Recommendations for caring for children living in “toxic households”

achieving effective and efficient long standing outcomes for affected children requires an intentional positive multi-agency approach


Today Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, published a report revealing that about 50 000 thousand children under five are at “very high risk of severe harm” because of living in households where there is the existence of the “toxic trio”, Domestic Violence & Abuse (DVA), substance misuse and severe mental ill-health.

8 300 are babies under the age of one, and 18 500 are on child protection plans – indicating that more than 30 000 are living in “extremely high-risk households” with no official local authority plan in place to promote their safety. Overall more than two million children in England are growing up within families where there are grave risks.

The comprehensive figures prompted renewed calls for the Government to inject funding into social services to ensure appropriate action can be taken when needed. This is amidst fears that well-known and shocking cases of young children dying through abuse and neglect are “the tip of the iceberg”. More …


  • For thorough multi-agency assessments to be facilitated for affected children and their parents, in order to ascertain the nature, context, and degree of the toxic trio. It is worth recognising that some non-abusive parents endure mental health disorders and substance misuse due to the impact of DVA; and also that the affected children too will acquire emotional and psychological disorders due to the complexities of this bitter reality. The assessments need to investigate the actual causes and impact of each of the three issues to the different members of the family, to inform the appropriate inter-agency approach.
  • For non-abusive parents to be empowered to care for their children with relevant support where required. It is important to recognise that the solution is not always about removing the affected children from the toxic households, but for the perpetrator to be removed or cause for the toxicity to be addressed, and for the non-abusive parent to be empowered to apply positive parenting. Removal of children from their parents also has enduring consequences like lack of attachment which brings manifold challenges in later life. Ensuring children live in a safe environment with positive parenting enables them to thrive in their multi-dimensional growth and development. The safety and empowerment of the non-abusive parent is the most effective method of safeguarding children.
  • For the responsibility and impact of DVA to be placed entirely on the perpetrator, and for interventions for protecting and defending non-abusive parents and their children to recognise this reality as well as effectively address the untoward challenges from perpetrators – even at post-separation. Wide ranging research including Finding The Cost Of Freedom, demonstrates that many women are intimidated, made vulnerable & dis-empowered by systems, to the point that they fear to seek help even in desperate circumstances – yet they need help the most. In Plain Sight Report by CAADA, it is recognised that DVA towards a mother is often connected to the DVA towards her children in 91% of the cases; and that the impact on children begins in pregnancy. It is also reported that 62% of children exposed to DVA are directly harmed; 46%  of them severely harmed; 52% suffer behavioural problems, 39% – difficulties in school, 60% felt responsible for DVA, and only 54% were known by Social Services.
  • Where there are no alternative options for children to remain with biological parents, they ought to be placed into the care of willing family members or safe statutory provision as soon as possible, providing sufficient support and therapeutic interventions for the impact of parental separation. Among other reports, Picking Up The Pieces shows that children do not only experience short lasting impact, but serious long-term multi-dimensional social, spiritual, health & developmental damage, with some turning into perpetrators or victims in their own adult hood. In such a case – as in others cases – it is critical for children to be offered interventions that help them recover from experienced harm, and protected from existing and potential harm.

where there are no alternatives, children ought to be placed in care of willing family members or safe statutory provision as soon as possible

  • For affected children and non-abusive parents to be educated on impact of the toxic trio to then in the short and long term; and to be informed on the options available for them to begin and complete a supported journey to recovery. Lack of  knowledge on the part of survivors keeps them mystified about their challenges. Obtaining education induces positive emotional virtues, that also inspire rebuilding of fundamental relationships that could have been lost due to DVA and or the toxic trio. Strengthening the Mother–Child Relationship Report shows that reducing difficulties experienced by affected children, increasing self-esteem in mothers and children; and promoting the mothers’ confidence in their parenting skills strengthened mother-child relationships and improved outcomes for both mothers and their children.
  • If DVA is the cause of mental health disorders in the non-abusive adults or affected children, specialised services ought to be involved, and to also address other potential emotional and psychological damages caused, like behavioural problems. A similar approach will be required if there were pre or co-morbid mental health disorders, but the precipitating factor must be understood first so that the appropriate treatment, as far as is possible is offered, considering associated risk indicators. Substance misuse services, as well as other agencies that meet the family’s other identified complex needs, need to be involved to improve outcomes for the affected children.
  • Generally a thorough co-ordinated multi-agency approach is fundamental. In this climate of funding cuts, inter-dependence can be one of the best mechanisms available to meet the demands of addressing the toxic trio, instead of disjointed approaches as is commonly reported. This is not a common practitioner model, but it is recommended that proactive joint work, that builds on the strengths of non-abusive parents and protective actions they need to survive DVA, strengthens mother–child relationship. Practitioners are recommended to work from a positive view that recognises the attempts of non-abusive parents to fend for themselves and their children instead of giving them excessive criticism. This will reduce the manifold struggles they face – even at post-separation; and motivates them to focus on rebuilding their lives away from the environment of fear.
  • There is need for ‘progressive leadership for child centred services’. Ideally, this type of service leaders would be inspired to effect generational change that transforms the lives affected children, and hopefully also reduce the period lived in an abusive environment. Additionally, they could be role models for the appropriate interventions, as well as mentoring colleagues who need support in promoting transformative practices. They would be key in deliberately changing the “status quo” – children in need of this await to see a change in the system. Achieving effective and efficient long standing outcomes for affected children requires an intentional positive multi-agency approach.
  • For bold and authoritative interventions for perpetrators to be applied – even for those who are found in positions of power, as they tend to have multiple victims. Perpetrators are the key agents of DVA, and are entirely accountable for all their behaviours. 93.5% of them are men;.and their manipulative behaviours cause wide ranging impacts for adults and child survivors. It is worth noting that perpetrators do not only groom and exercise control over their victims and survivors, but the people and professionals around them as well. Hence if their victim is a child, they may control their partner at the sometime. Due to such behaviours, it may take time for the victim and individuals outside the family to recognise that DVA is occurring. Understanding the role of power and control is crucial to recognising the potential danger of expecting victims and survivors to avoid receiving more abusive behaviour by being more “obedient”, “tolerant”, and “cooperative”.
  • For professionals like GPs and judges in family court proceedings, as well as faith communities to be trained on DVA. Far too often front line practitioners and faith communities are not adequately prepared to tackle DVA and its untoward consequences. Suitable training would shift long held professional mechanisms and belief systems that have worsened the lived experiences of survivors. Serious case reviews repeatedly indicate limitations and failures of professionals and other agencies, and education will equip and empower them to be more effective in their responses.

Also see:

Multi-agency mandate for tackling domestic abuse

Children’s Commissioner: 50,000 babies and toddlers living in ‘toxic trio’ households of domestic violence, substance abuse and mental ill-health

Over two million children in England are growing up in families where there are serious risks

“Are they shouting because of me?”

© Kudakwashe Nyakudya 2018. All Rights Reserved.

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Kahrmel Wellness

We coach survivors of Domestic Violence & Abuse (DVA) to reach their full potential, & completely prosper in it. We also train faith communities & professionals on how to effectively tackle all forms of DVA that exist in faith communities. Our founder survived 10 yrs of DVA, & became wonderfully restored as she was determined to rebuild her life. Midlands, England ·