When home isn't a safe place for children

(Photo: Unsplash/Markus Spiske)

Violence against children in the home tragically rose after the start of the pandemic, with kids often locked down in their home with the family. 

The lockdowns were designed to protect them from Covid. But for vulnerable children, it meant they were locked up with their abusers. 

Ian Soars, of Spurgeon's Children's Charity, speaks to Christian Today about why home isn't always a safe place and what the Church can do to turn this around for more children.

CT: There have been at least two high profile cases of abuse against children with Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson. When you see cases like this in the news, do you think more could have been done to stop them from happening?

Ian: However many cases like these we see in the media, it's always heartbreaking. For practitioners in children's services it is especially real because we have all encountered cases of serious abuse. So for us, it's not a face in a newspaper or a number, it's something we have experienced in our line of work and it hurts to see that these precious children did not get the support they so desperately needed.

The Children's Commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, said in response to what happened to Arthur Labinjo-Hughes that "...when we are talking about a child's life, no failure rate is acceptable". This is something that we at Spurgeons take to heart. More must be done to support children like Arthur and Star Hobson and the Commissioner is dedicated to ensuring that the findings from the review of these cases are implemented locally and consistently.

In these situations, it's easy to criticise the statutory services. However, it's also easy to forget the many children that are helped as a result of the intervention of social services — those that don't make headlines and are supported when many are at breaking point. As a charity we work alongside social workers and many of them are working incredibly hard with limited budgets and few people. In 2011, 65,520 children were taken into care in England and that increased to 80,850 in 2021, a 23% rise. Funding to support these services has plummeted in that time.

At Spurgeons, what drives our work with the statutory services is not who we can blame, but how we can serve. A lot of this abuse could be avoided through early-intervention and ensuring the right support structures are in place within local social services.

We know that working together with social services and community partners can provide the vital help required by children made vulnerable due to their home circumstances.

Ben's story is a clear example of the importance of the support networks a child has access to through school such as counsellors, teachers and social workers. At age 12, Ben faced violence at home, and he started to get into fights with other children. Noticing the drastic change in Ben's behaviour, his school referred him to one of our school counsellors just before lockdown began. Debbie, our counsellor was there for him during those long months of lockdown, but it was only when he returned to school that he felt safe enough to tell the counsellor what had been happening.

Debbie made it clear to Ben that the abuse he was suffering was not okay and she reported it to the school, who alerted social services. Things began to change after the social worker visited Ben's house and helped the perpetrator understand that their behaviour was wrong. From then on, things began to change for the better for Ben.

As a Church we also need to work alongside the government to help solve these issues. We understand that this has been a difficult and overwhelming time for many in the Church so it's understandable that some may say, 'well, that's the government's job; what's that got to do with me?' But that's what the priest said on the Jericho road in the Parable of the Good Samaritan - 'that's not my problem, someone else should deal with this, I'll walk on past.'

My hope is that when we see these faces in the news, we won't ask who we can blame but we will instead ask ourselves: what can we do? When we begin to answer that question, we will hopefully start to see this kind of abuse being picked up and stopped earlier.

These situations don't happen in a day. It's often been a process of months and sometimes even years and all it takes is one person saying: wait, what is going on here? How can I support mum, dad or baby? What charity or partner can we work with to equip us in these situations and help us raise the alarm bells if needed?

CT: Domestic child abuse rose sharply after the start of the pandemic. Why is that?

Ian: The genesis of this kind of abuse is always that somebody is struggling to cope, and the key to tackling it is early intervention. Before Covid, that used to happen through GPs and schools. Teachers especially would notice something that doesn't look right. There are all sorts of signs, like a child not being clean, or eating too much at lunch, or trying to steal food because they're not being fed at home, or marks on their body or a significant change in behaviour, perhaps going from being outgoing to being withdrawn or vice versa.

The vast majority of referrals to children's services come from schools. When you shut the school, that abuse is no longer being picked up at an early stage. That's when you see abuse escalate and this is what we saw during the lockdowns.

This meant that when the children returned to school after lockdown ended, the schools were overwhelmed by the impact of what we call "hidden harm". There was a whole load of harm going on at home that no one saw. When those children and young people came back to school, the child that the teacher had known before as bright and outgoing suddenly wasn't anymore.

No one is really talking about this in the media, but the emotional toll of this on teachers has been catastrophic and that's why there's very little appetite at the moment for schools to be shut down again. It's because of the tsunami of hurt that will happen if the schools are closed. We may prevent the spread of Covid, but we'll see a bigger spread of struggling families.

CT: When children are in lockdown and living in an abusive home environment, how difficult is it for a child to speak up once the school is not there? How difficult is it for the child to tell a trusted adult what's actually happening to them?

Ian: If you look at the age of the children impacted in the most recent headline cases, one was a baby and the other was a young child. Children this young are not on social media, so it's possible that the only contact they would have had is with family members and maybe some other relatives visiting the home. During lockdown, a lot of children just didn't see other people outside of the family until they were back at school.

The thing with anyone who goes through abuse is that they normalise it and think it's their fault. If that's true of adults, how much more so for children. Sometimes they just don't know any different, which is heartbreaking in itself, and so they don't recognise that there's even a problem and that what's happening to them is wrong.

So a) they might not recognise there's a problem, b) even if they did, they might blame themselves for it and c) they've then got to have the capacity to go and find a trusted adult to report it to.

All of that was taken away in lockdown and even as we came out of the lockdown, the state struggled to meet the demand for support that was being highlighted by teachers and GPs.

We know from the example of Ben's experience in lockdown that he did not feel able to tell our counsellor about the abuse because the perpetrator was there with him and it was not until he went back to school that he felt able to speak up.

CT: Figures for 2019/2020 show that there were 160,000 offences. Can anything be done to bring that number down? 

Ian: That's a very big question but the reason why I do this job is because I believe it's possible to bring that number down. So, can it be done? Yes. But what is required is a different question.

From the Christian perspective, what really needs to happen is a reformation in terms of how the Church views its role in the community. If this is left to statutory services or specialist agencies like Spurgeons, there just aren't enough charities in the country to meet this need.

But there is one player on the pitch that is in every town, in every deprived community, within a stone's throw of every struggling family, which has resources and people, and it's the Christian Church.

There was a time not so long ago when people who were hungry or in need of an education could go to the church, when the church was in the centre of the community. It was the Church that established thousands of parish schools and those schools still stand today.

It was an incredible achievement and it's that kind of 18th century reformer mindset that we need to begin to step into again as a Church, rediscovering our purpose to be at the centre and the heart of our communities.

CT: Lots of local authorities themselves are under pressure with limited budgets. How can the Church support our local authorities in this area?

Ian: The government strategy is to create family hubs, which are essentially children's centres and Spurgeons runs a lot of those. But it also means galvanising communities to look after themselves.

Churches can run parent and toddler groups and make sure they are well resourced, so that instead of just seeing them as a way of entertaining some people, it becomes about putting an arm around some of these families that are in need of a bit of extra support.

There are so many excellent Christian parenting resources out there, many of them free, including from Fegans services at Spurgeons. So churches could reach out to us and simply learn more about how to support parents in their community. You don't have to put people on a course, just put an arm around them and steer them in the right direction.

Or build a relationship with the local school to read books with children, because more often than not, the kids at school who want people to read with them are the most vulnerable children because they don't have anyone to read with them at home. And so through that, churches can become trusted partners.

You might not think you're doing anything glamorous but it's the type of support that many schools and local authorities would be grateful for.

CT: Might some churches feel reluctant to do this kind of work?

Ian: One pastor told me his church had pulled back from this work because he felt they were getting out of their depth with some really vulnerable cases.

It's true that there can be all kinds of needs in our communities - self-harming teenagers, mums suffering at the hands of their partners. A church may have 100 families, 90 of whom don't really need any specialist support but then have 10 that do and so because of the 10, they pull back from engaging with their communities.

But Spurgeons is ready to come alongside churches to support them in this so that they won't feel pressure to pull back, but will instead keep up with this work.

It's about giving the Church the confidence to get on the front foot and go and engage with their communities and we hope this is where the Church will increasingly shift its attention to.

Many church leaders are excited about this but there are others who say, well, if we're not evangelising, then we're not doing the greatest good. But in answer to that, I point again to the parable of the Good Samaritan as told by Jesus. It doesn't say that the Samaritan took the injured man to church, it just talks about how he blessed him and took care of him. We have to do what we're commanded to do and that is love our neighbour. And my goodness, they need loving.