Croydon, on a drizzly, dusky March evening... I didn't quite know what to expect when I arrived at my first ever Regional Child Health Conference and Exhibition. But the car park gave me a clue. I was relatively early, but still had to park down the road as the main and overflow car parks were full.

There I joined a guesstimated 250-300 health professionals, who had all turned up to network and hear two experts give talks on the night's hot topic: Domestic Violence (DV).

Tanya Dennis spoke first and you couldn't fault her knowledge or passion for the subject. Tanya, a Specialist Health Visitor, has worked as a Domestic Violence Lead for Ealing and Harrow Community Services for the last four years, but has an additional decade's worth of experience in this field. She firmly believes that many mental health conditions in adulthood have their origins in childhood and that early parenting and family support interventions make a significant contribution to the future mental health of the public.

Tanya didn't shirk from sharing some stark, disturbing facts: DV escalates during pregnancy; and 76% of DV-related murders occur after separation. She also told the delegates that, in the last 20 years, there have been huge increases in cases of sons abusing their mothers (60%).

Most disturbing of all was Tanya's talk on children, especially when she cited proof that exposure to DV can cause deep neurological changes in a child's brain. Children, she stressed, rarely lie about DV and can convey the reality of what's happening at home when they are as young as three or four. Tanya explained that if a child tries to open up and explain what's going on at home, the adult should open their ears and listen. Failure to do so - or worse, dismissing the information because the child is "too young" to know what they are saying - means the child may not readily open up (if ever) again. As there is often a link between DV and child abuse, it's vital she asserted, that the warning signs aren't missed. These can include an unkempt or dirty-looking child, one who regularly appears tired or hungry, or even a child who continually strives to over achieve. Obviously judgement has to be finely atuned in assessing such scenarios, but listening to "instinct" can also play a key role.

Tanya shared an example of how "professionally naive" she was when she first started working with families as a health visitor in 1994. A dad who came along to every baby weigh-in was viewed benignly by her initially. But, far from being the model "good dad", the truth was rather more sinister. Exceedingly violent towards his partner, his attendance at every single weigh-in and baby clinic was just one example of his highly controlling behaviour.

Tanya also talked about "honour killings", forced marriages and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which typically occur within the Asian and African communities. Rape victims are often subjected to "honour killings", even though they are unquestionably the victim, as the violent act of rape is deemed to bring "shame" upon the victim's family. Doubly tragic is the fact teenage brothers of victims are often selected to carry out the honour "execution". In Tanya's experience, leaders of faith groups within the communities who carry out these honour killings or condone forced marriages are often shockingly unsympathetic to the female victims' plight.

Tanya asked every health professional attending to pass the National 24-hour Domestic Violence helpline number onto anyone they suspect may be experiencing DV. The number is 0808 200 0247.

Posted by Penny Hosie on 13.3.11 Comment on this blog by emailing:penny.hosie@pavpub.com;