'I needed to fix myself for my kids': breaking the cycle of domestic abuse

When Jess* was 11 weeks pregnant, she got into an argument with her boyfriend, Robbie*, who lashed out and hit her. Jess had suffered a previous miscarriage and was terrified of losing another baby.

“I couldn’t go through it again,” says Jess. “The idea of losing another baby because of a decision taken by Robbie was really traumatic for me.”

She decided to go for a check up at her local hospital and while there, confided in a healthcare professional about the abuse she had suffered. “I asked for help to make Robbie see sense that what he was doing was wrong,” she says.

The case was referred to children’s services and the couple agreed to undertake the For Baby’s Sake programme, which works with families during pregnancy to break the cycle of domestic abuse and give babies a good start in life.

The charity says one in five children in the UK experience domestic abuse. It can have a devastating impact on the rest of their lives. Babies who experience it are more likely to develop mental health and substance abuse problems, to struggle at school, and to be in an abusive relationship later in life.

Robbie and Jess’s daughter is healthy and happy; Robbie has a job and hasn’t taken drugs for months (he’s had tests for work); the couple are in a steady relationship; and there has been no domestic abuse since. “I was being an idiot before,” Robbie says. “Having a daughter who relies on me means I can’t keep doing things I used to do. I will make sure her childhood is different to mine growing up around drugs and abuse.”

Lockdown could have been a stressful time; the pair were thrown together with a new baby but both enjoyed the experience. Says Jess: “Robbie’s worked so hard on himself as a person and a parent. Now, arguments are rare and if we do have one, he takes himself away, which he never did before”.

Starting in Hertfordshire and London in 2015, the programme has since expanded to Cambridgeshire and Blackpool. All four projects are funded through close partnerships with local government and other charities. To take part, both parents must want to be involved in bringing up their child and the mother must give consent.

It works by teaming each parent up with a practitioner, often a professional who has worked in areas like probation or children’s services, who takes them through weekly hour-long sessions that last until the baby is two years old. Topics include examining past trauma and abuse, building self-esteem and parenting skills. Safeguarding is a top priority and there are regular meetings with other public services professionals working with the family.

Many of the participants have had complicated lives, with high rates of mental illness and adverse childhood experiences, such as domestic abuse and addictions in the family. A recent evaluation by King’s College London found that only a third of families had any social care input at the two-year stage, compared with 70% when they joined the programme. And most tend to stick with it; only 10% of the families who joined in 2019/20 have dropped out. Although many co-parents joined in a relationship, about 70% chose to not stay together by the end of the programme.

The most recent project started in January in Blackpool, where team manager and qualified child protection social worker Jed Docherty believes it is much needed. “Blackpool has a large population of people with complex needs in terms of physical and mental health, employment, poverty, intergenerational cycles of abuse,” he says. The town is the most deprived area in England and 63% of children in need in Blackpool had domestic violence as a factor, compared to 50% nationally.

Docherty also welcomes the project’s focus on including men and on co-parenting. Having worked with children and families for 28 years, he had always been bothered by the absence of men in this area. If dads were in meetings, they didn’t think anyone was interested in what they had to say. “For a long time, services have treated the symptoms and not the causes,” he says. “For Baby’s Sake was a different way of including men and influencing their thoughts and behaviour.”

The project has already yielded results. One family expecting a child was referred to the team just after it started. The mother had already had three children removed by social services and didn’t want to go through the pain of losing her fourth. “ I needed to fix myself for my kids,” she says. “This was my last chance.”

After the birth, the mother and baby were placed in a family assessment unit where the father was not allowed to visit. Two practitioners worked with the mum and dad separately. Just before lockdown was imposed, the family moved in together after the risk of abuse, which had been an issue along with a history of heroin abuse, had diminished.

After a nervous start, both the mother and father have stuck with For Baby’s Sake. Their baby son is still with them, and they also now have virtual contact with their other children.

“Things have changed loads,” says the father. “I’ve been drug free for ages; I’m a different person.” He grew up around domestic violence and was put into care, which he admits has had an impact on his adult life, years of which were spent in prison. He doesn’t want the same for his son. “I want him to grow up in a stable home,” he says. “I want to remain drug free and work on my behaviour and work through them [sic] issues.”

*names have been changed


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