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Participation with young people who have experienced abuse

Houghton[1] states that “perpetrators of domestic abuse give children no choice in making them participants in the situation of domestic abuse. Despite the best efforts of the non-abusing mother, children are aware of what is going on, are witness to and involved in domestic abuse and are often directly abused: within that situation children make complex decisions in order to survive, protect themselves and others, intervene, and where possible get on with their lives”.

Young people are social actors and experts in their own lives, however, all too often, the fact that they are defined as ‘witnesses’ who are ‘exposed to’ abuse prevents them from being treated as such. The governments’ safeguarding guidance ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’[2]states clearly that organisations should have “a culture of listening to children and taking account of their wishes and feelings, both in individual decisions and the development of services”, and yet this is regularly not the case as young people report feeling frustrated and dis-empowered.

Many young people want to be included in decisions made about their lives, and additionally want to help support others in similar situations and to influence those in positions of power. Meaningful participation and peer education work can empower young people to regain power and create opportunities for their voices to be heard, listened to and acted upon.

When working with vulnerable young people it is crucial that any form of participation does no further harm.

Houghton encourages services to bear in mind the three C’s:

  • Consent
  • Confidentiality
  • Child Protection

With true and safe participation methods aiming to achieve the three E’s:

  • Empowerment
  • Emancipation
  • Enjoyment

Young people who have experienced abuse may also still be in crisis which can affect how ready they are to engage with services, how easy it is to reach them, and may involve complicated or challenging behaviours linked to the trauma they have experienced.

The safety of the young person must always be paramount and there may be occasions where the worker has to override the wishes and involvement of young people if the work will put them at risk or re-traumatise them. This is a difficult conflict and highlights the importance of skilled workers assessing a young person’s safety and ability to be involved prior to the start of any work.

Despite this, many young people still in crisis do appreciate being part of a project that is not solely focused on risk minimisation but also offers them a chance to have their voices heard and empowers them[3].

Case study – Kirsty

“I have been involved with the AVA project from the beginning, I was looking for something to get involved with and it sounded like a good opportunity…I started off being part of the group and completed all the training with other Youth Educators…Over the last two years, I got more and more involved with the YWAVE research project; I led focus groups with young people and conducted service providers. I was nervous about doing this at first but the more I did I enjoyed it…I also planned and ran awareness raising sessions for young people around healthy relationships…I analysed all the research findings and worked with Mary, a research volunteer, to write the research report. I didn’t think I would get the opportunity to do a lot of the stuff that I have done, but I am really proud of what I have achieved!! Now I’m a volunteer at Chilypep and hope to go to University one day”

[1]Houghton, C. et al (2008) Literature Review: Better Outcomes for Children and Young People Experiencing Domestic Abuse – Directions for Good Practice. The Scottish Government.

[2]HM Government (2016) Working Together to Safeguard Children

[3]Pearce, J. J. with M. Williams and C. Galvin (2002) It’s somebody taking a part of you: a study of young women and sexual exploitation, London: NCB.