Thousands of children across our region are suffering from the effects of domestic violence.
They are as much victims of domestic violence as their mothers and in Sunderland are witness to more than half of all attacks.

They are the children for whom the shouting, the aggression, the cries, the tears and the recriminations become so much a part of their everyday life that the psychological effects may take years to overcome or indeed show themselves.

In 2009, of the 6,209 incidents of domestic abuse that were reported to police in the Sunderland area, 3,209 involved children – that is to say they were in the house when the attack took place. That equates to 52 per cent.

To many, they are the forgotten victims of domestic violence.

Fortunately they are not forgotten by the city's authorities who work long and hard to ensure our children are not left in harm's way, whether it be physically or emotionally.

Abbi Adair, principal social worker with the city council's children's services department, sees first-hand the effect domestic violence has on children in the city and for the past eight years has worked tirelessly to ensure those youngsters who do come under the department's radar are given the best possible help.

"We have to remember as social workers that it's not just a case file, it's a child and we are aware the decisions we make can have a profound effect," says Abbi.

There are a lot of case files and a lot of children the department has to look out for and with resources stretched to the limit, it's a fine line Abbi and her colleagues tread between success and failure.

"We take about 1,000 to 1,300 referrals a month and a high level of those relate to domestic violence, the majority of which come through the police.

"My team's job is to make the decision as to whether it needs and assessment or a child protection investigation. It very much depends on the severity of the situation.

"Sometimes it's about contacting the family to see if they need some extra support or they are wanting to flee a domestic violence situation and get refuge support through Wearside Women In Need.

"It's a very difficult situation because you know the perpetrator may still be in the family home. If we have a contact telephone number we would try to speak to the woman and ask appropriate questions like if the partner was still in the home or if she's able to talk. As to when we get involved depends on the history of the family.

"Sometimes it's a situation that appears critical and has been ongoing for a number of years but we've recently found out about it."

That final sentence from Abbi often rings very true. Families tend to keep domestic violence between themselves and don't seek help until it is absolutely necessary.

One of the reasons, says Abbi, is that parents often have no idea how what is happening between them affects their children.

"What the family feels is domestic violence can indicate whether the parents have the capacity to understand how children are affected by it.

"We try to educate families that this behaviour is not acceptable and help them understand what message this is giving the child.

"We recently had a referral from a school about violence between two 15-year-olds in a relationship and I think to myself 'what's gone on in the boy's life for him to behave that way'."

There is a great reluctance, also, for families to get the various agencies involved for fear that the children are going to be taken away. As Abbi explains, that is usually the last resort.

The recent tragic case of Baby P, the little boy who was persistently abused and finally killed by his mother's partner, highlighted a series of failures by the various agencies involved. It also highlights the everyday decisions that have to be made and the consequences those decisions bring.

Substance misuse, whether it be drugs or alcohol, plays a large part in incidents of domestic violence, something that was highlighted by the Baby P case.

"As a social worker, when you're weighing up those risks, there's a huge level of responsibility and a lot of pressure on us to make the right decision and at the end of the day we can often only go on what the family tells us.

"Families where there is a long history of domestic violence are very good at hiding it so they are very reluctant to come forward because they is still a massive stigma attached to us that as Children's Services our main role is to remove children.

"You have to have a lot of evidence to have the grounds to remove a child from the home.

"What we're looking for is co-operation from the family as to why we're concerned. What we'd always be asking for initially is for the perpetrator to leave the home rather than the children.

"You do sometimes get into a situation where the mother refuses for that to happen because she's scared of the repercussions so then what we would try to do is get her permission for the child to stay with someone in the family.

"We definitely have to have a lot of evidence for the grounds to go ahead which causes a lot of stress for the social worker because we work an awful lot on gut instinct but you have to have physical evidence."

"In the worst case scenario resulting in a child being removed from the home because of a significant threat, then significant changes would have to have taken place before Children's Services would even consider returning the child to the family home.

"In the case of Baby P the amount of criticism social workers got was immense but you have to sit back and think 'who actually killed that child?' It wasn't the social worker.

"We rarely get the chance to talk about a positive case, one where we have been able to keep a family together, where the family have done some fantastic changes in their thinking and have done some fantastic work as has the social worker, but you don't often get the opportunity to talk about that."

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