In July we reported that over 2 million children in England are living in families with complex needs, a figure based on aggregate levels of need for 70 vulnerable groups. Many of the children within these groups face multiple vulnerabilities, risks and needs. Whilst the data helps us estimate the number of vulnerable children in England, it isn’t able to provide insights on the lived experience of these children.
There are evident gaps across the 70 groups in our vulnerability framework where the voices of children are not being heard and in seeking to address this and shed light on specific groups, we sought to explore the impact on children of living in households with domestic abuse, parental substance misuse and mental health. Using data from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2014, we estimated that there are 100,000 children living in households where an adult faces all three of these issues to a severe extent, with 420,000 children living with a parent facing all three issues to a moderate/severe extent.
However, do we know what day to day life is like for these children? The answer is no, with most insights given by practitioners and family often on behalf of the child. We wanted to hear directly from children and give them the opportunity to talk about their experiences of living in these households. We spoke to children being supported by three projects (based in London, Doncaster and Hertfordshire), all set up to support children and families living in households with mental health, parental substance misuse and domestic abuse. Their views are presented in our report ‘Are they shouting because of me?’
Children spoke openly about the problems at home and the impact it had on their day to day life. For many the issues experienced at home were so frequent that it became normality and it was only as they became older and went to friends’ houses that they realised how different their home life was.
“It’s not like it ever hit me hard that I had a problem with it because I was born around it, it was quite normal. But I guess as I got older I started to understand that it wasn’t normal, because I think my mum knew that this place wasn’t safe so I’d go to friends’ houses a lot, I – and I think that’s when I started to know it wasn’t normal when I saw other peoples’ houses, how their parents were, what their home looked like”
They often took on the carer role, both for their parents and siblings.
“I don’t want them [siblings] to go through anything that I have been through because like I mean if you were to see through everything that I have been through, it’s been tough, and I wouldn’t wish that on any child at all – so I wouldn’t want them to go through or feel like how I’ve been feeling so I just try to shield them and protect them from this happening to them as much as I can – but there’s only so much that I can do.”
Inevitably living in these households impacted on their schooling, with many speaking about missing school or being unable to get homework done as well as day to day life, with many rarely going out and having fun with friends or family.
Children often felt anxious, scared, depressed and ashamed, with many believing that the problems at home were their fault. As a result, there was considerable apprehension about speaking to anyone and seeking support – often fuelled by threats from home that if they told anyone they would be taken into care.
“Don’t be telling anyone…whatever happens in the house stays in the house.” – 11 year old girl.
“Towards the end you just get so numb…You’re just, it’s like you accept it. I learnt to accept it, if this is going to be my life then there’s no point in me complaining about it if I can’t do anything about it. ” – 14 year old girl.
Many were in contact with social services or had been present when police or ambulance services had been called out in response to an incident. The lack of support provided at these times had created a mistrust in services, whilst some questioned and felt angry at why offers of support had not been accepted or sought by parents.
“I wish my mum had gotten help earlier. She knew that she needed help, she knew that we were in trouble and it’s just the fact that she didn’t speak to anyone about, she didn’t go to social services or anything.”
Despite the problems at home and the impact it had on them, children were also very clear about their love and trust they had in their parents. For some this helped them to minimise the risk being placed on them by living in these households.
Our work has only begun to shine a light on the many issues children face living in these households. We know from the data that significant numbers of children are living with domestic abuse, parental substance misuse and mental health issues. We must continue to ensure that their voices are heard and used to inform the development of effective strategies to support children and families living in these households.