Policy blog

Domestic violence: the most serious child safeguarding concern

Not our words – but those of the police inspectorate. Today they published their inspection of the police response to child protection – and in the inspector’s own strong words:

The police service must reassess their approach to child protection - or risk failing a new generation of children. […] The response to reports of offences against children - ranging from online grooming to domestic abuse - was inadequate.

Their report tells a story that’s all too familiar to professionals working with victims and families. Police officers responding to domestic abuse who don’t check that the children in the home are okay. Children not being considered victims and not given the chance to tell their own story, in a separate room from their parents.

Here at SafeLives, we’re passionate about taking a whole-family approach to ending domestic violence – one which supports every member of the family to make sure the abuse stops. The reason for this is simple: we know from our research that 2 in 3 children who live with domestic abuse are directly harmed themselves – and in the vast majority of cases, the perpetrator is the same.

There are some positives in the report. Child protection agencies now better understand how domestic abuse in the home contributes to an increased level of risk for the child. Most police forces also now have a system for assessing danger to the child in domestic violence cases.

But the report also highlights serious areas for improvement. Of the estimated 1.8 million children living with domestic abuse, only a small number are actually known to the police or child protection agencies – something we’ve highlighted before. From our data we know that just 50% of children living with high-risk domestic abuse are known to children’s services.

Perhaps most worryingly, the report notes that even where they take action to help an adult victim, the police and other agencies don’t always follow up to make sure a child living with domestic abuse is safe. It is crucial that forces get this right – our data shows that the police are twice as likely as any other service to be in contact with children living domestic abuse.

The report has several recommendations for police forces on how they can get better at keeping children safe – and it’s great that the first of these argues for better staff awareness of the effect of domestic abuse on children. It also calls for agencies to work more closely together to get better at keeping children safe, and for better recording of children’s views and concerns.

Acknowledging the link between ending domestic abuse and protecting children is only the first step – but it’s an important one. Still too often the impact of domestic abuse on children is not appreciated, even where agencies (rightly) try to help the adult victim.

But identifying victims and referring them for help isn’t enough when there just aren’t enough good services out there for children who’ve lived with domestic abuse – and even fewer where that help links to the support available for their parent.

The next step is to make sure every child and every adult victim gets the right help as quickly as possible, no matter where they live or who they are ask for help. Only then will victims and their children be able to get safe and stay safe in the long term.

By Tom.Ash

Crossing borders - risk and information sharing on the continent

I recently spent a few days in Murcia, southern Spain. I'd been invited to talk about the UK model of responding to high-risk domestic violence and abuse and to compare that with ”Proyecto Core”, a series of EU-funded projects in the region.

There was lots to celebrate about the level of international co-ordination and co-operation achieved in the years this project has been running. The Spanish regions involved are working hard to implement a network of dedicated, professional advisors who can co-ordinate the support that a victim needs when they seek help. The Idva model is in its infancy here but is being embraced with enthusiasm by support services and other champions of improvement.

The audience of around 150 people was also keen to talk about 'co-ordination tables', the local approximation of Marac. I was asked about how a victim is represented, how the level of information sharing is determined and kept safe, and how co-ordination tables could work for areas with small, geographically spread populations. There was a presentation by the Guardia Civil talking about risk assessment in a way that felt familiar and reasonably well developed.

I was disappointed to find, then, that international co-ordination still has its limits. A support worker in the audience asked me about a survivor who was in her refuge. This British woman has successfully escaped a viciously abusive relationship with a man in the UK. He has tracked her down, and is now harassing her in Spain. The Spanish police wanted to help, but had asked for evidence of previous abuse so they could act. The hold up? Health officials in the UK were unwilling to release the women's medical records to her. Her own medical records!

Speaking to people afterwards I found out that this struggle to access (your own) personal data once out of the country is far from exceptional. Leave aside the madness of being refused your own data and consider how arbitrary it is to draw a boundary line at Folkestone or Stockport or any other end point of the British Isles. A flight between Spain and the UK can be bought for less than £80, and the internet has no borders. Recent EU legislation has recognised just that and Europol was explicitly designed to help police forces across Europe co-operate. Support for victims and the tackling of perpetrators should live up to these ideals.

I was encouraged by lots of what I saw and heard in Spain but as ever, there's a lot more to do.

No return to first-come-first-served for victims of domestic abuse

Anyone who’s worked with victims knows the situation. She’s sat in front of you, uncertain, nervous. You’re talking because she called the police last night after a violent incident with her ex. In the cold light of day, she’s not sure what to do – or even if it was right to call for help.

You give her plenty of time and space, working through her life story – but the questions you’re asking are hard. “Has he ever tried to strangle you?” “Has he threatened your kids?” “Do you feel safe?”  From her answers it’s clear she’s in significant danger. 

Getting help for domestic violence used to be a matter of first-come-first-served. But now, conversations like this happen all the time, across the country. The questions come from a tool called the Dash (the domestic abuse, stalking and honour-based violence risk checklist). It means we can spot victims who are at high risk of murder or serious harm – and get them the right help, fast.

Every police force uses the Dash (or something like it). Most domestic abuse specialists do too. And so do thousands of other professionals – housing officers, social workers, GPs, nurses, A&E staff and many more. It’s given workers who aren’t domestic abuse specialists the confidence to know what to do if they spot abuse. Now, 40% of referrals to multi-agency meetings (Maracs) for victims at high risk come from agencies other than the police – which is positive, given that many women don’t want to involve the police.    

And that’s helping us find more and more victims. Over the last year, the number of cases of high-risk domestic abuse that we know about have gone up 18%. That’s around 8,400 additional victims that we can now help, rather than them being hidden.   

It’s one of the best-kept secrets in the social sector: the evolution of a new evidence-based model, now implemented nationwide, that transformed how we deal with victims of domestic abuse. So it’s sad to see continued misunderstanding of the risk-led approach.

Some suggest that risk assessment is primarily about rationing. And it’s true that the UK does not yet have a system that finds every victim fast and get her the right help straightaway. We have just 50% of the specialist Idva numbers we need across England and Wales, and there are few extra resources to help the 8,400 extra high-risk victims who have come forward in the last year. Victims at medium or low risk still often don’t get much help. But that’s an argument for spending the money we have better and arguing for more – not abandoning the best universal tool we have to identify abuse.

We’d never claim that everyone uses the Dash in the same way. An Idva (domestic abuse specialist) will use it in an in-depth conversation, whereas a frontline housing officer may use it to make sure that someone she’s concerned about gets help from a specialist fast. And that’s fine. But there are still some who regard the Dash as red tape or just a tickbox exercise. We do need to reinforce how to use it properly – and we’re pleased that police forces are taking this more seriously since the 2014 HMIC inspection.

At its heart, a risk-led approach is the way to get the right help to each victim. The vast majority of high-risk victims experience physical injuries, strangulation, rape, stalking or extreme controlling behaviour like threats to harm children. Every domestic violence professional would choose to help these victims first – rather than asking them to wait their turn in a queue.

So that’s what a risk-based approach is: it’s about understanding the situation of that victim and her children – and then responding in a tailored way to them. Meeting their needs and reducing the risks they face. Not applying a one-size-fits-all intervention regardless of their circumstances.

SafeLives will continue to promote a risk-led approach to dealing with domestic abuse – one that evolves to meet more victims’ needs as we find out more about what works. And in the long run, we have to turn the UK’s approach on its head: rather than reacting to abuse by just helping the victim, we have to get involved to stop the perpetrator abusing her too. So that’s the next challenge: let’s start putting as much effort into making perpetrators stop as we do into helping victims escape.

In praise of curiosity

I’ve been out and about in the last few weeks. From the metropolitan hubs of Scotland to the south coast of England, I have been meeting independent domestic violence advisors (Idvas), their Scottish equivalents (Idaas), and service managers. I wanted to find out what was working, what people were finding difficult, and how we at SafeLives can help. Dozens of patient people have heard me ask “absent a big bag of cash, what would make things better?”. I've been surprised by the answer on several occasions. 

One of the things Idvas do brilliantly is bang the table. They know the risks faced by a victim and they will not let go of an issue until it has been resolved. They hold others to account, constantly insisting they do better. When I asked what would make things better, I expected to hear a litany of complaints about statutory agencies. It's certainly true that some of the comments I heard about statutory services made me worried and angry. But I also heard a lot about changes needed in our own sector. 

What impressed me the most about the people I met was how much appetite they had for new information, and for change. Not just change to the criminal justice system, or a culture that still allows domestic violence to happen, but change within our sector. They wanted to know what was new in other parts of the country, how other services were innovating to make a difference, and how traditional models could be adapted to keep up with the pace of change in the world. Doing a role that requires them to challenge other organisations, they also wanted to challenge their own, and keep improving.

We recently ran a training course for service managers. And here’s what some of the learners said:

The training has taken me on a journey of self-discovery, not all of which has been easy to accept. It has given me a real focus again and renewed my enthusiasm, and for that I am grateful.

I have learned a lot about the running of a company, issues with staff, case management, tendering. Most of all I bring out of this training improved knowledge of my own capabilities and possibilities.

I was bowled over by their willingness to question their own style, behaviour and performance - as one person says, it's not a particularly easy or comfortable thing to do. How fabulous that we have people so proud of their jobs, so committed to their work, that they're this determined to keep learning and keep doing better. 

So if you’re feeling inspired, why not have a look at our training offer?

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My life as an Idva

Charlotte* is an Idva – a specialist domestic violence worker – who has spent the past three years working with people who are at high- risk of injury or murder from their current or ex-partner. We spoke to her about the highs and lows of being an Idva and how the role has changed her life.

Let’s start with the obvious question - why did you become an Idva?

It was a complete accident, but a wonderful one. Becoming an Idva was something I hadn’t planned. When I applied I didn’t have any frontline experience – I was working in a women’s organisation in London. I’ve always identified as a feminist and wanted to work in a sector with women’s rights at its core.

I got a call from a friend working in the organisation about a job she thought I’d be really good at. So I contacted the CEO and she agreed to interview me. I didn’t know what to expect, but it was an amazing opportunity – I now appreciate how difficult it is to get your foot in the door.

How did the work play out to start with then?

I felt as though I had been thrown in at the deep end. When I came in, I took over a full caseload straight away. I did some shadowing of my colleagues to see how they were doing it. I had high expectations of myself in the first six months, so I really challenged myself around what I could do.

At the very start I thought “there’s no way I can do this” – I was dealing with really hard subject matter, working with agencies that weren’t necessarily aware of the risk of domestic abuse. But I loved it and found that I was actually good at that hard stuff.

Have you been on a SafeLives Idva course?

Yes, I completed the course last year and it was great. I had an incredibly diverse and busy caseload – I had lots of clients, attended two Maracs covering two very different areas, and I had several very challenging and complex cases involving substance misuse. The course really helped me to think about all of that. It reaffirmed a lot of the knowledge I already had and taught me new things at the same time.

Do you have a case that you’re particularly proud of?

Can I use two examples? I worked with one very high-risk case recently - a woman who was seeing a substance misuse worker, but she’d never had support with her domestic violence situation. We built a relationship and she eventually started disclosing the abuse to me. It wasn’t exactly your standard case, but I was proud to have been able to reach out to her and work alongside other agencies so that she could get help.

Another case I’m proud of involved high-risk domestic abuse and stalking. We worked hard with the Crown Prosecution Service on the restraining order and the client was a lot safer as a result.

Is there a case where you wish someone had done something sooner?

Probably all of them! The most challenging cases are the ones where you can see there were routes in for different agencies to help, but they didn’t respond so the client felt disengaged.

 What are the other challenges you’ve experienced – personal and professional?

There is the feeling that I can never do enough for my clients, which increases with a high caseload. I am very lucky that my service has quite a strict cap on caseloads. But even so some days I used to open three or four referrals and keep cases open for longer than I perhaps should in order to keep supporting the client. That meant at some points I had huge numbers of clients and I wanted to do as much as possible for all of them, which was incredibly emotionally draining. It took me a very long time to realise how to deal with that. It’s easy to reflect back now and be rational about what were reasonable expectations, but at the time I was very emotionally tied up in my work.

It doesn’t happen any longer, because I have good clinical supervision and support from within my team. However, during my first year I did allow the casework to really drain me, which really affected me outside of work. Now of course I’m much better at managing my caseload, talking to my manager and taking time out for myself when I need it.

Do you have any techniques or strategies for coping with the strains of your work?

I make sure to do plenty outside of work, like running, playing games and talking about things other than trauma. In this line of work a lot of people want to talk to me about it, so it’s important to place boundaries around that. Friends and family ask because they’re concerned about me, but I’d rather chat about other topics.

And if I start thinking about work when I’m at home, I visualise closing my diary and locking it in a drawer.

Is the work rewarding, despite the stress?

Incredibly so. My team is amazing. The work has pushed me to recognise parts of my character that I would never have known about. What’s kept me going has been my emotional journey alongside the job I’ve been doing.

The clients I help have strength beyond measure, and being able to add my voice to theirs is an incredible privilege.

Looking back, what would you recommend to those involved with setting policy?

Spend more time with people who work on the frontline. I know that at SafeLives you do that and it forms the core of your research and policy work. Local authorities and certainly commissioners should listen to services. Politicians don’t fully recognise the work that’s being done around domestic abuse and the social value it adds. They have to understand the need to address perpetrators’ behaviour. They need to consider the dynamics of the society we live in, but that won’t happen until the political system honours and values the work that people on the ground do.

Specialist workers like Charlotte are lifelines for victims of domestic abuse. That’s why at SafeLives we’ve trained more than 1,800 Idvas in the past ten years – but we still have only half the capacity we need nationally to make ending domestic abuse a reality. If you want to find out more about the work that Idvas do, you can read more here.

If you’re an Idva or frontline worker and would like to share your story with us, get in touch – email info@safelives.org.uk or drop us a line on Twitter or Facebook.

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By Tom.Ash