Policy blog

On ‘healthy’ relationships

In a few weeks, I’m speaking at a conference on how we can better identify and support victims of domestic violence. Aimed at a range of professionals, the event explores, amongst other things, the new Nice quality standard for domestic violence, due to be published in February 2016. It’s vitally important that we bridge the gap between specialist domestic abuse professionals and health workers who come into contact with family members experiencing abuse, but perhaps aren’t sure how to respond.

Our Themis research highlights the central role that health professionals can play in identifying and referring victims of domestic abuse. Not only are these victims often hidden from other public services, like the police, they’re also more frequently from ‘hard to reach’ groups – those who are pregnant, the elderly, and people with complex needs such as mental health issues or substance misuse.

We also know that victims of domestic abuse use local health services much more than others. If you’re a health professional - whether you work in A&E, private practice or elsewhere - it’s almost certain that some of your patients are experiencing domestic abuse. That’s a daunting idea to come to terms with – that the biggest danger to your patient’s wellbeing could actually be someone at home. When confronted with the reality of abuse, it can be difficult to know what to do, especially when resources are stretched.

Empowering health professionals

For this reason, rather than creating new demands on services, we need to deal with the unspoken issue that's already there – by empowering health professionals to ‘ask the question’ and creating clear referral routes to specialist domestic abuse services to help them/you act quickly and easily.

With this in mind, SafeLives offers a simple checklist which can help all health professionals to feel more confident at identifying and referring domestic abuse. What’s more, we’ve recently collaborated with Bristol University on the Responds project to produce free training resources for clinicians. We also provide our own top tips sheets and videos to help you get to grips with the risk assessment process.

I hope the most important message health professionals attending the event take away is that they’re not on their own. There’s a whole network of domestic abuse experts out there, ready to support them, and events like this provide the ideal opportunity to start making those links.

Identifying and supporting victims of domestic violence and improving the effectiveness of Maracs takes place on Monday 16 November at the Hallam Conference Centre in London. To get 20% off, quote the code hcuk20safe when booking.

Domestic abuse, Delhi and digital doors

Reading this article brought back some of my less fond memories from my work in Delhi last year. You’d be right to read it and think that the whole approach sounds chaotic. In India the response to domestic abuse is desperately inadequate, including in a number of ways highlighted by this specific story. Charities like Breakthrough, who I worked for, campaign relentlessly for all of these gaps to be filled:

  • No national strategy
  • A police service which takes no interest or counterproductive interest in the issue
  • No sense of respective accountabilities between different agencies
  • No common agreement about what an effective response to domestic abuse looks like
  • No effective national scrutiny mechanisms to audit the response victims are getting

I’ve written before about the danger of us being complacent when we make comparisons with a country like India. It’s true that the prevalence of domestic abuse in the UK is undoubtedly lower. Domestic abuse is also viewed as unacceptable by the vast majority of the British population, whereas in India over 70% of both men and women consider issues like “not doing chores properly” to be reasonable grounds for a man to hit his wife. But despite those differences, we still have hard miles to do in the UK too.

Lost at sea

We had two calls to the office in quick succession this morning, almost identical, from women seeking help and desperately frustrated and anxious that they couldn’t access it. One had been asked to leave the refuge she was in and couldn’t get the council to help her move on. Another had just arrived in London with her six children and had managed to stay one night with a friend but now needed something more substantial, fast.

Both women had been told by a number of organisations that there was no help that could be offered, both were struggling to find the facts and contact details they needed from the veritable sea of unco-ordinated information that exists online.

A digital ‘front door’?

As the Home Office works on its new violence against women and girls strategy, all organisations in our sector should be thinking radical thoughts (and communicating them) about how we can keep improving this picture. Whether victims and survivors are staying or leaving, whether they do or don’t have children, support should be available to them when they need it. They should be able to find that help easily and know that they’ll get a responsive, high quality service.

The recent Citizens Advice report called, for example, for the government to put a thin ‘front door’ layer on all the information hosted online about support that victims and survivors can access. In a world where women (whether in Calcutta or Colchester) still find that responsive, high quality service too hard to find, this seems like an extremely sensible thing for the government to put into its new strategy.

Join our 2015 Idva survey and make your voice heard

Last August, we set about the somewhat unenviable task of counting the number of Idvas currently working in England and Wales. We’re now doing the count again – and we want to make sure your voice is heard.

Why count?

Good question! Last year we found that we only have half the number of Idvas we estimate are needed across the country to support all victims in England and Wales at high-risk of death or harm. 50% of Idvas is clearly not enough. We shared the findings with the Home Office. We also wrote to police and crime commissioners and local authorities. Many replied positively and we’ve seen some areas really rise to the challenge and secure more funding for Idvas.

What happens this year?

This year we’ll call every Idva service to find out about capacity, workload and more. We’ll want to know how many Idvas work at your service, who they support and if there’s anything you’d like to tell the Home Secretary or your local commissioners – like what could be done to make things better for victims and their families in your area. The survey will only take 5 minutes. Like last year, we will provide the Home Secretary and key commissioners with the data so that we can learn how provision has changed.

What do I need to do?

Please tell your team that we’ll be getting in touch over the coming weeks. If you don’t hear from us by 4 September, or you’re a new service we might not know about, or perhaps have changed your contact details, do drop us a line on idvacount@safelives.org.uk to make sure we include you.

And as a thank you

As a thank you for taking part in the survey, your service will be entered into a draw to win one free place on a one-day training course (NB – only available to voluntary organisations).

We’ve made real progress in the last 10 years. Idvas have transformed the landscape of domestic abuse services, working in partnership with local agencies to help families who wanted to feel – and be – safe in their own homes. Of course, remaining at home is not right for everyone, and in some situations people need to leave. But women experiencing domestic abuse should have choices – and getting help from an Idva equips them with those choices.

So, please answer our call. We want to hear how things are in your area, so that together we can continue to save lives. As victims tell us:

How many Idvas are there?

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How women like Emma are helping others to speak out

What do a 26-year-old Irish woman, a 46-year-old mother from central Somerset, and a woman from Trowbridge have in common? They all made the choice to come forward and speak out about the abuse they’ve been living with – some for over 20 years.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen some very powerful testimony – both on social media and using traditional channels – from women who looked for a platform to tell their story. Emma Murphy from Dublin shared a video of herself, with a black eye, explaining how her ex-partner punched her in the face. She thought long and hard before posting the video, but she hopes it will inspire other women around the world to realise that "violence is not the answer". A woman from central Somerset is still too scared to be named as she outlines the horrors of living for 23 years with her abusive husband. She left the relationship thanks to the support from her friend and now decided to tell her story, after another friend, Lisa Winn, was stabbed to death in Glastonbury. And Sonia Saxby has waived her anonymity as she shares graphic pictures of her face after a beating.

So why did these women choose to speak up? They all name similar reasons: to raise awareness, to help others detect signs of domestic abuse before it’s too late, and to inspire those living with abuse to speak out by showing them that they can be safe and build a better life for themselves.

And they are not alone. Right now, 100,000 people in England and Wales are at risk of being seriously harmed or murdered by their partner. And they’re not the only ones at risk – 130,000 children live with this abuse too. Emma Murphy, Sonia Saxby, the unnamed woman from Somerset – they all tell a story that is, sadly, all too familiar for anyone working in the sector. All too often women don’t recognise what is happening to them as domestic abuse. The abuse gets worse. And the children growing up with this kind of harm continue to live with its damaging effects.

In this sector so many of us try to empower women and give them a voice. And here they speak about their experiences so openly, so honestly, of their own accord. Clearly, each of these women made a balanced decision and did what they felt was right and safe for them. We know that there are thousands of other families who are unable to speak up, for whom it’s not safe to so do, who would put themselves at risk by doing so. And that makes the testimony even more powerful – it's the voice of all victims – both visible and hidden.

What we hear endlessly, even from those experiencing severe levels of abuse, is that so many women just don’t see themselves as being in an abusive relationship. Often, sadly sometimes when it’s too late, we hear friends and families saying “I wish I had recognised the signs, I wish I had helped”. Our research shows that 85% of victims sought help five times on average from professionals in the year before they got effective help to stop the abuse*. Each contact represents a chance for us to help the victim disclose and get support – a chance that was missed, leaving the family to live with abuse for longer. By speaking out, women like Emma and Sonia make the issue of domestic abuse impossible to ignore.

 

 

*In the year before they got effective help:

  • Four in five high-risk victims (78%) and two-thirds of medium-risk victims (62%) reported the abuse to the police

  • Nearly a quarter of high-risk victims (23%) and one in ten medium-risk victims went to an accident and emergency department because of their injuries. In the most extreme cases, victims reported that they attended A&E 15 times.

When did the conversation change?

When I was in my early and mid-teens I talked to my friends about boyfriends. A lot. Spurred on by it all being new and exciting (plus occasional doses of Archers and lemonade, Salt 'N'Pepa and More magazine) we talked about preferences, kissing styles, what he said, what I said, his clothes, his phonecalls, positions, how/what he smoked, whether he acted differently around his mates...

I realised when I read this article about a woman isolated from friends and family by her abusive partner that it's a long time since I've had a conversation like that. I can't pinpoint exactly when it happened. But as relationships got more serious and a sense of loyalty and privacy developed, the conversations changed.

I also realised this is, not exclusively, but particularly true of my friends who have children. Somewhere along the way, I or they or both of us started seeing them more in the context of parenting than their relationship(s). It hasn't been a conscious decision, but I realise when I reflect on it that I'd be more hesitant asking about their relationship. To intrude on a family seems somehow more invasive than gossiping about being a couple.

I love my friends, and though we spend less time together now than when we were teenagers or in our early 20s, we're still close. So it surprises me to realise there are some topics we've tucked away off limits – apart from plenty of affectionate jokes about who does or doesn't cook, watch too many rubbish films or spend enough time sharing the personal admin. Maybe we collectively worry that to talk more openly and honestly would expose doubts or concerns. After all, weren't we all taught about "happy ever after", in which that's not really allowed?

Maybe it's just me. Either way, I've resolved to change it. I would want a friend to tell me if something was wrong, so I resolve not to propagate the myth that everything is fixed at that moment we stare into someone's eyes and commit to having a baby (or even a sofa) together.