Learning from domestic abuse survivors

NSPCC evaluator Emma Smith reflects on her experiences and challenges interviewing domestic abuse survivors

From hearing disturbing descriptions of abuse to encouraging children to open up, I have learned so much through the experience of interviewing domestic abuse survivors.

Every experience has informed the way I approach my work now - and the way I’ll work in the future

First interview with domestic abuse survivors

I will never forget my first interview with a survivor of domestic abuse.

Although many interviews have been equally harrowing, I couldn’t get over the almost detached manner in which she described “the first time” her ex-husband tried to kill her.

I had asked a fairly innocuous question about how she had heard of the DART (Domestic Abuse Recovering Together) service I was evaluating. She responded by describing the incident, which involved her husband attacking her with a kitchen knife in front of her youngest child.

This led to her involvement with police and social services and later, when she had left her husband, being referred to DART to support her recovery.

The nature of domestic abuse

It was the first of several interviews where I heard shocking stories about women being abused by former partners.

I heard from women who had been attacked with hammers, throttled, beaten and knocked unconscious. Sometimes the abuse occurred on an almost daily basis. The women’s children had often witnessed the attacks, or been present in the home when these horrific incidents had occurred.

I also heard about more subtle forms of abuse; one man had prevented his wife from learning English so she was forced to rely on him to communicate with the outside world.

These experiences had a profound effect on the women, but their strength and resilience inspired me: they had managed to leave these dire situations and take positive steps towards a brighter future.

Domestic abuse

Witnessing domestic abuse is child abuse, and teenagers can suffer domestic abuse in their relationships. 
Read more about domestic abuse

The impact of domestic abuse on children

As well as supporting the women’s recovery, Domestic Abuse Recovering Together (DART) aims to help mothers understand how their child was affected by domestic abuse and how it might relate to their behaviour.

They are also given strategies to help their children deal with difficult feelings and anxieties.

The impact on children who have witnessed abuse ranges from extreme anxiety and withdrawal to aggressive behaviour, emulating their fathers. Mothers acknowledged that before attending DART, they had completely underestimated how their children had been affected by what had happened.

Some mothers said that having a fuller understanding of how the abuse had impacted their child convinced them not to resume a relationship with the perpetrator.

Interviewing children affected by domestic abuse

Interviewing the children created different challenges.

Unlike the majority of mothers, who were very open, the children were more guarded.

Although interviews were focused on the families’ experience of the DART programme, women spontaneously spoke about their abuse. In contrast, the children referred only to “the bad things that happened” and their body language and tone made it clear that I was not to probe.

I never risked upsetting the children, but gained a basic insight into how the abuse had affected them.

Advice for interviewing domestic abuse survivors

Provide post interview support

We conducted the interviews at NSPCC service centres where trained and skilled practitioners were on hand to provide support. When mothers had become very emotional, or disclosed further domestic abuse, this post-interview support was invaluable.

Take time to build rapport

Building rapport before interviews was particularly important when interviewing children; it helped them to relax a bit if they were nervous. I’d ask them about a football shirt they were wearing, or an event happening soon, such as school holidays. Other warm-up techniques, such as playing a simple game, may also help. 

De-brief with a colleague

Interviews can affect you as a researcher. I’m fairly experienced in this field but found some interviews hard-hitting and it was difficult to get certain images out of my mind. Debriefing with my line manager or another colleague is something I should have done more often and will do in the future.

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