Voice of the Child Conference 2020
This year, the annual FJYPB Voice of the Child Conference (VOTC) is a series of webinars exploring the theme of Domestic Abuse.
Session one: Covid-19 and Domestic Abuse: The impact on children and young people
Here are some highlights from the first Voice of the Child webinar.
Monday 26 October 10am to 12pm
An FJYPB member led an interactive session to find out how people felt during the Covid-19 lockdown. Some said they felt isolated, trapped and frustrated. Not being able to see family, friends and colleagues was very strange and made them feel lonely. Attendees were then asked to imagine how they might feel if they were experiencing domestic abuse in their home during lockdown, to which a few people suggested they would feel terrified and powerless.
A message from Vicky Ford MP was shared. She emphasised that children should be regarded as victims of domestic abuse.
One FJYPB member shared his personal story of domestic abuse and described a stressful five-year process to be adopted by his grandparents, during which he explained “nobody talked to me”. He then spoke of his five years of abuse at the hands of his grandfather, emphasising that “families will go to great lengths to hide the abuse” and encouraging professionals to use unplanned visits as part of their approach. After five years he moved into foster care, which he said gave him opportunities for education and to take part in activities he enjoyed, like competing in sports.
Another member shared tips for professionals to minimise the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on children and young people:
- Learn to read signs: children are not always able to express themselves verbally due to fear.
- Understand: build trust with the child or young person, use actions to show you understand, and don’t force them to say anything they are not ready to.
- Check-in: on a regular basis using a method that suits that young person or child.
Professionals shared their experiences of working with children and young people during Covid-19. One person suggested that Zoom sessions organised by a teacher were a valuable way to create a safe space for children, and that body language should be looked at to make sure a child is comfortable when communicating remotely.
FJYPB members led a role play scenario of young people experiencing domestic abuse during Covid-19. Attendees discussed how the young people could find help and support, especially faced with a controlling parent who was monitoring their online activity. It was agreed that most of the help found online was for adults, not children and young people, and often help was only available if the child or young person was known to a professional.
At the end of the webinar some of the attendees provided feedback. Many were concerned about the difficulty young people would have in finding help online and an FJYPB board member noted that not all children know the phrase ‘domestic abuse’ to describe what they are experiencing. One member elaborated, suggesting “there are very few resources available for children and young people at school – there is nothing on the curriculum.”
An FJYPB member made closing comments, noting that it is very important for professionals not to make assumptions based on factors such as race and gender, saying “don’t presume anything, every case is different”.
The FJYPB members thanked everyone for attending their first virtual Voice of the Child conference.
Session two: Domestic Abuse: The effects and impact on children and young people
Here are some highlights from the second Voice of the Child webinar.
Wednesday 28 October 2pm-4pm
An FJYPB member led an interactive session to find out what participants thought were the short- and longer-term effects on young people experiencing or witnessing domestic abuse. Talking of their experience with domestic abuse, one FJYPB member said: “I couldn’t find myself anywhere, I couldn’t focus on anything” while another member said: ‘I have a lack of trust in people due to this experience.”
One FJYPB member shared her personal story of domestic abuse in which she witnessed violence against her mother and went through a lengthy court process centred on parental alienation. After suffering anxiety attacks and nightmares triggered by contact, she urged professionals: “don’t presume anything – every case, every child, every parent is different. Treat every child as if it were your first case.”
The FJYPB host shared tips for professionals to minimise the impact of domestic abuse on children and young people, including:
- Use empathy
- Put yourself in their shoes
- Learn to read signs: children are not always aware that they are in a domestic abuse situation
- Understand and listen carefully
- Do not judge
- Do not take sides or make assumptions
- Make sure what you ascertain is what the young person meant
An FJYPB member added: “Listen to what I say and what I don’t say.”
Professionals shared their experiences of working with children and young people affected by domestic abuse and there was a consensus that long term support services could be improved. In response to the role play scenario that followed, professionals suggested that direct contact with a judge would give a voice to a young person that is hesitant to have new contact. When asked what advice professionals would give to young people suffering domestic abuse, they said: “it’s not your fault.”
A district judge joined this discussion and suggested that “quotes and letters are often the most powerful thing in a court’s decision-making and can often help to make the parents’ thinking more child-focussed.”
At the end of the webinar the FJYPB host highlighted that all the webinar participants voted to say that there is not enough support for children and young people affected by domestic abuse. Another member then noted that “children should be treated as equals in cases of domestic abuse.”
The FJYPB members thanked everyone for attending their second virtual Voice of the Child conference event.
Session three: Domestic Abuse: The family court’s responsibilities for children and young people
Here are some highlights from the third Voice of the Child webinar.
Friday 30 October 10am-12pm
The third Voice of the Child webinar started with an interactive session to explore participants’ perceptions of domestic abuse. For example, which parent is perceived as the more likely perpetrator and which services and professionals are most likely to be involved with young people experiencing domestic abuse.
The FJYPB host gave an overview of the board’s role in advising a range of organisations, and talked through the board’s suggestion that, within the Expert Panel’s report on harm, more consideration should be given to:
- The impact of psychological and emotional abuse and harm to a child or young person. Every experience is unique for each child and young person.
- An increased focus on the ongoing impacts on children and young people following family court proceedings concluding.
- The implementation plan is only centred for half a page within the report. The FJYPB would like to have seen this expanded on.
FJYPB member Katie then shared her personal story of domestic abuse in which she described proceedings which lasted four years, as she and her sister wanted different things. The length of time she stressed “was of little importance because the decision of that final hearing impacts for a lifetime.” She encouraged family court professionals to “question everything” and, crucially to “find out about the child’s lived experience.”
Recommendations from board members to professionals, based on their experiences of family court proceedings, were then shared, with one member suggesting “check-ins on young people after court ordered arrangements should be made at regular intervals.” Another member said professionals should “recognise that a child may have a different view to contact than a parent who has suffered domestic abuse.”
Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division sent a video message to the VOTC conference in which he described how the family courts had adapted to the demands of the current pandemic and thanked the FJYPB – describing the insight and contributions of members as ‘invaluable’ in the ongoing improvement of the Family Justice system.
Alex Chalk MP, Parliamentary Secretary of State for the Ministry of Justice then presented by video – thanking the FJYPB for its input to the Integrated Domestic Abuse Court pilot and assuring that an emphasis would be placed on the voice of the child in improvements being made to the family courts in England and Wales.
Jacky Tiotto, Chief Executive of Cafcass also provided a video message to the webinar, outlining the remit of the newly formed Cafcass Learning and Improvement Board.
FJYPB member Molly then shared her story of supervised contact with an abusive father in which she was force fed, intimidated and ultimately hid in her room for a 24-hour period before going back to her mother’s house. She likened the experience to “living out of a suitcase and walking on eggshells.”
Molly then appealed to professionals to find time to review arrangements, saying “what I have never understood is how a supervised contact order can be given with a deadline. Surely it is there as protection. How does protecting children from abuse have a cut-off point? Supervised contact should only stop with changed behaviour, and the behaviour didn’t change.”
In conclusion, the FJYPB host made closing comments noting that professionals need to think carefully about recommendations to court, as the effects can be long term. There is also a need for a review of policies and practices to ensure that family court professionals are in a position to offer long-term support to those at risk of domestic abuse.
The FJYPB members thanked everyone for attending their third virtual Voice of the Child conference.