A UK children’s charity says the need for a safety net to catch vulnerable children at risk of domestic abuse has increased since the pandemic hit, with school closures over Christmas expected to reduce access to essential services for at-risk children. Spurgeons Children’s Charity (Spurgeons) says that while many children are counting down to the Christmas holidays, many others will face unwelcome and prolonged exposure to the unsafe environment they’re supposed to call ‘home’.
Research by the NSPCC highlights that there were over 160,000 offences related to child physical abuse recorded in 2019/2020 across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Spurgeons’ see the effects of domestic violence first-hand through their children and family centres, prisoner family services, young carer, and domestic abuse work, and the charity’s counsellors see it in schools, throughout England.
The Interim CEO of Spurgeons Paul Ringer says,
We frequently see children suffering violence in silence. When they are referred to our services with a wide variety of behavioural issues, it can sometimes signal underlying issues such as domestic abuse. That’s why we employ a holistic approach to help the child, and wherever possible the parents or guardians, to make their home a safer and more nurturing space, sooner rather than later.
The classroom and school counselling rooms can often be a vulnerable child’s only place of safety. Counsellors working for Spurgeons school counselling services, Fegans*, see that the provision and continuity of that safe space make implementing key interventions more possible. These interventions could be the difference between a child remaining at-risk and them receiving the necessary help to improve their safety at home and subsequently, during school closures.
Ben’s story is a clear example of the importance of the support networks a child has access to through schools such as counsellors, teachers, and social workers.
At age 12, Ben was terrified of going home and hid in his bedroom to protect himself from abuse by avoiding the perpetrator. Weekends were worse and on Fridays, Ben walked around his South-East town until late at night, doing anything to avoid going home.
Nowhere felt safe for Ben and as he tried to cope with the abuse alone, he started getting into fights with other children. Ben was hurt, scared and angry; causing trouble at school was the only way he could ‘signal’ what was happening to him.
When Ben’s school closed because of lockdown, the violence at home escalated and he was trapped with the perpetrator. The seven hours a day at school, and any window of opportunity for him to tell someone, or for someone to ask what was going on, was now reduced to online classes at home, and the violence increased.
Noticing the drastic change in Ben’s behaviour, his school referred him to school counsellor Debbie, who works as part of Fegans school counselling services, now part of Spurgeons. She says, “I called Ben once a week throughout lockdown, but because he was talking from home he couldn’t make a disclosure. We built a relationship talking about his schoolwork and his online classes.”
When school finally reopened, Debbie met Ben in person, giving him a safe space to speak without being overheard.
Debbie recalls the meeting and says, “It was in our first session at school that he disclosed to me that an adult in his home was being violent to him. Ben described being grabbed by the shirt and thrown up against the wall. He said to me ‘I come to school and I am so angry, I take my anger out on other children, but that’s not who I am, I’m not that person.’ It’s so upsetting to even recall, it was so awful to think of what he was going through alone.”
The relationship Debbie was able to build with Ben gave him the courage to speak up about what was happening. She says, “I told Ben how concerned I was and that I would need to report it to school. I told him it wasn’t okay what was happening to him.”
In the days following, Debbie notified Ben’s school of his disclosure, Social Services visited Ben’s house and things began to change. Debbie says, “The perpetrator realised their behaviour was wrong. I saw Ben over the following weeks and things improved for him. Ben stopped getting into fights, the anger, and frustration he was feeling had stopped because the situation was being resolved.”
Ringer says, “Without the intervention of Debbie, Ben would most likely still be experiencing abuse and violence at home and getting into deeper trouble at school, which could have jeopardised his whole future. Many children facing domestic abuse turn to drugs, self-harm, and even suicide. There are many more children who are still unheard of. As a nation, we need to be more aware of these ‘hidden’ children and understand that bad behaviour is often a cry for help. The impact of the COVID pandemic on children and young people in the UK has been such a common feature of the headlines that it’s easy to forget that awareness does not guarantee action.
Children’s charities, together with the church and school partners, need to influence better decisions by government nationally and locally to provide the necessary support. We want to ensure children in the UK have a safe home life, a hopeful future, and can celebrate special moments like Christmas without fear.
To find out more about Spurgeon’s and how you can support them in their work with families and children struggling to cope this Christmas and beyond, go to, www.spurgeons.org
Written by: Hollyanne Boyce