‘This isn’t my child! He’s taking drugs, he’s aggressive, he’s scaring my other children; I don’t know what to do’. These were the words spoken to a safeguarding professional recently, when a parent, at their wits’ end, had finally taken the step of seeking help for the abusive behaviour perpetrated by their adolescent son towards his mother.
‘So what’s this got to do with the police?’ you ask. Police officers every day – from response officers, to public protection teams, and tragically sometimes homicide detectives and teams – are dealing with cases where children have abused and frequently attacked their parents. This is not ‘yet another’ new category of domestic abuse for the police to cope with, in these austere times. It is already there, placing complex demands on officers every day of every week. Parent abuse perpetrators are frequently already known to the police and involved in the criminal justice system for wider anti-social behaviour, substance misuse and violent or acquisitive crime. Indeed, research has suggested that some intimate partner violence (IPV) perpetrators have been known to commit similar abuse against parents, when they were younger (McCloskey & Lichter, 2003, cited by, Ibabe & Jaureguizar 2010).
Some statistics for you: research has suggested that up to 14% of all families suffer this abuse (Cottrell & Monk 2004), and it may be as prevalent as domestic abuse. My own research identified 75% of multi-agency support caseworkers in one Greater Manchester borough dealt with families suffering such abuse. Further research has suggested that a significant amount of ‘troubled families’ suffering domestic abuse, perhaps as much as 80%, are affected by this abuse.
So what is parent abuse? Also called child-against-parent violence, this abuse is perpetrated by children (mostly boys), against parents (mostly mothers). Single parents are particularly at risk, however there is wide debate suggesting all social and demographic groups are affected (in a similar vein to domestic abuse). There is no definition ‘set in stone’ but many recognise it as physical, emotional, psychological, and financial abuse perpetrated against parents by their children. Abuse against parents can span many age groups, but tackling adolescent perpetrators potentially presents the best opportunity to prevent future offending such as IPV. Parent abuse is a category of domestic abuse, but is far more complex to deal with than the likes of IPV. Parent abuse presents complex dilemmas for police officers, particularly as many parents do not realise that they are victims of abuse, suggesting a real need to highlight this problem to communities.
Why is this so complex for the police? Many Social Services teams are ‘geared up’ to protecting the child and keeping the family together. Many parents have complained of the pressure from agencies to ‘take responsibility’ for their child. Yet this is not easy to do when the child is physically bigger and stronger than the parent and has behavioural or mental health problems, or is an habitual drug user. When parents cannot take any more and they ring the police, yet officers are frequently faced with the situation where parents will not provide statements for fear of losing their children, and criminalising them. This in itself presents significant frustrations for responding officers. Where can officers take perpetrators? IPV-based options are not, it would seem, an option. As one Public Protection Officer stated: ‘you can’t divorce your child can you?’
The safeguarding response: The current parent abuse ‘landscape’ has been described how IPV was 30 years ago. Victims are loathe to report incidents and the extent of the problem is unknown. Responding agencies are unsure how to respond. There are no policies in place to respond to parent abuse. These issues leave few options for responding police officers. Parent abuse incidents are recorded under many categories, and it is therefore difficult to fully understand the problem and its impact on policing. When cases do reach Police Public Protection teams, specialist safeguarding officers face further dilemmas, not knowing where or how to refer families on to other agencies, because there are very few programmes in place with the knowledge or structures to support families. Specialist police officers find ways to respond to families, but many cases are dealt with differently, creating inefficiencies and duplication of effort across agencies, at a time when ‘value for money’ and effective responding is essential.
The criminal justice response: When parents do pursue prosecutions, research suggests the courts often, inadvertently, hold the victim responsible for the offending against them by issuing fines to their ‘children’ which the parent then pays. Parenting Orders have also been regarded as a difficult issue to face, when issued against parents, who have reported abuse from their children (Holt & Retford 2013). Not surprisingly, parent-victims are loathe to report such abuse, fearful of sanctions, and being blamed as ‘bad parents’. Sadly, many parents have criticised police officers for the responses to ‘calls for help’, having been told to ‘get their children in order’.
So what can the police do about this? At a time of shrinking resources, higher public expectations and increasing demands on policing, particularly with increased demands towards the safeguarding of vulnerable people, the police stand to gain most by working with other agencies and the third sector. Looking towards responses for ‘troubled families’ there are many excellent collaboration opportunities to learn from, which deliver intensive support to those families most at risk in communities and/or place the greatest demand on agencies. Raising awareness of parent abuse with police officers and their multi-agency colleagues is essential if they are to be able to identify the problem. To deliver support to families and ease the demand on stretched ‘first responding’ police resources, the development of multi-agency policies will be essential,. Ultimately, the police ‘mission’ of reducing crime and increasing public confidence in policing can only be boosted by developing greater collaborative ventures to tackle all kinds of domestic abuse. By working with social services, youth justice, health, schools and many other agencies, the police can influence debate and thus seek to protect some of the most vulnerable in society, whilst reducing demand on officers and staff.
Detective Chief Inspector Simon Retford, Greater Manchester Police. Email: Simon.Retford@gmp.pnn.police.uk