Safeguarding: Spotting the signs of domestic abuse

Written by: Elizabeth Rose | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Sadly, some children returning to school after Christmas will have been victims of domestic abuse. Elizabeth Rose considers what this could look like, the signs and symptoms staff might see and practical ways to respond

Domestic abuse is a complex issue and violence against women and girls particularly continues to be an endemic problem. We are living in a society where two women are killed by a partner or former partner every week in England and Wales (ONS, 2019) and almost one in three women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime.

Although these statistics highlight the dangers to women, it is important to recognise that men can also be the victims of domestic abuse and it can and does take place within same-sex relationships too.

When schools are involved, it means that there are also child victims of domestic abuse and sourcing the appropriate support and responding sensitively at the right time can be challenging.

The Christmas break can lead to increased incidents of domestic abuse and while we need to be vigilant at all times, it can be useful at this time of year to refresh staff understanding of the signs that might indicate that children are living with domestic abuse.

In this article, I will discuss what this could look like, the signs and symptoms staff might see and some practical ways you can respond to this issue in school.

The risks to children

There is a clear link between domestic abuse and harm to children. Of the serious case reviews considered in the Department for Education’s most recent “triennial analysis” (Brandon et al, 2020), 59 per cent showed that domestic abuse was present in families where children have been seriously harmed or have died; SafeLives reports that 62 per cent of children in households where domestic violence is happening are also directly harmed (2015).

It is essential that we respond if we think a child is living in a home where domestic abuse is happening and to do so we need to know the possible impacts and the signs and symptoms. Children witnessing domestic abuse can exhibit signs that might indicate what is happening to them, including:

  • Changes in behaviour, becoming withdrawn, challenging or aggressive, for example.
  • Health issues, such as insomnia, nightmares or bed-wetting; the child may also complain of health issues.
  • Mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression.
  • The child may start to self-harm or misuse substances.
  • The child may be nervous or flinch when approached.
  • Developmental delays, acting as though they are younger than their chronological age.
  • Tiredness.
  • Missing episodes or truancy.
  • Signs of neglect due to reduced parenting capacity.

Staff should be made aware of these signs as part of their annual safeguarding training – either in September or in an update session at a relevant time of the year – and this should include a reminder to report any concerns to the designated safeguarding lead through the relevant school channels.

During this update it would also be helpful to remind staff of their data protection obligations too:

  • Do not give out information over the phone about children unless they are sure they are speaking to the right person.
  • Do not confirm children are on roll over the phone unless they know it is safe to do so and always check permissions to publish photographs of children on the school website or social media before uploading them.

Explaining that this can sometimes be because families have escaped domestic abuse will drive home the importance of adhering to these important rules.

Other important considerations

In addition to having staff who are well trained and vigilant to signs of domestic abuse, it is also important to share information with, and receive information from, other agencies.

Many schools have signed up to Operation Encompass, which means they will receive an alert if the police have been called to a domestic incident at a child’s address. This is crucial in helping schools to check on vulnerable children and may be a trigger for schools to seek additional support for a child, including making a referral to social care for a child at risk of harm.

Operation Encompass also provides a range of resources, some training and a helpline for professionals who are unsure of how to respond to alerts about children and families (see further information).

Children may also disclose domestic abuse directly of course, or family members may seek help. Staff need to know how to take a disclosure and what to do and it is useful to have a selection of helplines and leaflets available in case parents or family members disclose.

Feeling confident in your local procedures and being aware of organisations that could provide support will help you to respond in case of a family member seeking help.

Referrals to children’s social care must be made if children are at risk of, or experiencing, harm.

Sharing information with parents via school newsletters or on the school website, as well as via posters in prominent places in school can also offer useful signposting. Some victims of domestic abuse may come to the school to drop off children and not go anywhere else at all, so providing information on-site can be crucial.

Domestic abuse and your staff

When delivering training about this issue, it is important to be mindful that some colleagues may have experienced domestic abuse themselves or may currently be living with it. Including signposting to support in training can help them to seek help or informing them of support available at school might encourage them to come forward. An environment that is supportive and caring to its staff is important in the development of a culture of safeguarding and will impact how effectively children are safeguarded.

Guidance from the CIPD (2020) offers a range of practical suggestions for improving employee domestic abuse support, such as implementing a domestic abuse policy for staff. Elsewhere, the charity Hestia has a useful toolkit to use to improve practice.

Final thoughts

There are many issues that we need to revisit throughout the year in training and often there are competing priorities. However, domestic abuse is sadly extremely common and so revisiting this regularly and making staff aware of their role in identifying things of concern can help to support both children and families when they are suffering very challenging circumstances.

Signposting and supporting parents/carers and your staff will improve safety for everyone, as well as raising awareness of this issue in relation to children.

If you have been affected by the issues discussed in this article or need to seek help in relation to domestic abuse, you can find some links to further information and support below.

  • Elizabeth Rose is an independent safeguarding consultant and the director of So Safeguarding. She has worked in education for more than 15 years and is a former secondary designated safeguarding lead and local authority safeguarding in education advisor. Visit or follow her @sosafeguarding. Find her previous articles for Headteacher Update via

Useful Resources


  • Brandon et al: Complexity and challenge: A triennial analysis of SCRs 2014-2017, DfE, March 2020:
  • CIPD: Managing and supporting employees experiencing domestic abuse: Guidance for employers, September 2020:
  • ONS: Homicide in England and Wales: Year ending March 2018, February 2019:
  • Royal College of Psychiatrists: Domestic violence and abuse: The impact on children and adolescents, November 2015:
  • SafeLives: Getting it right first time, February 2015:

The SecEd Podcast

  • SecEd Podcast: Effective safeguarding practice in schools (featuring Elizabeth Rose), April 2021:

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