Monday, 20 February 2017

Maybe He’s Caring: Responding to disabled women who experience domestic abuse

In this post Dr Jenna Breckenridge (Research Fellow, University of Edinburgh) explores the unique domestic abuse experiences of disabled women and discusses opportunities and challenges for improving the response to this important issue.

  • Disabled women are two times more likely to experience domestic abuse than non-disabled women.
  • A large study of domestic abuse prevalence across Europe (including 28 different countries) found that 50% of disabled women have experienced domestic abuse in their lifetime1.
  • Disabled women are four times more likely to experience sexual abuse2.
  • On average, disabled women experience abuse for up to 2 years longer than non-disabled women3.

This is a significant problem in which gender discrimination and the widespread oppression of disabled people, known as disablism, collide. Disablist attitudes portray disabled people as weak and dependent, meaning that perpetrators may perceive disabled women to be easier to control and overpower. Society often portrays disabled women as asexual, undesirable and undeserving of intimate relationships and, as a result, they are often disbelieved when they disclose domestic abuse. This is especially the case when the perpetrator of abuse is also the woman’s main carer.

A unique form of abuse

Although disabled women experience all forms of domestic abuse – sexual, psychological, physical and financial - they also experience a unique form of abuse that specifically targets their impairments. Women say this abuse makes them more disabled than they need to be. For example, women have described how their perpetrators remove batteries from power wheelchairs, refuse personal care, sabotage communication devices, deliberately cause injury to assistance animals or purposefully mismanage women’s medications.

Yet, despite experiencing more severe, more prolonged and more frequent abuse, disabled women are less likely to receive sufficient domestic abuse support from agencies across health, social care and the third sector.

How do we make support more accessible?

This might involve providing more accessible forms of communication, particularly for women with learning disabilities or sensory impairments, to ensure that women understand what help is available to them. Refuges need to consider how women’s basic care needs can be met – for example, assistance with mobility, activities of daily living, transportation - especially when her abusive partner has also been her main carer. Ultimately, however, different women, with different impairments, will have different support needs and it is important that domestic abuse services have a better understanding of the unique barriers facing disabled women and develop strategies for overcoming these. The crucial first step in achieving this is to listen to disabled women and work collaboratively with them to design domestic abuse support that is inclusive and accessible to all.


1. European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (2014) Violence against women: an EU-wide survey. Accessed at
2. Martin SL, Ray N, Sotres-Alvarez D, Kupper LL, Moracco KE, Dickens PA et al. (2006) Physical and sexual assault of women with disabilities. Violence Against Women, 12: 823-838.
3. Young ME, Nosek MA, Howland C, Chanpong G, Rintala DH (1997) Prevalence of abuse of women with physical disabilities. Archive of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 78: S34-S38.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Why is it so hard to be a schoolgirl mother/mother-to-be and continue in education?

Dr Beverley Ferguson’s research explores issues surrounding teenage parents and looks at what support systems would be required to enable teenagers to continue in education after their baby is born. Beverley’s research was conducted as part of her PhD at The University of Edinburgh and was partly funded by Falkirk Council.

Schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be are objects of public dismay for dropping out of education and not valuing or using it as a route out of their poverty and into a secure economic position.

Despite this, academic literature and government agendas/policies do not consider why schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be are more likely to drop out of education nor do they ask the question ‘Why is it so difficult to continue?’ Neither have schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be been asked to comment on their experiences and challenges of continuing in education or what support from health and education professionals might help them to do so.

Previous discourse considers schoolgirl pregnancies as causing or perpetuating the cycle of deprivation and involving a greater risk of poverty, unemployment and isolation[1]. The importance placed on education as the preferred route for all young people therefore focuses education policies on raising standards, ensuring effective learning and teaching, gaining qualifications and going on to a positive destination.

Although policies have been produced by the Scottish Government to address health, education and socio-economic inequalities, consideration is needed on the way these have been translated into local practice in relation to schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be. The experiences of schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be continuing in education, and the way these are shaped by the social organisation of schooling and interacting policies also needs further exploration.

The role and influence of professionals in supporting schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be is crucial and some academics have highlighted the need for further research on this[2]. A lack of knowledge of the experiences and challenges of schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be can unintentionally exacerbate difficulties in their situation especially in terms of their mental health. In comparison, an in-depth knowledge of young mothers’ experiences and challenges can begin to build relationships between them and professionals.

The world of forty-three schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be (aged 18 or under) is explored in my mixed methods, mixed sources study which was conducted in twenty-nine Scottish secondary schools or alternative provisions across eleven local authorities.

Some of the experiences reported by these schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be included good experiences of school prior to becoming pregnant; searching for a connection with school staff; distractions from education; stigmatisation of pregnancy and termination; variations in response and reactions from partners, school staff and professionals. The challenges encountered included: changes in friendships; decisions and pressures of remaining in education; morning sickness; school uniform pressures; physical challenges of school buildings, getting to school, negotiating corridors, stairs, desks and chairs; timetable changes; and the emotional struggle of leaving their baby with someone else.

Participants in this study did not express regret about having a baby but talked about how it had positively influenced and changed the direction of their life. Motherhood helped participants to take school and their education more seriously even though they had to overcome disruptions and difficulties on their journey. If becoming pregnant while still in education increases the desire for educational qualifications and employment opportunities, then this presents an opportunity to take advantage of it to raise attainment, improve training and employment opportunities, potentially reduce poverty and break the cycle of deprivation.

Schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be could have a more positive and engaging experience of education during pregnancy and after returning to education if a range of supports and provisions tailored to meet their individual needs is provided. Although schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be do not all have the same needs or require the same level of help, support and provisions need to be consistent across Scotland and should not be dependent on where a schoolgirl mother/mother-to-be lives.

Dr Beverley Ferguson’s journal article 'Coming out' as pregnant or having a baby while attending school: Experiences and challenges of Scottish schoolgirl mothers/mothers-to-be is published in the International Journal on School Disaffection (Volume 12, Number 2, December 2016) DOI:


[1] Macvarish, J. (2010), ‘The Effect of 'Risk-Thinking' on the Contemporary Construction of Teenage Motherhood’. Health, Risk & Society, 12(4), pp313-322.

[2] Macvarish, J. and Billings, J.R. (2007), ‘Teenage Mothers’ Experiences of Parenthood and Views of Family Support Services in Kent. Service Users Report, Postnatal’. Centre for Health Services Studies. University of Kent, Canterbury.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Relationship-based practice with families in need

Hazel G Whitters, Senior Early Years/Child Protection Coordinator in a Glasgow Voluntary Organisation reflects on her experiences working with asylum seeking families.

Jungle, asylum, war, removal, displacement, help… the daily descriptors that we are becoming used to reading in our newspapers or viewing on our televisions as we eat an evening meal.

Familiarity can breed complacency. A plan of responsive action and prioritising resources is easy to achieve from the perspective of our armchairs as we view the world through our screens. I have great respect for policy and decision-makers who examine, and respond to the current humanitarian crisis from a strategic perspective inter-mingled with personal stories of human atrocities and suffering. But at best the world is not yet ’Getting It Right for Every Child’.

It seems so much easier to be a practitioner. Traditionally, child care and education workers are used to embracing new ventures, stimulated by the challenges, sympathetic to the child’s needs regardless of the cause, and immune to the frenetic political communications. Play is our medium of interaction and care. Play is our therapy to heal the effect of adversities, and to promote achievement. Play is our world’s common language.

Government statistics tell us that in the UK 36,465 asylum applications were made in 2015-16. I always think it is useful and relevant to place statistics in a context of practice. The cause of human needs must influence the approach to intervention in current proactive response by services. Many years ago practitioners encouraged parents to forget childhood adversities and focus on the future - the premise being that out of sight = out of mind. Today, research (Whitters, 2015, 2016) has given us a greater understanding of human development, and the significant impact of historical influences upon our abilities to operate as successful individuals and effective contributors to society. A high level of human involvement in a learning environment can only be achieved if accompanied by emotional well-being. A plan which has goals, and a process to recognise success. Empowerment which is gained through decision-making for a life-plan is key for human beings to rehabilitate post-trauma.

The voluntary sector is well-placed to respond to these needs as service planning and delivery can incorporate responsive personalised care. A therapeutic approach to supporting the needs of people who are striving to create a different inner working model is essential: Healing of mind and body for people who are determined to forge a positive pathway through life, and who have decided to embrace the culture of another country as a source of support. Engaging with parents who are seeking asylum is straightforward in practice as language and cultural differences are certainly not barriers but provide focus for interaction. Our clumsy attempts to reproduce dialects prompt laughter and shared moments of partnership with parents.

Interactive guidance, in the form of supported play with parents and children, creates a learning environment for families which provides ample opportunity for the promotion of mental and physical good health for children and parents. Experience has shown me that human beings can identify positive aspects from childhood and adulthood. A young teenage mum, who spent time in the infamous jungle at Calais, told me of the community spirit which enabled her to walk tall and view the world with dignity. She talked about the creation of an athletic club in the camp which enabled her to demonstrate physical prowess, and to shine amidst the mud and misery. The resilience of human beings is legendary…

Politicians, strategic planners – good luck. Practitioners - continue what you do best - relationship-based practice with families in need – innovative intervention which helps us to learn and improve alongside families who are embracing life from a different perspective.


Hazel G Whitters has worked in child protection for over 30 years and was awarded her PhD from the University of Strathclyde in 2015. Her thesis 'Perceptions of the influences upon the parent-professional relationship in a context of early intervention and child protection' is available online from the British Library

Whitters, H. G., (2016) The Parent-Professional Relationship in Child Protection. A WithScotland Briefing. pdf:

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Sexual Abuse: A Crisis for Football?

Following her CRFR seminar series on childhood sexual abuse, CRFR Associate Researcher Dr Sarah Nelson reflects on the recent disclosures of abuse in football.

In the space of a mere three weeks, since several former professional footballers spoke publicly about their sexual abuse as young players, more than 850 people have called a special NSPCC helpline. More than 55 professional and amateur clubs have been linked to allegations; in excess of 20 police forces are investigating; and helplines receive more calls daily.

Does this mean that football is somehow more prone to childhood sexual abuse than other sports? The answer to that anxious, understandable question is likely to be “no”.

Football is played more widely than any other sport among 11-15 year old boys, and thus the sheer number vulnerable to abuse is bound to be greater. In addition, it is not a particular sport, a particular religion, profession, or group within society which is most likely to have perpetrators of child sexual abuse (CSA) within it. It is the way in which particular values and other factors come together, encouraging abuse to continue in that particular setting.

Especially with respect to abuse from outside the family – as in this case - they include:

  • The extent of power the adult has over children (in football, control over the boy in achieving his longed-for, dream career);
  • The importance of children’s obedience to adults (in children’s sports, the coach’s role; in many other settings, strongly patriarchal values towards women and children);
  • The extent to which parents and community trust, or defer to, the abusive adult (in children’s sports the selfless, helpful coach; with clergy, supposed men of God);
  • The social stigma and low credibility faced by some children and teenagers (only relevant to some children in this case, but very relevant to abuse in care and child sexual exploitation);
  • The culture of the particular setting, in silencing, dismissing and/or disbelieving victims (“macho” male values and bravado in football, rugby, boxing or snooker; in some ethnic and religious groups, the power of shame).
It may perhaps seem surprising that opportunity is not included above. However, the factors described create it in themselves. Also, abusers rarely need special or additional opportunity. They skilfully create opportunities out of little, even in “plain sight” of others - as the prolific abuser Jimmy Savile demonstrated.

Football coaches are not somehow more dangerous than people elsewhere. It is not that most coaches are abusers, but that youth football is one ideal setting to which the minority of abusers against boys will gravitate. This is precisely why no-one involved in coaching should take personal offence at the need for clubs and schools to be extremely vigilant about their recruitment and monitoring.

Nor should men involved in coaching the sport now protest that they are not trusted any more, that children or parents will think they are unsafe, and that they are put off volunteering at all. There can be a defensive self-indulgence about this, though it may sound harsh to say so. Adults working in professions where there have been scandals can be assured that children and young people sense when the ways in which adults talk, behave and touch are safe or unsafe. Survivors of sexual abuse will confirm this. If you are a safe person, and with no sexual interest in young people, they will sense it.

It is still very understandable that parents will feel more anxious than before. They can find at least considerable reassurance in the children’s safeguarding initiatives, in football and other sports, which are now in place. They can take an active interest in what these are, and how they might be improved, in their own children’s clubs.

One of the greatest of safeguards lies in parents telling their children repeatedly to let them know straight away if anyone makes them feel uncomfortable in a sexual way, and that they will not be angry with them, will not dismiss nor blame them -whoever that person is - even a family friend, relative or respected member of the community.

When parents say this, they need to mean it too. So they should talk through with each other, or with a support organisation, any understandable difficulties they would have in taking on board difficult information about somebody they trust.

Amongst the genuinely disturbing scale of current revelations about football there are some very encouraging aspects. In a “macho” sport notable for silencing any issues of sexuality which do not involve boasting about women, numerous men continue to come forward publicly with courage and strength, to talk openly and angrily about an abuse which still fills many men with deep shame and humiliation.

They have set a striking example to others who remain silenced. They have spurred on inquiries about past, unacknowledged crimes – and a greater alertness to current ones.

Sarah Nelson is author of Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical approaches to prevention, protection and support (Policy Press, 2016). Several chapters in this book describe research carried out at CRFR, including research with male survivors.

The Scottish Football Association urges anyone with any information relating to abuse or inappropriate behaviour – whether current or historic – to get in touch via the NSPCC’s helpline 0800 023 2642, or email

Monday, 5 December 2016

Expanding our ideas of childhood and children’s participation in decision making

CRFR co-director Professor Kay Tisdall asks, why do so many children and young people find it difficult to have their views given due consideration, in matters that affect them?

Children and young people’s participation is key principle embedded within the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child. The Convention was ratified in 1989 –twenty-seven years ago – and it is the most ratified of any international human right treaty (only the USA has not yet ratified it). We know of notable initiatives, at national and local levels. But children and young people’s participation rights are still not consistently respected.

I had the chance to publish two journal articles in the past month, on children and young people’s participation. In some ways they are very different. One deals with children’s participation in family law proceedings in Scotland. The second considers children’s participation in child protection, including international child protection in humanitarian settings. But both have similar conclusions: that we need to expand our ideas of childhood and children’s participation, beyond concerns about their vulnerability and requirements for autonomous agency, to change how we both perceive and organise decision-making that impacts on children and young people.

In the first article, Subjects with agency? Children’s participation in family law proceedings, I investigate current and recent trends in family law proceedings in Scotland. Children’s participation has been institutionalised in Scottish primary and secondary legislation, as well as procedures. But it is limited because children’s views tend to be accepted only if they are judged to be rational, autonomous and consistent. If their views are considered irrational, manipulated or distressed, their views are given less weight. This misses that children are likely to be emotional at times of parental separation and divorce, and that over lengthy court proceedings, their views may well change. Concerns about children’s vulnerability increasingly results in them being excluded from courts themselves. I conclude that courts and their decisions may be child-focused in Scotland, centring on children’s welfare, but they tend not to be child-inclusive, involving children in decision-making.

Are there alternative ways of perceiving children and young people’s participation, which could assist? My second article, Conceptualising children and young people’s participation, considered three popular concepts. These are:
  • ‘vulnerability’ (i.e. what would the world look like, if we recognised that all people were vulnerable?),
  • ‘social accountability’ (i.e. civic engagement to hold duty-bearers to account), and
  • ‘co-production’ (i.e. involving lay people in designing and delivering services or research).
All three seek transformative relationships between the State and service users, that are more emancipatory and address power. Would one of these provide a very promising alternative?

By the end of my exploration, I find that vulnerability and social accountability have their contribution but still place children and childhood as especially vulnerable and then fail to adequately question adult power. Co-production, both on paper and when looking at recent local and international practices, has potential. It is co-production’s (re)claiming of children and young people’s expertise and knowledge that distinguishes itself from vulnerability and social accountability and makes it promising as a way to perceive and promote participation.

We know children and young people can influence decisions that affect them. There are many examples where practice and structures have improved, and initiatives have been developed. But we need to break through the familiar list of challenges, to find meaningful, effective and sustainable ways to recognise children and young people’s rights to participate.


Tisdall, E.K.M. (2016) ‘Conceptualising children and young people’s participation: examining vulnerability, social accountability and co-production’ International Journal of Human Rights 10.1080/13642987.2016.1248125

Tisdall, E.K.M. (2016) ‘Subjects with agency? Children’s participation in family law proceedings’, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Lawn, 38(4): 362-379. 10.1080/09649069.2016.1239345

Further information

For further information about CRFR’s programme of work on children and young people’s participation, see our partnership with Young Edinburgh Action and our support for the IMPACT project.

Professor Kay Tisdall and Dr Susan Elsley deliver a two-day continuing professional development course Developing innovative research with children and young people. The course is an opportunity for researchers and others working with children and young people to explore the latest methods and debates in childhood and youth research. Further information can be found on the CRFR website

Monday, 21 November 2016

Understanding the wellbeing of international migrants

CRFR associate director Philomena de Lima introduces her new book International Migration: the wellbeing of migrants, in which she provides a contemporary understanding of migrants and migration processes and trends with a particular focus on issues related to the wellbeing of migrants and their access to services.

Migration appears to provide a dumping ground for all that is perceived to be going wrong with society at present. It has been a focus for articulating the concerns of sections of the electorate aided by specific political interests across Europe against a background of welfare reform, poor access to services, unemployment and anxieties about national identity. This trend was reflected in the UK Brexit referendum results in June 2016, the growth of ‘far right parties’ and xenophobic discourses about migrants in the European Union (EU) and ‘contracting out’ of EU border control to ‘third countries’ such as Turkey. These external border control practices are matched by internal bordering practices; migrants’ rights to access to public services such as health, housing and education are being restricted or withdrawn and regulations regarding immigration and granting asylum are being tightened. This increases the risk of negative impacts on the physical, social, emotional and psychological, cultural and economic wellbeing of migrants.

The international migration landscape is complex and diverse, with some migrants being more welcome than others. The book provides a contemporary understanding of the complexities of international migration focusing on the potential factors impacting on the well-being of migrants throughout the migration journey.

Why focus on international migrants and their wellbeing? The wellbeing of international migrants has tended to be neglected or marginalised in public discourses and in research. The main tendency has been to promote largely ‘instrumental’ views of international migrants from the perspective of host countries. Attention is given to the economic contributions of migrants to host societies and much policy and scholarly attention is spent on how to facilitate the adaptation of migrants (‘integration’) to host societies. That migrants are human beings with similar hopes and aspirations as those of host society populations is lost amid the noise of dehumanising metaphors and emotions of being overwhelmed, which are generated in public discourses. Migrants are members of households, they are parents, children, workers, colleagues and reducing them to their migrant status not only is reductionist, but also conceals their shared interests, emotions, experiences, and concerns with host populations.

Despite the challenges and amid the hysteria about ‘floods of migrants’ arriving at European borders there are also the efforts of concerned citizens and communities supporting migrants, as well as migrants actively involved in self-organising, protesting and demanding a right to speak for themselves.

Migrant wellbeing in the book is understood as a relational process that is created and recreated throughout the migration journey – from pre-arrival to destination and all that occurs in between – and is embedded in social, economic, political and cultural processes. It requires approaches that transcend disciplinary and national boundaries and transverses policy domains.

The book provides an informative overview of international migration issues and debates for social science students, policy-makers and those wrestling on a practical level with the implications of migration.

International Migration: the wellbeing of migrants is published by Dunedin Academic Press and is available to purchase on their website.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Silencing and disclosure in child sexual abuse

Ahead of her two seminar series on Childhood Sexual Abuse, CRFR Associate Researcher Dr Sarah Nelson writes for us about silencing and disclosure.

There is a great disparity between cases of child sexual abuse (CSA) which are known to the authorities, and its prevalence in society.

For instance, a major report (Children’s Commissioner, 2015) estimated that only one in eight sexually abused children is identified. A meta-analysis of more than 200 international studies of prevalence across 28 years, with 10 million participants, revealed self-reported prevalence figures (18.0% of women, 7.6% of men) which were 30 times higher than prevalence rates reported by authorities (Stoltenborgh et al, 2011). In my own study with abused young people (Nelson, 2008), they gave me fourteen reasons why they had stayed silent in their childhood and teens. These included:

  • fear
  • violence and intimidation
  • shame
  • embarrassment and humiliation, especially with their peers
  • mixed loyalties towards their abuser
  • self-blame and guilt
  • worry about the effect on their non-abusing parent(s)
  • uncertainty about what would happen
  • fear of being in trouble
  • a conviction that they would not be believed

Additionally, in boys there is often a pervasive fear of being thought gay, or somehow unmasculine.

In my book Tackling Child Sexual Abuse (Nelson, 2016), I also chart in detail a worrying and continuing decline in identified cases of CSA by child protection authorities throughout Britain, despite the high publicity for the subject. A considerable fall in CSA registrations and child protection plans has coexisted with considerable growth in those for emotional abuse and neglect. That suggests not genuine declines in CSA, but changed priorities in policy and practice.

For all these reasons, it is important that we renew efforts to find child-centred ways of enabling sexually abused young people to tell what is happening to them. While the new emphasis on, and national strategy towards, child sexual exploitation is very welcome, a failure to address the earlier CSA which makes so many children and teenagers vulnerable to CSE means that such exploitation can never be fully addressed.

In my CRFR seminar this week (Wednesday 16 November) I outline some thought-provoking research findings by Rosaleen MacElvaney and colleagues on disclosure and non-disclosure of sexual abuse among young people. They identify first an active withholding of the secret, which gives some sense of control in an unsafe world. Secondly there is the pressure- cooker effect created by wanting to tell, yet simultaneously not wanting to.

That means the secret is often blurted out without either prior planning or support. Thirdly, there is confiding: few children tell the people they’re meant to tell (teachers, police, social workers and so on). If they tell, it is usually to a friend or to their mother, neither of whom has a support system of their own.

Thus, say McElvaney and colleagues, “in supporting children to tell, the need for the secret to be contained and controlled must be respected”.

That doesn’t mean - nor should it mean - that we can offer them complete confidentiality. It can mean slowing down the process to the child’s pace, offering them more choice and control, creating genuinely child-centred environments, and switching the emphasis from relying so heavily on children’s testimony to a perpetrator-focused strategy.

In my presentation this week I give examples, among others, of Scotland’s innovative “Stop to Listen” (formerly Confidential Space) project being pioneered by four local authorities; of the successful Barnahus children’s houses from Scandinavia, now being actively explored by the Scottish government; of possible statutory sector alliances with confidential children’s services; and of imaginative perpetrator-focused strategies. These include both successful ones from the past which were closed down, and inspiring examples of perpetrator-focused models, which have been used in the fight against child sexual exploitation.

McElvaney, R., Greene, S. and Hogan, D. (2012) ‘Containing the secret of child sexual abuse’, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 27(6): 1155–75.

McElvaney, R. (2013) ‘Disclosure of Child Sexual Abuse: Delays, Nondisclosure and Partial Disclosure. What the Research Tells Us and Implications for Practice’, Child Abuse Review, DOI: 0.1002/car.2280

Nelson, S. (ed) (2008) See us – Hear us! Schools working with sexually abused young people, Dundee: Violence is Preventable, 18 and Under, www.

Nelson, S. (2016) Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical approaches to Prevention, Protection and Support, Bristol: Policy Press.

Stoltenborgh, M., van Ijzendoorn, M., Euser, E. and BakermansKranenburg, M. (2011) ‘A Global Perspective on Child Sexual Abuse: Meta-Analysis of Prevalence Around the World’, Child Maltreatment, 16(2): 79–101.

Children’s Commissioner (2015) Protecting children from harm: A critical assessment of child sexual abuse in the family network in England and priorities for action, London: Children’s Commissioner for England.