How I won my personal and painful fight to have children recognised as domestic abuse victims

Broadcaster Charlie Webster has been part of a group lobbying for children to be included in the Domestic Abuse Bill. Here, she explains why

Broadcaster Charlie Webster has been fighting for children to be included in the definition of domestic abuse
Broadcaster Charlie Webster has been fighting for children to be included in the definition of domestic abuse Credit: David M. Benett 

"It’s like being underwater and not being able to breathe." That's what one teenage girl told me last week when we were discussing what it’s like growing up in a house with domestic abuse. "I felt like it was my fault," she added.

A boy also told me that he felt like he didn’t deserve love: "I felt like it was because I wasn’t good enough. If only I was better then maybe this wouldn’t be happening to me. It caused me to believe that I was worthless."

The girl said that she had been labelled "the bad kid playing up."

I was labelled the "wouldn’t amount to much." When I was a teenager, the best way I can describe myself was like a zombie - an incredibly depressed one. This was because I was living in the trauma of domestic abuse. It’s all I knew.

I have explained all this, and much more, repeatedly to the Government: about the long term impact of domestic abuse on children and how the behaviours are perpetuated, so continuing the cycle.

Domestic abuse was still being discussed as an archaic notion that only happened between two adults. Children were an afterthought, with the words "witnesses" or "bystanders" used to describe them.

Not so. They are direct victims, both girls and boys, who live in fear every single day. I used to constantly hold my breath in case the noise of my breathing caused a problem and put us in danger. This is something I still sometimes find myself doing now.

As a child, whatever behaviours you see are normalised. Children only know and understand what is around them. It’s learnt behaviour. I thought that’s what a relationship was. I, like many other survivors, have had to try and relearn healthy behaviours - not just to others but towards myself as an adult. How to love and be loved. It can lead to a range of issues for children, from shortened life expectancy to higher risk of imprisonment and mental health problems.

Last weel, I was so frustrated and emotionally worn out that the forthcoming Domestic Abuse Bill still didn’t include children. I’d worked on a long campaign, alongside incredibly dedicated children’s charities but the Government didn’t seem to be listening.

I’d been speaking to Lord Polak for a while and he'd opened up a more direct line to Priti Patel. Yesterday, he raised the issue in the House of Lords and Baroness Williams supported it.

In what seemed like one final last  before the Domestic Abuse Bill goes to Parliament for its final reading, Priti Patel finally listened and tabled the amendment late last night - that children under the age of 18 are victims of domestic abuse. 

This is an incredibly important step. For children to be recognised as being directly impacted and not bystanders. And for a future focused on prevention, rather than money being spent on sticking plasters after the damage has already been done. And, as we know, so much more damage will have been done in lockdown.

Now, though, we need to go a step further to break the cycle of abuse. Children will be recognised in domestic abuse situations by the law and agencies, but we also need to make sure they are helped and have a chance to heal. The current services for this are minimal. There is an exceptional project in Gwent, Wales through Barnardo’s Cymru. Funded by the Home Office, and called Opening Closed Doors, it works with children and young people on their trauma, including self-esteem and understanding their feelings. This should be in all communities and in all schools. in the UK. 

There is one more push to make if the Government really cares and wants future generations to look at history and ask "what was domestic abuse?"

Teenagers in peer-to-peer relationships must also be included in the definition. Instead of vilifying young people we need to help them. Early intervention for those that both experience and perpetrate harmful behaviours will not only start to make inroads in the prevention of domestic abuse - saving so many lives - but address structural inequalities in our society. It will prevent abuse from reoccurring into future generations.

After all where do we think young people are learning abusive behaviour? If they are at the heart of this legislation, then the Domestic Abuse Bill will rightfully be able to claim its landmark status. 

Charlie is the producer and host of podcast Undiscussable, challenging of the way we view domestic abuse. Available on all podcast platforms. For more information, visit