help or by her attendance at services (e.g. at an accident and emergency department). Particularly when a mother is seeking help, there is a real window of opportunity for support.

What to ask and how to ask it?

If you sense that a child is having problems at home and you want to find out more then there are ways of asking questions that could facilitate a child to feel that they can open up to you about what is going on for them. Some general questions that you might ask include:

  • It is common for families to have problems at home and I’m wondering if there is anything difficult going on at home for you that you would like to talk about it.
  • I’ve noticed that you haven’t been arriving at school/college on time / your school grades haven’t been as good as they used to be, and I’m wondering if everything is alright at home? 

In terms of trying to get a bit more detail about what is going on, then there are core areas that you should try to ask about. This includes:

  • nature of the abuse
  • perpetrator risk to children
  • risks of lethality
  • pattern of the assault and other associated behaviours
  • impact of abuse on women
  • impact of abuse on children
  • impact of abuse on parenting roles and relationships
  • protective factors
  • outcomes of previous help-seeking by the mother 

    (these areas of risk assessment have been identified in a model developed by Barnardos in Northern Ireland, originally developed in Canada).

The list below gives, in quite a bit more detail, ideas of the type of information that you may need to try to collect. Taking time to gathering this information from a child will give the child the chance to tell you everything that is going on, and for you to get as clear a picture as possible about what is going on. It will also allow you to assess what might need to happen next, and to balance this with what the child’s needs are, and the extent to which your professional role allows you to be involved.

If you are a specialist professional then you may have access to guidelines that are more specific to your profession and your country.

Domestic Violence Questions for a Child

In order to obtain accurate and reliable information from a child regarding a domestic violence situation, it is critical that the language and questions are appropriate for the child's age and developmental stage.

1. Types and frequency of exposure to domestic violence 

• What kinds of things do mum and dad (or their girlfriend or boyfriend) fight about?
• What happens when they argue?
• Do they shout at each other or call each other bad names?
• Does anyone break or smash things when they get angry? Who?
• Do they hit one another? What do they hit with?
• How does the hitting usually start?
• How often do your mum and dad argue or hit?
• Have the police ever come to your home? Why?
• Have you ever seen your mum or dad get hurt? What happened?

2. Risks posed by the domestic violence
• Have you ever been hit or hurt when mum and dad (or their girlfriend or boyfriend) are fighting?
• Has your brother or sister ever been hit or hurt during a fight?
• What do you do when they start arguing or when someone starts hitting?
• Has either your mum or dad hurt your pet?

3. Impact of exposure to domestic violence
• Do you think about mum and dad (or their girlfriend or boyfriend) fighting a lot?
• Do you think about it when you are at school, while you're playing, when you're by yourself?
• How does the fighting make you feel?
• Do you ever have trouble sleeping at night? Why? Do you have nightmares? If so, what are they about?
• Why do you think they fight so much?
• What would you like them to do to make it better?
• Are you afraid to be at home? To leave home?
• What or who makes you afraid?
• Do you think it's okay to hit when you're angry? When is it okay to hit someone?
• How would you describe your mum? How would you describe your dad? (or their girlfriend or boyfriend)

4. Protective factors

• What do you do when mum and dad (or their girlfriend or boyfriend) are fighting?
• If the child has difficulty responding to an open-ended question, the worker can ask if the child has:

o Stayed in the room
o Left of hidden his/herself
o Gone for help
o Cone to an older sibling
o Asked their parents/girlfriend/boyfriend to stop
o Tried to stop the fighting

• Have you ever called the police when your parents (or their girlfriend or boyfriend) are fighting?
• Have you ever talked to anyone about your parent's (or their girlfriend or boyfriend) fighting?
• Is there an adult you can talk to about what's happening at home?
• What makes you feel better when you think about your parent's (or their girlfriend or boyfriend) fighting?

Source: London Child Protection Committee (2006). Safeguarding Children Abused through Domestic Violence: Draft Guidelines for Consultation. London Child Protection Committee. Appendix Two. Whilst specific to domestic violence, adapted versions of these questions could be applied to children living with other problems such as parental alcohol misuse.