Domestic violence is a cause of social exclusion and isolation. Individuals experiencing domestic violence are notoriously reluctant to come forward. Often it is not until the children begin to show the effects of the abuse, or from fear of their becoming physically hurt, that the parent experiencing domestic violence discloses the problem and seeks help. By this time the parent and child may find it difficult to talk about the issue. Children may have a sense of loyalty to the abusive parent and anger towards the non-abusive one, who ’allowed’ the abuse to happen.
Domestic violence has a severe, negative impact upon children and young people; witnessing the abuse denies them a safe and secure home life. Children can be affected directly or indirectly. It is known that 50% of children who witness domestic violence are also abused by the perpetrator and even those who are supposedly asleep when the abuse takes place report waking or lying awake in fear. The longer term effects are still being researched but it is known that experiencing domestic violence affects a child’s global development on many levels. Many children have cognitive delay, experience difficulties with peer or adult relationships and go on to develop anti-social behaviour, such as substance misuse, self-harm and violent behaviour.
All research to date points to the provision of greater opportunities for participation as the surest route out of social exclusion. Taking part in creative projects also enhances participants’ lives, through development of friendships, involvement in the community and enjoyment, with subsequent benefits to general health and happiness, including an increased sense of wellbeing and reduced stress levels. These benefits translate into wider social impact by building the confidence of isolated people, promoting contact with others and contributing to social cohesion.
The development of the partnership
For a long time the agencies working with the survivors of domestic violence in Islington have recognised the need for survivors and their children to talk about their experiences more. Workers in the field felt that a creative toolkit, to use when meeting families, could help break down the barriers created by fear, confusion and a sense of disloyalty, help facilitate disclosure, improve communication within families and build confidence between families and members of the team. They therefore approached Islington based arts charity All Change for help in developing a tool kit and formed a steering group of stakeholders to develop the idea further.
The original Let’s Talk steering group included members from the following organisations:
Islington Children’s Services
Islington Children’s Centres
Solace Women’s Aid
Islington Primary Care Trust
Aswell as a domestic violence survivor
Between Winter 2005/06 and Winter 2006/07 the steering group met regularly to clarify the aims and objectives of the project and explore fundraising opportunities. It was decided that the overall aim of the project should be to develop methods of working with those affected by domestic violence that could be disseminated widely and used by other teams to facilitate their work and benefit families. This idea developed into a tool kit to facilitate clearer, easier communication between families and social workers and family support workers and a creative workshop programme to improve communication between children and their non-abusive parent to support and strengthen the family relationship.
In Spring 2006 funding from the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund enabled workers from the partner organisations to come together with All Change artists for a series of meetings and seminars. The aim of these seminars was to develop the artists’ understanding of the problems faced by the families experiencing domestic violence and the role of the social workers and family support workers in supporting families as well as to learn about good practice in working with families.
Funding was successfully raised from Comic Relief enabling the two part pilot programme to begin in Spring 2007.
Developing the Tool kit
One of the aims of the pilot project was to develop a creative tool kit for social workers and family support workers to use when assessing new families and in subsequent support work. It was recognised that the tool kit needed to be low cost, easily portable, quick to learn and easy to use.
All Change artists Carl Stevenson and Siobhan O’Neill, social workers and family support workers and families who had been through the assessment process worked together to devise and develop the tool kit. The families contributed by participating in activities during a 4 week after school workshop programme, which took place in one of the borough’s new Children’s Centres.
Using the findings from these workshops and their additional research, the artists developed their ideas into a prototype tool kit containing a series of large activity sheets and guidelines on their use. The tool kit was refined with further input from the workers and families before workers from Islington Children’s Services and Family Action were invited to field test the prototype. Following a training session with the artists 20 social workers and family support workers used the tool kit with families as part of their day to day work and completed evaluation questionnaires with the results. Using this feedback, the artists finalised the tool kit and it was distributed to teams at Family Action and Islington Children’s Services for use as a part of their assessment practice. Workers also received training and guidance in the use of the tool kit.
The tool kit is designed to be used by workers and parents to enable children to express and explore their feelings and experiences and to facilitate communication, enabling children and non-abusing parents to express what is happening to them.
The tool kit has now been further developed into a handy-sized book available for practitioners to order online, allowing the toolkit to reach a much wider group of professionals working with vulnerable families.
Developing the workshop programme
A creative workshop programme was also developed with the aim of improving communications and strengthening the relationship between non-abusing parents and their children.
The workshops were held after school on a weekly basis for 10 weeks during the autumn term 2007 at Hungerford Children’s Centre. To support the families to attend transport was organised, refreshments were provided and a crèche was arranged for babies and younger children. The families, who had all experienced domestic violence in the past and now moved forward with their lives, were identified and referred by workers.
Each workshop session was run by the two artists, who devised a series of fun and creative arts activities with which the parents and children could engage. For some of the workshops the families worked together, while some were targeted specifically at older children in the 11-13 age range. The young people then shared their work with the rest of their family. There was also a social worker or family support worker at each session to provide emotional support for parents and children, should the creative process evoke unhappy memories for them. The activities were designed to enable the participants to work together and communicate in different ways using different art forms – drama, animation, storytelling, creative writing and visual arts. At the conclusion of the workshop programme, the work created was shown at a special celebration and sharing event for the families and workers.
In 2009 Let’s Talk secured funding from City Bridge Trust to roll out the workshop programme over the next 2.5 years, offering families with children aged 5-11 the chance to participate in one of 6 8-week workshop programmes designed to strengthen relationships and communication within the family.
The continuing programme
Following the pilot project the Let’s Talk partnership secured funding from City Bridge Trust for continued delivery of the workshop programme until 2011 and the dissemination of the findings from the project through this website and an accompanying launch event in January 2013.
The workshop programme has been identified as a valuable resource for aiding communication within families in general, and in particular vulnerable families and those with multiple needs as well as those with experience of domestic violence There is potential for the programme to be adapted for a wider application within family support work outside of the field of domestic violence.
Let’s Talk provides an example of innovative practice in the field of domestic violence support work, and it is hoped that the findings from the project and the tools themselves will have a wider impact now that the project is complete.