'The knock' that leaves unsuspecting families traumatised and broken - and how a Leeds charity is helping

Hers was another world blown apart by ‘the knock’. Police had come to her home with bombshell news, arresting her partner for accessing indecent images of children – something she knew nothing about.

In that moment, life as she knew it was “blown into a million pieces” and when the door closed, she was left with nothing more than a leaflet and phone number from an officer whose parting words wished her ‘a good Christmas’. She had never felt so scared and alone. Like many families affected by the ‘the knock’, she didn’t know where to turn and without Leeds-based charity Talking Forward, she doesn’t know how she would cope.

Founded in 2021, the organisation has worked to create a safe space for families reeling from the effects of ‘the knock’ - when someone with indecent images of children on their devices is arrested. Its work is dedicated to providing support for anyone whose adult family member has been investigated for an online sexual offence, offering opportunities to talk with others experiencing similar trauma. The charity’s founders include University of Huddersfield Professor of Criminology Rachel Armitage who has done extensive research around the effects of ‘the knock’.

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“One of the key impacts is social isolation,” she says. “Many people decide not to tell family or friends what has happened. So you have somebody going through a trauma without any support.” The charity’s peer support, she says, means people are able to “talk about things they wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about with friends and family, in a safe and supportive environment”. After more than a year of the charity’s operation, the University of Huddersfield has developed a PhD opportunity for a researcher embedded within Talking Forward to assess the impact of its work.

Unsuspecting families can be left feeling traumatised by 'the knock'.Unsuspecting families can be left feeling traumatised by 'the knock'.
Unsuspecting families can be left feeling traumatised by 'the knock'.

Professor Armitage is also working with police forces on supporting partners and children at the time of ‘the knock’ and signposting them for further help. West Yorkshire, Humberside and Merseyside Police now refer families to Talking Forward at the point of ‘the knock’ and the charity offers an initial call from one of its facilitators before offering support through online or face-to-face peer groups. Detective Superintendent Vanessa Rolfe of West Yorkshire Police says the force recognises the “significant impact” that these offences can have and is working to “further improve” the way families are supported.

Such changes are also helping police, Professor Armitage claims, many of whom find conducting ‘the knock’ “extremely difficult”. “Some even describe this as more traumatic than viewing or categorising the indecent images of children. Providing agencies that can support families after the police leave allows [police] to focus on the criminal investigation, while others act as advocates for the family whose lives have been impacted by this offence."

Professor Armitage has been working for 25 years in academia, researching and teaching in the field of criminology. She also worked for a charity that supported children and families affected by technology-assisted child sexual abuse, her main focus being on the children pictured within the images. By her own admission, she hadn’t given much thought to the family of the suspect. But that changed when she was contacted early in lockdown by an ex-wife of an offender who asked what support she and her children could access to help them cope with the impact. “I felt really ashamed that I had very little to be able to say to her in terms of what help she could get and very little research to be able to send to her,” Professor Armitage says. “We went on a bit of a crusade to try and make changes and recognise the limitations of how these families are dealt with.”

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Professor Armitage’s research found families were left dealing with emotional, psychological, financial and social trauma with little to no support after witnessing the arrest of a loved one at their home. Women would talk about their children being sick, she says, with one even describing how her daughter was making noises “like a wounded animal”. “Obviously we all want the person who has done this to be arrested and reprimanded, we all want to reduce this offending to protect children, but the collateral damage of the family in that situation is not acceptable,” she says.

Professor Rachel Armitage of the University of Huddersfield has researched the impact of 'the knock'.Professor Rachel Armitage of the University of Huddersfield has researched the impact of 'the knock'.
Professor Rachel Armitage of the University of Huddersfield has researched the impact of 'the knock'.

Now she is lobbying for families to be recognised as direct victims in such offending in order to receive better support from statutory and voluntary agencies. “Families of offenders are currently seen as secondary victims,” she says, “but this excludes them from the support available to direct victims - including anonymity in the media, therapeutic interventions and communication regarding the criminal justice process.

“With the introduction of the 2021 Domestic Abuse Act, children are now considered as victims if they have witnessed the effects of domestic abuse. When a child witnesses ‘the knock’ warrant, what they see is extremely distressing. This trauma and the aftershocks that follow should lead us to at least consider some parity between these offence types.”

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Justice says the Government sympathises “with the challenges faced by the unsuspecting families of sex offenders” and funds a helpline for prisoners’ families which provides free and confidential support. There are also a range of charities who provide advice and help, it says, as well as public and private services like counselling and mental health support.

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For the anonymous Talking Forward participant, the charity has been a lifeline. “In this situation, a world of secrets, no one asks me how I am or how I am coping,” she says. “There is no one to help, no one to support. Talking Forward do just this...Without [them], I would be completely alone.”