‘Significant increase’ in child-to-parent violence during lockdown

Seventy per cent of parents who have experienced child and adolescent-to-parent violence saw an increase in violent episodes during lockdown, according to a new report from researchers at the Universities of Manchester and Oxford.

According to 104 parents and nearly 50 social work practitioners, the ‘hidden problem’ of child and adolescent to parent violence (C/APV) has seen a significant increase in the lockdown: with more than two thirds of professionals saying they are aware of more episodes, as the support network around families disintegrated. 

Dr Caroline Miles, a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at The University of Manchester and Oxford Professor of Criminology Rachel Condry launched a study of lockdown among families experiencing violence from their children. Their report makes a series of recommendations aimed at tackling the issue. The criminologists say, ‘When the UK went into lockdown, we became concerned about families experiencing APV and designed a ‘fast’ piece of research.’

What they found was a situation in crisis. The number of child-on-parent violence episodes during the pandemic increased by: 

  • 70% in families; 
  • 69% of practitioners said they had seen an increase in referrals for families experiencing C/APV
  • 64% of practitioners said the severity or incidence of violence had increased 

Parents said lockdown pressures had made the problem worse: being confined at home with the young person one parent described a ‘cabin fever effect’ and another a ‘pressure cooker’ environment in an already volatile household.

In addition, there were changes in structure and routine, with the closure of schools and colleges and other services, and increased expectations about engaging remotely and home schooling along with fear and anxiety about the virus.

Meanwhile, there were few routes of escape with no informal support from families and friends and the retraction of services. One parent told the pair, ‘Everything is amplified, there’s no escape, and it’s not just the person being hurt who’s affected, it’s everyone that sees and hears it. The other children are traumatised by seeing us hurt.’ 

And, when many families needed more help than ever, services delivered support remotely, which takes longer and is much harder to do effectively. But, because of the pandemic, parents were reluctant to call for help.

One said, ‘I wouldn't want to call the police as the danger is far greater from the virus...he would be vulnerable in police cell…Before it was hard enough to call the police thinking of the usual consequences, but you could be potentially sentencing your child to death by reporting violence.’ 

It is important to bear in mind that many children who are violent towards their parents have safeguarding needs of their own – many, although not all, violent children have experienced trauma of some kind themselves, and/or have mental health problems, learning difficulties, or additional needs. These children are likely to have found the lockdown especially challenging and may have lost much of their external support network.
Dr Caroline Miles

Professor Condry adds, ‘Parents are often reluctant to report their child, fearing the consequences of criminalisation….and when they do seek help, it is often not forthcoming.’ 

But she says, ’Violence can be serious and sustained. Parents describe living in fear of their own child, often for years. It can range from criminal damage in the home and verbal abuse to some of the most serious forms. One mother told us her son ‘beat me so badly that if the police did not come when they did, I would not be alive’.’ 

Around one third of parents identified a decline in C/APV during the lockdown period. According to Professor Condry, this could be because of a reduction in the stresses and triggers for violence. But, both practitioners and parents who took part in the survey were very concerned that this group of families might experience more severe problems as the pressures of everyday life return. 

The academics sent Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to all 43 police forces across England and Wales, asking for their total numbers of reported C/APV incidents. Nineteen forces who responded showed that, in some forces, there had been no marked change or even a slight decline in reported incidents of C/APV, reflecting parents’ reluctance to contact the police during lockdown. But, in at least five forces, there was a marked increase in reported incidents.

Dr Miles highlights, ‘Reported incidents only reflect reporting tendencies rather than changes in behaviour and, as many parents explained, they were even more fearful of contacting the police during lockdown due to a fear of coronavirus, or not wanting to waste police resources. However, it is essential that parents feel confident in asking police when at crisis point, and that the criminal justice response is sensitive to the complex needs of families experiencing C/APV.’ 

Professor Condry says, ‘C/APV has tended to be a ‘hidden’ form of family violence, both by families who experience stigma and shame for the actions of their child, and because of a lack of recognition in government policy and service planning. It is often the ‘poor relation’ in family violence. However, a child using violence in the family presents an opportunity – an opportunity to intervene, and an opportunity to prevent the child from becoming an adult perpetrator.

‘Lockdown is that opportunity writ large with an increase in levels of violence and an increase in intensity and severity and families crying out for help. If that opportunity is missed the consequences for the future for that individual child, and all those the child interacts with across his or her life, will be all the more severe.’ 

In a series of recommendations, the report calls for increased planning and support from central government and local authorities, to prevent young people being criminalised and families being left to cope alone, if there is ever a return to lockdown.

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