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Victims Commissioner’s review into the link between children’s experience of domestic abuse and criminality

Sowing the Seeds: Children’s experience of domestic abuse and criminality

This review examines the overlap between children’s experiences of domestic abuse and children’s offending behaviour and explores the options for early intervention.


It is estimated that around 3 million children under the age of 17 live in a household where an adult has ever experienced domestic abuse (The Children’s Commissioner, Estimating the prevalence of the toxic trio, 2018).

The Victims Commissioner’s review found evidence that living in a household with domestic abuse could have the following consequences for young people:

  1. A negative effect on the child’s emotional and psychological wellbeing including difficulties controlling emotions and increased anxiety.
  2. An impact on the child’s ability to form and sustain relationships. Alternatively, it could cause the child to develop harmful relationships or lead the child to use violence in their own relationships.
  3. It could lead to the child becoming disruptive at school resulting in school exclusions, making the child more vulnerable to criminal exploitation and offending.
  4. An increased likelihood of risky and harmful behaviour as the child looks to spend more time outside the household.
  5. Housing and accommodation issues for the child with difficulties accessing refuge places.

The review also found that children are often considered witnesses rather than victims of domestic abuse. Evidence suggests a lack of support services directly tailored to young people: the thresholds for children’s social service interventions were considered high and there is a perceived lack of early intervention and long term support for young people experiencing domestic abuse.

The evidence collected suggests a strong link between domestic abuse and offending and a movement to recognise this connection. However, a direct causal relationship cannot be proven because of the many different types of experience and circumstances. Research found that children experiencing domestic violence may normalise violence, making them more likely to become violent in their own relationships. It also found that children with difficulties at home may seek alternative familial relationships elsewhere, with the potential to lead to childhood sexual abuse, gang affiliation and offending behaviour.

The review went on to consider the current support for victims of childhood criminal exploitation and those involved in youth violence. It found that a lack of any statutory definition for Childhood Criminal Exploitation has led to a non-uniform approach. The National Referral Mechanism was found to have varying success and doubts were raised over whether it is appropriate for certain children. In general, it was found that there is a need for a wider societal approach to problems of childhood exploitation and youth violence.

The report made the following recommendations:

  1. Children and young people must be recognised as victims of domestic abuse in their own right. This would allow targeted interventions and support tailored to young people.


  1. Education should play a greater role in identifying and supporting domestic abuse victims and schools must be equipped with the appropriate resources to do so.


  1. A better understanding and more support for peer-on-peer and intimate partner violence.


  1. The overlap between victims of domestic abuse and offending behaviour needs to be addressed.


  1. There is need for an on-going review of the criminal justice responses to the criminal exploitation of young people and for a uniform approach in assessing the vulnerability of children.


The review is significant in evidencing ­­­a link between young people’s abuse and later offending, which supports the approach of helping young people who are victims of domestic abuse rather than criminalising them. It is notable that the review found a growing body of evidence that is recognising and exploring this connection. The review is particularly timely in light of the recent Covid-19 pandemic, amidst concerns that domestic violence is on the rise due to the government’s intervention measures.

Whilst the report’s recommendations, if achieved, would undoubtedly benefit young victims of domestic abuse, a lot of work is needed to put these into practice. For example, the move towards recognising children as victims of domestic abuse in their own right requires statutory changes and a considerable shift in approach. The Domestic Abuse Bill which is currently being passed through Parliament continues to define victims of domestic abuse as 16 or over. Children’s charities are calling for the proposed definition to be amended to recognise children under 16.

Similarly, the adoption of a uniform approach towards child criminal exploitation and violence, will require a statutory definition of Childhood Criminal Exploitation and greater clarity over what the approach should be.