Schools play an important role in revealing violence in the home

The government wants to define forcing children to witness intimate partner violence as a crime. A new book published by LiU researchers Ann-Marie Markström and Ann-Charlotte Münger discusses the responsibility of preschools and schools when children experience violence in the home. The authors point to serious deficiencies in the way schools act.

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“Preschools and schools are incredibly important arenas to discover violence. This is where children spend their time. Even so, knowledge about how the personnel in preschools, schools and after-school clubs should act is very poor”, says Ann-Charlotte Münger, docent and senior lecturer at Barnafrid, Linköping University.

Courage to act comes easier

The most common form of family violence is men’s violence against women. The children often become involved and are forced to see, hear or experience it in various ways. Government figures show that more than 200,000 children in Sweden live in homes in which some form of violence takes place. The proposed new crime – violation of a child’s integrity – will introduce criminal punishment for causing a child to witness violence in the home.
The two researchers hope that if the proposed bill becomes law, it will make it easier for the people around a child to dare to report a suspicion of crime.

A form of child abuse

Their book Lyssna, reagera och agera (“Listen, react and act”) was published in 2020. Its intended audience is personnel in preschools, schools and after-school clubs, and it discusses how they should act when they discover or suspect that a child is being compelled to witness violence in the home. The book describes the difficulties involved in such work.
“It may be easier to act when the personnel see physical injuries, such as bruises. But if there are no such injuries, and instead a suspicion that a child is being forced to experience violence, it becomes more difficult to act. The focus of the book is exactly this – children who witness violence. In itself, this is a form of child abuse”, says Ann-Marie Markström, associate professor in the Department of Behavioural Sciences and Learning.

Children must be asked

While working with the book, the two researchers collected focus groups of personnel working in preschools, schools and the social services. The participants shared their experiences and described difficulties in how they approach these questions. Employees at preschools and schools have a duty to report to the social services if they have the slightest suspicion of violence against children: it is, however, not always as clear-cut how they should react to a suspicion that a child witnesses violence at home.
“It is a big step – submitting a report of concern. Sometimes you only have a vague feeling that something is not right at home. It’s more difficult when there’s nothing concrete to go on. And it can be difficult to pose a direct question to a child, even though what the child needs is exactly this – a question from an independent, sensitive adult”, says Ann-Charlotte Münger.
“All families argue – it’s completely normal – which means it can be difficult to determine whether a boundary has been crossed. The person making the report may feel uncomfortable, and fear harming their relationship to the parents”, she continues.
The personnel sometimes can also be afraid, either of threats from the parents, or of being left without support from the organisation.
“We emphasise in the book that everyone who works in preschools and schools has an individual responsibility to make a report of concern. We make it clear, however, that it is important that an individual employee must never be required to stand alone with the report. This must be an issue taken up by the institution”, says Ann-Charlotte Münger.

More training is needed

Teacher education should be much better at training students in matters that concern violence in the home and how to see the signs that something is wrong, the authors point out.
Frequent absence from school, for example, can be a signal that something is wrong. But it can also be very diffuse symptoms that are difficult to interpret, such as stomach aches or frequent headaches.
“Study programmes that lead to careers in the care services and social services now have a requirement that knowledge of intimate partner violence be included as a learning outcome. This is not the case for teacher education, even though personnel in preschools and schools meet all the children”, says Ann-Marie Markström.

Increased violence during the pandemic

The two researchers suspect that the corona pandemic has made the situation worse for many children. A recently published report from Bris (Children’s Rights in Society) highlights international studies showing that violence against children increased during the pandemic. There are signs that this happened also in Sweden: calls to Bris following physical and mental violence increased significantly in 2020. Further, a study by the National Board of Health and Welfare in Sweden has shown that reports of concern to the social services about children faring badly have increased by 5% during the pandemic.
“The pandemic brings with it extra stress factors for many families. And violence is found in all social groups. It’s important to remember this”, says Ann-Marie Markström.

Translated by George Farrants

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